Native American Societies Before European Contact — APUSH 1.2 Notes, Review, and Terms

Prehistory–1491

APUSH Unit 1, Topic 1.2 covers topics related to the regions of North America, Central America, and South America prior to the arrival of Europeans.

Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan, Mexico

The Pyramid of the Moon is the second-largest pyramid in Mesoamerica. It is located in present-day Teotihuacan, Mexico.

An Overview of Native American Cultures and Systems in the New World Prior to Contact with Europeans

APUSH Unit 1, Topic 1.2 focuses on Native American Societies Before European Contact. This period spans thousands of years and covers the diverse cultures, civilizations, and empires that existed in North America, Central America, and South America, prior to the arrival of Europeans.

Migration from Asia to the Americas

Native American Societies in the Americas developed over thousands of years. The development started with the migration of people from Asia to the Americas between 36,000 and 14,000 years ago. They accomplished this by crossing the Bering Strait Land Bridge, which formed during an ice age and connected present-day Siberia to present-day Alaska.

As they spread throughout North, Central, and South America, they developed different languages, created distinct cultures, and adapted to a wide range of environments across the Western Hemisphere. From regions with abundant rainfall to those with arid conditions and frozen soils, these people demonstrated incredible bravery and resilience. 

Their resolve to survive eventually led to the establishment of civilizations that ranged from interconnected tribal communities to vast empires.

Bering Land Bridge, NPS
This illustration depicts the Bering Land Bridge. Image Source: National Park Service.

Native American Civilizations in Central America and South America

In Central America, three civilizations emerged — the Aztecs, the Maya, and the Incas. Each had an advanced society, which featured large urban centers, complex political systems, and well-formed religious beliefs. 

The Aztecs, who referred to themselves as “Mexica,” lived in Central America, with their capital city, Tenochtitlan, serving as the home of an estimated 300,000 people. They had a written language, designed and implemented sophisticated irrigation systems, and practiced human sacrifice, which they believed ensured fertility for not only their people but also their crops. 

Further south, the Maya established themselves on the Yucatan Peninsula. They built large cities, utilized advanced irrigation and water storage techniques, and constructed massive structures for their rulers, who were considered to be divine. 

The Inca Civilization flourished in the Andes Mountains along the Pacific Coast, ruling over a vast empire that encompassed 16 million people and covered 350,000 square miles. Their success was attributed to the cultivation of fertile mountain valleys and the development of elaborate irrigation systems.

Corn Helps Native Americans Spread to North America

The cultivation of maize played a crucial role in the economic development and social diversification of Native American societies. 

As maize spread northwards, it influenced the establishment of settlements and advanced irrigation techniques, especially in the present-day American Southwest. 

Native American Civilizations in North America

In the American Southwest, known for its harsh and dry climate, the Pueblo People and others established themselves. They built Adobe Structures and developed sophisticated irrigation techniques that allowed them to cultivate the “Three Sisters” — maize, squash, and beans.

On the Great Plains, where natural resources and fertile soil were scarce, tribes like the Sioux and Ute lived a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle. They relied on the vast herds of bison for their sustenance, which required mobility and hunting skills. 

Indians Hunting the Bison, Painting, Bodmer
Indians Hunting Bison by Karl Bodmer. Image Source: Wikipedia.

In the Pacific Northwest, abundant rivers, access to the ocean, and forested areas provided food. Coastal communities such as the Chinook also built intricate plank houses using cedar trees. 

Further south in present-day California, the Chumash People lived as hunters and gatherers. They lived in permanent settlements strategically located to their sources of food and water.

Tribes along the Atlantic seaboard in the eastern part of North America showcased mixed agricultural and hunter-gatherer economies. They developed permanent villages and engaged in Trade Networks and political alliances with neighboring tribes.

In the Mississippi River Valley,  the Hopewell people established towns engaged in extensive Trade Networks across different regions. They interacted with diverse communities, reaching as far as Florida and the Rocky Mountains. Farming practices supported the formation of large settlements, such as the Cahokia people, whose population reached an estimated 20,000 around 1150 CE, surpassing that of London during the same period.

Cahokia stood out with its large population, estimated between 10,000 and 30,000 individuals, and centralized government. Its influence extended from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. 

In the Northeastern Region, the Iroquois resided in villages composed of several hundred individuals. They practiced agriculture, cultivating crops such as maize, squash, and beans, They lived in longhouses alongside their extended families.

Before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, it is believed the Western Hemisphere was home to approximately 50 million people, with around 5 million Native Americans residing in what is now North America. Today, that is roughly the population of Florida and Texas combined and the United States is home to more than 330 million people.

APUSH 1.2 Review Video

This video from Heimler’s History provides an excellent overview of APUSH 1.2. You can also check out our APUSH Guide provides a look at all Units and Topics in the APUSH Curriculum.

Geography – Regions

The following APUSH Terms and Definitions fall under the theme of Geography. These Terms are not listed in alphabetical order, but in directional order — North to South.

Arctic

The Arctic Region spanned present-day Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and the Arctic Coast. In the Arctic, Inuit People and Aleut People adapted to extreme cold using seal oil lamps, igloos/sod houses, and bone/ivory tools. They were nomadic hunter-gatherers hunting whales, seals, caribou, and fish. Shamanism focused on animism and spirits. Kinship ties provided community cohesion. The harsh climate shaped small, migratory bands with resourcefulness, resilience, and intimate knowledge of their environment and surroundings.

Subarctic

The Subarctic Region stretched across inland Alaska, Canada, and the Hudson Bay area. Long winters and short growing seasons led its mixed hunter-gatherer/forager societies like the Cree and Ojibwe to be highly mobile. Key resources in the region included fish, caribou, moose, and small game. Conical wood-frame lodges offered portable shelter. Canoes enabled transportation. Exquisite wood carvings became a signature art form. Sharing networks redistributed resources efficiently.

Northwest Coast

The Northwest Coast Region refers to the coastal and inland region of North America that includes parts of present-day Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska. Native American Tribes, such as the Chinook, Haida, and Tlingit, developed complex societies based on fishing, hunting, gathering, and elaborate ceremonial traditions.

Plateau

The Plateau Region lies between the Cascades and the Rocky Mountains. People living in the region relied on salmon fishing, root gathering, and trade. Semi-sedentary villages with cedar plank houses appeared along major rivers. Societies like the Yakama and Nez Perce mastered fish drying, basketry, and travois sleds pulled by dogs. Vision quests, oral narratives, and symbolic art conveyed cultural values. The region served as a trading nexus between the tribes living on the Northwest Coast and in the Great Plains.

Great Plains

The Great Plains Region is a vast area of flat or rolling grasslands located in the central portion of North America. It extends from the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba in the north to the states of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana in the south. Native American Tribes that historically inhabited the Great Plains region include the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche, and Pawnee. These tribes and others relied on a combination of hunting, particularly buffalo, and agriculture, mainly cultivating maize, beans, and squash. The buffalo were vital to their way of life, providing food, clothing, shelter, and tools. Native American Societies in the Great Plains developed distinct cultural practices, including Communal Living in Tipis, a Nomadic Lifestyle following the buffalo herds, and elaborate spiritual ceremonies.

Northeast

The Northeastern Region of North America before European contact encompassed present-day New England, the Great Lakes, and the Eastern Woodlands. Native societies were semi-sedentary, transitioning between fixed villages and seasonal hunting/fishing camps. They depended on abundant aquatic resources like fish and shellfish, supplementing with deer hunting and wild plants. Agriculture based on the Three Sisters became increasingly important. Sociopolitical organizations ranged from bands and tribes to confederacies like the Iroquois and chiefdoms on the Atlantic coast. Extensive Trade Networks connected the diverse tribes of this heavily forested region. Characteristic art forms included wood carvings, birch bark containers, and wampum belts.

Great Basin

The Great Basin is a large, arid region in the western United States, encompassing parts of Nevada, Utah, Oregon, Idaho, and California. Native American Groups such as the Shoshone and Paiute developed unique adaptations to the desert environment, relying on hunting, gathering, and seasonal migrations.

Great Basin Desert, NPS
This photograph of the Great Basin Desert shows the drastic elevation changes found in the region. Image Source: National Park Service.

California

The California Region runs along the West Coast of North America and runs from the base of the Northwest Coast Region to the tip of present-day Baja California Sur. Diverse tribes lived in the varied microclimates of the California Regions, including Yurok fishermen, Chumash maritime traders, and Paiute agriculturists. The California groups were expert basket weavers. They also knotted strings as a way of record-keeping. Dance regalia, rock art, and shell jewelry reflected the sophisticated artistry of these people. Tribes managed resources sustainably through controlled burning, seed caching, and seasonal migrations.

Southeast

The Southeast Region refers to the geographical area encompassing present-day states such as Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and parts of North and South Carolina. Before European contact, this region was home to diverse Native American societies characterized by their unique cultural, social, and political systems. Native American tribes such as the Cherokee, Creek (Muscogee), Choctaw, and Seminole inhabited this region. The Southeast Region was known for its fertile lands, abundant water resources, and varied ecosystems, which allowed Native American communities to thrive through agriculture, hunting, fishing, and gathering. These societies exhibited remarkable cultural achievements, including distinct languages, art forms, Pottery, and Trade Networks.

Southwest

The Southwest Region refers to the geographic region encompassing present-day Arizona, New Mexico, southern Colorado, and southern Utah. Native American Societies such as the Anasazi, Hopi, and Navajo inhabited this area before European contact, developing unique cultural practices and adapting to the desert environment.

Four Corners

The Four Corners Region is a geographical point in the Southwest Regions where the present-day states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet. This area is culturally significant as it is home to numerous Native American Tribes, including the Navajo, Ute, Hopi, and Zuni. Today, these tribes maintain their traditional practices and sovereignty.

Caribbean

The Caribbean, also known as the West Indies, is a region in the Caribbean Sea consisting of numerous islands and coastal areas. Before European contact, the Caribbean was home to various indigenous peoples, including the Taíno, Arawak, and Carib tribes. These indigenous societies thrived in the region, relying on agriculture, fishing, and Trade Networks.

Mesoamerica

Mesoamerica refers to a cultural region spanning present-day Mexico and Central America prior to the 16th century. Distinctive characteristics included pyramid architecture, writing systems, calendars, mathematics, metallurgy, agriculture, and urban centers like Tenochtitlan, Palenque, and Tikal. Maize served as the economic base alongside Trade Networks and Tribute Systems. Political structures ranged from chiefdoms to expansive empires such as the Maya, Aztec, and Olmec Civilizations. Polytheistic religious practices shared common elements like human sacrifice and worship of feathered serpent deities. Although Mesoamerica lacked wheel technology or pack animals, its cultural sophistication rivaled that of ancient Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Central America

Central America is a geographic region located between North and South America, comprising countries such as Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. Native American societies in Central America, such as the Maya, developed advanced civilizations characterized by sophisticated agricultural practices, monumental architecture, and complex political systems. The Maya, in particular, constructed impressive cities with pyramids, temples, and observatories, while also making significant advancements in mathematics, astronomy, and writing systems.

Mexico

Mexico, located in the southern part of North America, is a country with a rich and diverse history. Before European contact, Mexico was home to advanced indigenous civilizations, most notably the Aztecs and the Mayans. These civilizations flourished in different regions of Mexico, leaving behind impressive architectural wonders, intricate artistic creations, and complex societal structures. The Aztecs built their capital city, Tenochtitlan, on an island in Lake Texcoco and developed a sophisticated empire that encompassed vast territories through conquest and trade. The Mayans, on the other hand, thrived in the Yucatan Peninsula and southern Mexico, constructing impressive temple pyramids and advancing in mathematics, astronomy, and writing. Native American societies in Mexico were known for their agricultural expertise, with innovative cultivation techniques such as Terrace Farming and Chinampas.

Yucatan Peninsula

The Yucatan Peninsula is a geographical region in southeastern Mexico, known for its tropical climate and lush vegetation. The peninsula was home to ancient Mesoamerican Civilizations, including the Maya, who developed impressive cities, hieroglyphic writing, and complex astronomical knowledge.

South America

South America is a continent located in the Southern Hemisphere, primarily composed of countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Peru, and Colombia. Native American civilizations, including the Inca, Moche, and Mapuche, thrived in this region, exhibiting advanced agricultural techniques, monumental architecture, and complex societies.

Peru

Peru is a country located on the western coast of South America, known for its rich indigenous history and archaeological sites. The ancient civilizations of Peru, such as the Inca, developed advanced agricultural techniques, intricate road systems, and impressive architectural structures like Machu Picchu.

Geography – Mountain Ranges and Land Formations

The following APUSH Terms and Definitions fall under the theme of Geography. These Terms are listed in alphabetical order.

Andes Mountains

The Andes Mountains are a major mountain range in South America, extending along the western coast from present-day Venezuela to Chile. Native American Civilizations like the Inca thrived in this region, utilizing advanced agricultural techniques, terrace farming, and Trade Networks to sustain their societies.

Appalachian Mountains

The Appalachian Mountains are an ancient mountain range in eastern North America. Native American tribes, such as the Cherokee and Shawnee, inhabited this region before European contact. The mountains influenced migration, trade, and interactions among tribes and played a crucial role in the history and development of the area.

Appalachian Trail, McAfee Knob, NPS
The Appalachian Mountains, as seen from McAfee Knob. Image Source: National Park Service.

Bering Land Bridge

The Bering Land Bridge is a term used to refer to the landmass that connected North America and Asia during the last ice age when sea levels were much lower than they are today. The Land Bridge was a significant route for the movement of people and animals between the two continents, and it played a significant role in the settlement and development of the Americas

Canadian Shield

The Canadian Shield is a large geological formation covering much of eastern and central Canada. It is characterized by ancient rocks, forests, and thousands of lakes. Native American cultures, like the Inuit and Algonquin, have inhabited this rugged and resource-rich region for thousands of years, adapting to its unique environment.

Mississippi River Valley

The Mississippi River Valley is a vast region in the central United States, encompassing the drainage basin of the Mississippi River. Native American societies, including the Cahokia and Natchez, flourished in this fertile region, utilizing the river’s resources for agriculture, trade, and transportation.

Ohio Valley Region

The Ohio Valley Region is a region in the eastern United States that encompasses the drainage basin of the Ohio River and its tributaries. Before European contact, it was home to various Native American tribes, including the Shawnee, Miami, and Delaware. The Ohio Valley was a fertile and resource-rich area, offering abundant game, fish, and fertile soils for agriculture.

Rocky Mountains

The Rocky Mountains are a major mountain range stretching from Alaska to New Mexico in North America. Native American groups, such as the Shoshone and Ute, inhabited the region before European contact, adapting to the rugged terrain and utilizing the mountains’ resources for hunting, gathering, and spiritual practices.

Sierra Nevada Mountains

The Sierra Nevada Mountains are a mountain range located in the western United States, primarily in California. They are known for their towering peaks, deep valleys, and diverse ecosystems. Native American tribes, including the Miwok and Paiute, have a long history of inhabiting and adapting to the environment of the mountains.

Tidewater Region

The Tidewater Region refers to a coastal plain area along the eastern coast of the United States, particularly in the states of Virginia and Maryland. Before European contact, the region was inhabited by Native American tribes such as the Powhatan Confederacy in Virginia. The Tidewater Region is characterized by its low-lying, marshy landscape and proximity to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. It was a significant area for trade, fishing, and agriculture, with fertile soil supporting the cultivation of crops like corn.

Geography — Waterways

The following APUSH Terms and Definitions fall under the theme of Geography. These Terms are listed in alphabetical order.

Great Lakes

The Great Lakes are a group of large freshwater lakes located in northeastern North America, shared by the United States and Canada. Native American Tribes, such as the Iroquois Confederation and Ojibwe, resided in the region, relying on fishing, hunting, and agriculture for sustenance.

Great Salt Lake

The Great Salt Lake is a large saltwater lake located in the northern part of present-day Utah. It is the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere. Before European contact, Native American tribes, such as the Shoshone and Ute, inhabited the surrounding areas and had a deep cultural and ecological connection to the lake. They relied on the lake’s resources for sustenance and utilized its salt deposits for trade and food preservation.

The Great Salt Lake of Utah, Moran
The Great Salt Lake of Utah by Thomas Moran. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Mississippi River

The Mississippi River runs through the central part of the United States, stretching from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Before European contact, the Mississippi River and its tributaries played a significant role in the lives of Native American Societies. Tribes such as the Cahokia, Natchez, and Sioux inhabited the Mississippi River Valley and relied on its fertile floodplains for agriculture, hunting, and fishing. The Mississippi River served as a vital transportation route, facilitating trade and communication between Native American Communities across the region.

Missouri River

The Missouri River is in the central part of the United States. It runs from Montana through the Great Plains and joins the Mississippi River in Missouri. Before European contact, the Missouri River was important to various Native American tribes, including the Lakota, Mandan, and Osage. Native American Societies relied on the river’s resources for sustenance, transportation, and trade. The Missouri River Valley provided fertile lands for agriculture, and the river itself offered an abundant supply of fish and other wildlife.

Ohio River

The Ohio River is a significant waterway in the eastern part of the United States, forming part of the border between several states and serving as a tributary to the Mississippi River. Before European contact, the Ohio River was vital to Native American Societies such as the Hopewell and Shawnee. The fertile lands along the Ohio River supported agriculture and allowed diverse Native American Communities to develop. The river served as a cultural and economic hub and encouraged the exchange of goods, ideas, and alliances among Native American tribes in the region. The Ohio River Valley witnessed the rise and fall of complex societies and the development of unique cultural traditions among Native American societies before the arrival of Europeans.

Politics and Power

The following APUSH Terms and Definitions fall under the theme of Politics and Power. These Terms are listed in alphabetical order.

Chiefdom Organization

Chiefdoms were a form of socio-political organization in many Native American Tribes prior to European contact. They were led by hereditary chiefs who held power and authority over a collection of villages. Chiefdoms demonstrated social stratification, with commoners required to provide tribute and labor to the chief and nobility. They engaged in the redistribution of resources and organized trade. Chiefdoms were not as centralized or hierarchical as states or empires.

City-Based Empires

City-Based Empires were Native American Societies characterized by the presence of large urban centers with centralized political, economic, and religious institutions. Examples include the Maya City-States of Mesoamerica and the Inca Empire in the Andes. Complex social hierarchies and monumental architecture were found in City-Based Empires.

Tenochtitlan, Illustration, Aztec Empire
This mural by Diego Rivera depicts the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Fertility Cults

Fertility Cults were religious practices or belief systems centered around fertility and the abundance of the land. Native American Societies, including the Mississippian Culture and some Mesoamerican Civilizations, practiced fertility rituals, in hopes of ensuring successful agriculture and reproduction.

Long-Distance Exchange Networks

Extensive trade routes and long-distance exchange networks developed among Native American civilizations prior to European contact. Goods like precious stones, seashells, obsidian, turquoise, copper, and decorative feathers traveled thousands of miles across North and Mesoamerica along trade routes. In the Eastern Woodlands, tribes traded corn and furs for marine shells from the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. In the Southwest, an interregional network spanned 2,000 miles linking major Puebloan centers. Mesoamerican Cultures exchanged jade, cacao, and cotton textiles within empires and with other polities. Trade fostered cultural diffusion while supporting economic prosperity, specialization, and complex societies before 1492.

Matrilineal Kinship Systems

Many Native American tribes practiced Matrilineal Kinship Systems before European arrival, meaning they traced descent through the mother’s lineage. This meant children were considered born into their mother’s clan, not the father’s. Property and inheritance rights passed through the maternal line. Matrilineal kinship produced relatively equal status for women and men. Clan mothers and elder women held authority over selecting chiefs in some matrilineal tribes.

Pottery

Pottery refers to the art and craft of creating ceramic vessels, containers, and other objects through the shaping and firing of clay. Native American cultures throughout the Americas developed diverse pottery traditions, using different techniques, styles, and designs. Pottery served functional and ceremonial purposes and provided insight into cultural practices and artistic expressions.

Trade Networks

Trade Networks were essential in pre-Columbian Native American societies, facilitating the exchange of goods, ideas, and cultural practices. These networks connected various regions, such as Mesoamerica, the Andes, and the Great Lakes, encouraging economic interdependence and the spread of knowledge.

Tribute Systems

In Mesoamerican and some North American societies before European contact, Tribute Systems obliged conquered peoples to pay regular taxes or gifts to dominant regional powers. Goods given as tribute included maize, cotton, cacao, jewels, cloth, wood, rubber, and live animals. Failure to pay tribute could prompt military raids. The Aztecs, Maya, and Inca Civilizations relied heavily on tribute to support their cities and armies as they expanded. Chiefs also demanded tribute from subordinated tribes. Tribute energized trade, promoted the circulation of luxury goods, and allowed political centralization and specialization of labor. Tribute Systems also developed social hierarchies, fueling tensions between elite rulers and commoner producers that erupted after the arrival of the Spanish.

Wampum

Wampum consisted of beads fashioned from quahog clam shells by Native Americans of the Northeastern Woodlands and Iroquoian Tribes. White and purple wampum beads were strung together into belts and sashes that served vital economic, diplomatic, and symbolic functions. Wampum belts were made to record treaties, send messages, and record oral histories. The custom of gift exchange using wampum belts fostered trade and political alliances between tribes. Strings of wampum also served as a form of currency for commercial transactions. The use and significance of wampum belts endured even after European contact.

Culture and Society — Lifestyle

The following APUSH Terms and Definitions fall under the theme of Culture and Society. These Terms are listed in alphabetical order.

Communal Living

Communal Living refers to a social structure in which individuals live and work together in shared spaces and resources. Many Native American Societies, including the Pueblo People and certain Plains Indian tribes, practiced communal living, emphasizing cooperation, collective decision-making, and the sharing of food and shelter.

Desert Culture

Desert Culture is a term that refers to the unique adaptations and cultural practices developed by Native American Societies inhabiting arid regions, such as the American Southwest. These cultures relied on innovative techniques for water management, agriculture, and the utilization of local plant and animal resources.

Hunters and Gatherers

Hunters and Gatherers were Native American Societies that relied on hunting game, fishing, and gathering wild plants as their primary means of subsistence. Before the development of agriculture, many Native American Groups, such as the Paleo-Indians and Archaic cultures, followed this nomadic lifestyle across various ecological zones.

Nomadic Lifestyle

A nomadic lifestyle is characterized by a lack of permanent settlements, with individuals or groups constantly moving in search of resources and following migratory patterns. Some Native American Tribes, such as the Plains Indians and certain Great Basin Tribes, led Nomadic Lifestyles, relying on hunting, gathering, and seasonal migrations for sustenance. Portable housing like Tipis allowed for mobility.

Work, Exchange, and Technology — Homes and Dwellings

The following APUSH Terms and Definitions fall under the theme of Culture and Society. These Terms are listed in alphabetical order.

Adobe and Masonry Homes

Adobe and Masonry homes were prevalent in Native American Societies before European contact, particularly in the American Southwest. These structures were made of clay, sand, and straw (adobe) or stone (masonry) and provided durable shelter against the region’s extreme weather conditions.

Cliff Dwellings

Cliff Dwellings were intricate structures built into the sides of cliffs or caves, particularly found in the American Southwest. Native American Societies, like the Anasazi, constructed these dwellings for shelter and defense, utilizing the natural landscape to their advantage.

Longhouses

Longhouses are large, communal dwellings that were constructed by some Native American Cultures in the Northeastern Region of North America. Longhouses were typically built of wood and were used for both residential and ceremonial purposes. Longhouses were often located in areas with access to water and other resources, and they were typically located near other important cultural and economic centers. Longhouses were typically rectangular in shape and could be up to several hundred feet long, with walls made of bark or other materials. Longhouses were divided into separate compartments or rooms, each of which was used for a specific purpose, such as sleeping, cooking, or storage.

Pueblos

Pueblos are large communal dwellings that were constructed by the Anasazi, Hohokam, and other Native American cultures in the southwestern part of North America. Pueblos were typically built of stone or adobe and were used for both residential and ceremonial purposes. Pueblos were often located in areas with access to water and other resources, and they were typically located near other important cultural and economic centers.

Tipis

Tipis were a form of portable shelter used by various Native American Nomadic Tribes on the Great Plains prior to European arrival. They consisted of animal hide or bark sheets wrapped around wooden poles to create a cone-shaped, free-standing dwelling. Tipis could be quickly dismantled and carried to new camps. Their versatile structure allowed interior fires for heating and cooking. Plains Tribes like the Sioux and Cheyenne used Tipis.

Arapaho Camp, Fort Dodge, c 1870, NA
This photo of an Arapaho Camp shows Tipis in the background. Image Source: National Archives.

Work, Exchange, and Technology — Agriculture and Food Production

The following APUSH Terms and Definitions fall under the theme of Work, Exchange, and Technology. These Terms are listed in alphabetical order.

Chinampas

Chinampas were artificial islands used for agriculture by Mesoamerican civilizations like the Aztecs. They consisted of plots of land built in shallow lake waters, separated by canals. Chinampas were highly productive, enabling the cultivation of crops and supporting urban centers.

Maize Cultivation

The practice of growing and cultivating maize, or corn, which is a staple food in many parts of the world. Maize was a key crop in the agriculture of many Native American cultures, and it played a significant role in the cultural and economic development of the Americas. Maize was also an important export crop for European colonists in the Americas, and it helped to establish trade links between the New World and the Old World.

Sedentary Farming

Sedentary Farming refers to the agricultural practice of cultivating crops in a fixed location over an extended period. Native American societies, such as the Mississippian Culture and the Hohokam in the American Southwest, practiced Sedentary Farming, relying on maize, beans, and squash as Staple Crops.

Staple Crops

Staple Crops are the main agricultural crops cultivated by Native Americans prior to European contact including maize (corn), beans, squash, and sunflowers. These plants were grown together in a sustainable cropping system that provided balanced nutrition. Maize was the primary staple crop, providing carbohydrates, while beans added protein and squash provided vitamins. Together, corn, beans, and squash are known as the “Three Sisters.”

Terrace Farming

Terrace Farming is a method of agriculture that involves constructing stepped, horizontal platforms on hillsides or mountainsides. Native American civilizations like the Inca in the Andes Mountains used Terrace Farming to maximize arable land, prevent soil erosion, and cultivate a variety of crops in difficult terrain.

Three Sisters

The Three Sisters refers to three crops that were traditionally grown together by Native American Cultures in the Americas. The Three Sisters were maize (corn), beans, and squash, and they were often grown together in a system of companion planting, which is called the Three Sisters Cropping System.

Three Sisters Cropping System

The Three Sisters Cropping System refers to the interplanting of maize (corn), beans, and squash by Native American Civilizations. Corn provided carbohydrates and structure for bean vines to climb. Beans added protein through nitrogen fixation in the soil. Squash covered the ground to retain moisture and deter weeds/pests. Planting the three crops together produced greater yields in a sustainable agricultural system.

Culture and Society — Cities

The following APUSH Terms and Definitions fall under the theme of Culture and Society. These Terms are listed in alphabetical order.

Cahokia

Cahokia was a Native American City located in present-day Illinois. It was the largest and most influential city in the Mississippian Culture, which flourished in the Southeastern Region and Midwestern Region of the United States from about 1000 AD to the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century. Cahokia was located near the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois Rivers, and was home to a complex society with advanced architecture, a sophisticated system of governance, and a thriving Trade Networks.

Cahokia, Illustration, Roe
This illustration by Herb Roe depicts Cahokia. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is an ancient Inca city located in the Andes Mountains of Peru. Built around the 15th century, it is renowned for its remarkable architecture, engineering, and stunning natural surroundings. This “Lost City of the Incas” was constructed with intricately cut stone blocks, showcasing the Inca’s advanced construction techniques. Situated at a high altitude, Machu Picchu served as a sacred and ceremonial site, possibly for Inca rulers. Machu Picchu was rediscovered in 1911 and has since become a renowned archaeological site, offering invaluable insights into the Inca civilization and their mastery of architecture and urban planning.

Tenochtitlan

Tenochtitlan was the capital city of the Aztec Empire and one of the largest cities in the world during the 15th century. Located on an island in Lake Texcoco in present-day Mexico City, Tenochtitlan was a magnificent urban center characterized by advanced infrastructure, impressive architecture, and a thriving population. The city was carefully planned and constructed with a network of canals, causeways, and stone buildings. It served as the political, economic, and cultural hub of the Aztec civilization, with grand temples, palaces, markets, and public spaces.

Tula

Tula was a major urban center and archaeological site that flourished in central Mexico during the Early Postclassic Period between 900–1150 CE. It was the capital of the Toltecs, who created an empire after the decline of the Mayans and Teotihuacan. Tula was a hub for politics, economics, and culture in the region. The city featured monumental architectural structures like twin temple-pyramids, large platforms, courts for ceremonial ballgames, and columned halls. Intricately carved stone warriors and chacmool figures have been excavated. Tula held extensive influence over Trade Networks and the exchange of ideas across Mesoamerica before its mysterious abandonment in the 12th century CE. Its art and architecture influenced later civilizations like the Aztecs.

Culture and Society — Peoples, Tribes, Societies, Civilizations

The following APUSH Terms and Definitions fall under the theme of Culture and Society. These Terms are listed in alphabetical order.

Adena-Hopewell Culture

The Adena-Hopewell Culture was a culture that emerged in the eastern part of North America in the Woodland Period (1000 BC–1000 AD). The Adena-Hopewell Culture was a Native American Indian Culture known for its elaborate burial mounds, which were used to bury tribal leaders and other important individuals. The Adena-Hopewell Culture is also known for its advanced agriculture, trade, and metalworking skills.

Algonquin People

The Algonquian People are Native American People who traditionally lived in the northeastern part of North America. The Algonquins were a diverse group of tribes who spoke a variety of related languages and were known for their extensive Trade Networks and their sophisticated system of governance. The Algonquin People were also known for their skilled use of the bow and arrow, as well as their mastery of canoe-building and other technologies.

Anasazi Culture

The Anasazi Culture — also known as the Ancestral Puebloans — refers to a Native American Civilization that lived in the southwestern United States, particularly in present-day Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. The Anasazi Culture existed from around 200 BCE to approximately 1300 CE. Known for their masonry architecture, including Cliff Dwellings and multi-story Pueblos, the Anasazi Culture cultivated maize, beans, and squash, utilizing advanced agricultural techniques. They also developed intricate pottery, crafted textiles, and engaged in Trade Networks across the region.

Apache People

The Apache People were a group of Native American Tribes who inhabited the Southwestern Region of the United States. The Apache People are known for their skilled warriors and adaptability to diverse environments, the Apache had a semi-nomadic lifestyle, relying on hunting, gathering, and trading within the region. Apache People still exist today, and live on reservations in Arizona and New Mexico.

Archaic Culture

The Archaic Culture emerged in North America from around 8000–1000 BCE. As megafauna died off, Archaic Peoples transitioned to foraging plant foods and hunting smaller game. They invented new tool types, like grinding stones to process seeds and nuts. Increased population density led to regional diversity in subsistence patterns, art, and trade items. Archaic Peoples pioneered Long-Distance Exchange Networks. They became more sedentary with base campsites, developing early Pottery and wooden tools. Their environmental knowledge allowed them to maximize resources. The Archaic Period set the stage for the rise of agriculture and complex societies in later time periods.

Aztecs

The Aztecs were a Native American Civilization that emerged in the Valley of Mexico in the Late Postclassic Period (1200–1500 AD). The Aztecs are known for their highly developed system of agriculture, trade, and architecture, including the construction of large ceremonial centers, such as Tenochtitlan and Tula. The Aztecs are also known for their sophisticated system of governance, which was based on a system of provinces and administrative districts, and for their advanced system of roads and communication.

Blackfoot People

The Blackfoot People are a Native American Tribe comprising several closely related groups, including the Siksika, Kainai, and Piegan. Located in the Great Plains Region, primarily in present-day Montana and Alberta, Canada, the Blackfoot People had a Nomadic Lifestyle, following the seasonal migrations of buffalo herds. The Blackfoot People were known for their horsemanship, warrior traditions, and Communal Living in Tipis. The Blackfoot People had a strong spiritual connection to the land and engaged in spiritual ceremonies, such as the Sun Dance. They also maintained Trade Networks with neighboring tribes and European settlers.

Cherokee People

The Cherokee People are a Native American Tribe traditionally inhabiting the southeastern United States, primarily in present-day Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama. The Cherokee developed an agricultural society, cultivating crops such as maize, beans, and squash. They established towns, engaged in trade, and developed a complex political system with a central government led by a principal chief. The Cherokee had a rich cultural heritage, including storytelling, traditional dances, and a syllabic writing system known as the Cherokee syllabary. Despite facing forced removal and the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, the Cherokee people persevered and continue to maintain their cultural identity and sovereign status.

John Ross, Cherokee Chief
John Ross was a Cherokee leader in the 1800s. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Chinook People

The Chinook people were Native American Tribes inhabiting the Pacific Northwest Region, specifically the area around the Columbia River. They were skilled fishermen, traders, and expert canoe builders, relying on the abundant natural resources of the region for sustenance and economic activities. The Chinook People spoke the Chinook Language, a trade language widely used by Indigenous peoples in the region for trade and communication. Chinook is now considered a critically endangered language, with only a small number of speakers remaining.

Lewis and Clark Expedition, Encounter Chinooks, Painting
This painting by Charles Marion Russel depicts the Lewis and Clark Expedition meeting Chinooks on the Lower Columbia, in October 1805. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Choctaw People

The Choctaw People are a Native American Tribe originally from the Southeastern United States, primarily in present-day Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Florida. The Choctaw had a Sedentary Agricultural Society, cultivating maize, beans, and squash, as well as engaging in hunting and gathering. They developed complex social and political structures, with Matrilineal Kinship Systems and a Chiefdom Organization. The Choctaw had a rich cultural heritage, including traditional stickball games, the Green Corn Ceremony, and a distinct language.

Chumash People

The Chumash People were indigenous to the central and southern coastal regions of present-day California. They established thriving communities based on fishing, hunting, and gathering, utilizing advanced maritime technology and engaging in extensive Trade Networks with neighboring tribes.

Creek People

The Creek People — also known as the Muscogee — are a Native American Tribe originating from the Southeastern United States, primarily in present-day Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. The Creek developed an agricultural society, cultivating crops such as maize, beans, and pumpkins. They established towns with communal buildings and developed a complex political system, including a confederacy composed of various Creek tribes. The Creek engaged in trade with neighboring tribes and European settlers, and their society featured Matrilineal Kinship Systems. The Creek people had a rich cultural heritage, including traditional dances, storytelling, and the Creek language.

Delaware People

The Delaware People — also known as the Lenape — are a Native American Tribe originally from the Northeastern United States, primarily in present-day Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. The Delaware Society featured a Matrilineal Kinship System, Communal Living, and a Decentralized Political Structure. The Delaware were skilled hunters, fishermen, and farmers, cultivating crops such as maize, beans, and squash. The Delaware People had a rich spiritual and cultural life, including ceremonies, storytelling, and traditional crafts. They maintained Trade Networks with other Native American Tribes and European settlers, playing significant roles in early colonial history, including interactions with William Penn and the founding of Pennsylvania.

Eastern Indians

The Eastern Indians are the Native American Tribes that lived in the eastern part of North America, including the Southeast, Northeast, and Great Lakes regions. These tribes had a diverse range of cultures and languages and were often organized into complex societies with advanced systems of governance and trade. Many Eastern Indian Tribes had long-standing trade and diplomatic relationships with European powers, and their interactions with Europeans played a significant role in the early history of the region. Prominent tribes of the Eastern Indians are the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, and Iroquois.

Great League of Peace

A political and military alliance formed in the early 16th century by the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, a group of Native American Tribes located in what is now upstate New York. The league was formed in order to promote peace and cooperation among the tribes and to establish a system for resolving conflicts. The league was also a way for the tribes to unite against common enemies, such as the European colonists who were beginning to settle in the region.

Hohokam Culture

Hohokam Culture emerged in the Southwestern Region of North America in the Prehistoric Period (1000 BC–1500 AD). The Hohokam Culture is known for its complex system of irrigation, which allowed them to grow crops in an otherwise dry and arid region. The Hohokam culture is also known for its highly developed system of trade, and for the construction of large communal dwellings, known as pueblos.

Hopewell People

The Hopewell people were a Native American Culture that flourished in the Midwest and Eastern Woodlands Regions of North America from 200 BCE to 500 CE. Known for their elaborate burial mounds and extensive Trade Networks, the Hopewell created a complex society characterized by ceremonial centers and artistic expression.

Incas

The Incas were a Native American Civilization that emerged in the Andes Mountains Region of South America in the Late Intermediate period (1000—1400 AD). The Incas are known for their systems of agriculture, trade, and architecture, including the construction of large ceremonial centers, such as Machu Picchu and Cusco. The Incas are also known for their system of government, which was based on provinces and administrative districts, and for their advanced system of roads and communication.

Iroquois Confederation

The Iroquois Confederation was a political and military alliance of Native American Tribes that formed in the northeastern part of North America in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Iroquois Confederation — also called the Iroquois League or the Five Nations — was composed of five tribes: the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. The Tuscaroras joined in 1720. Afterward, the Confederation was also referred to as the Six Nations. The Iroquois Confederation was known for its sophisticated system of governance, which was based on the concept of a Great Law of Peace.

  • The Iroquois Confederation played a significant role in the Fur Trade during the Colonial Era, including the Beaver Wars
  • The Iroquois Confederation also formed an alliance with the British and participated in the Albany Congress in 1754
  • One of the Iroquois Confederation’s important leaders was Theyanoguin, also called King Hendrick.
King Hendrick, Theyanoguin, Engraving
This rough engraving depicts King Hendrick. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Mayas

A Native American civilization that emerged in the tropical rainforests of Central America in the Preclassic period (2000 BC – 250 AD). The Mayas are known for their systems of agriculture, trade, and architecture, including the construction of large ceremonial centers, such as Tikal and Copan. The Mayans are also known for their sophisticated system of writing and their advanced knowledge of mathematics and astronomy.

Mississippian Culture

The Mississippian Culture was a Native American civilization that emerged in the Mississippi River Valley and the southeastern United States from approximately 800 CE to 1600 CE. Known for their ceremonial centers, mound-building, and extensive Trade Networks, the Mississippian People exhibited social complexity and urban development.

Paiute People

The Paiute People are Native American Tribes that historically inhabited the Great Basin Region of the western United States. These semi-nomadic tribes relied on hunting, gathering, and seasonal migrations to adapt to the arid environment of the region, developing a rich cultural heritage.

Paleo-Indian Culture

The Paleo-Indian Culture refers to the earliest human inhabitants of the Americas, from around 40,000-10,000 years ago. They are characterized by a Nomadic Hunting and Gathering Lifestyle, following migrating wild game and plant foods. Signature artifacts include fluted Clovis projectile points used for big-game hunting. Paleo-Indians traveled in small bands, with low population density across North America. They hunted large animals like mammoths, mastodons, and bison to extinction. Over time, the climate warmed as the Ice Age ended, causing environmental adaptations by these first Native Americans.

Plains Indians

Plains Indians were Native American Tribes who inhabited the Great Plains Region of North America, stretching from present-day Canada to Texas. Tribes like the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Comanche lived a nomadic lifestyle, relying on buffalo hunting, horsemanship, and communal living.

Powhatan Confederacy

The Powhatan Confederacy was a Native American political alliance that existed in the 17th century in the region now known as Virginia. Led by Chief Powhatan, the confederacy encompassed numerous Algonquian-speaking tribes, including the Pamunkey, Mattaponi, and Chickahominy. The confederacy’s territory covered the coastal plains and rivers of present-day Virginia, with its political and cultural center located near the Jamestown Settlement.

Following the arrival of the English in the Tidewater Region and the establishment of Jamestown, three wars took place:

Jamestown, Chief Powhatan, Illustration
This illustration depicts Chief Powhatan. Image Source: Captain John Smith by Tudor Jenks, 1904, Archive.org.

Pueblo People

The Pueblo People are Native American Tribes inhabiting the Southwestern United States, including present-day New Mexico and Arizona. Known for their distinctive Adobe Dwellings and intricate Pottery, the Pueblo Tribes, such as the Hopi and Zuni, cultivated Maize and developed complex social and religious systems.

Shoshone

The Shoshone are Native American Tribes that traditionally resided in the Great Basin Region of the western United States. Skilled horse riders and hunters, the Shoshone adapted to the arid environment, relying on seasonal migrations, gathering, and trading to sustain their communities.

Sioux

The Sioux — also known as the Lakota — are a Native American people who traditionally lived in the Great Plains Region of the United States. The Sioux were a highly organized and powerful group, known for their elaborate social, political, and religious systems. They also had a highly developed system of trade and commerce and were known for their skilled use of horses, which they used for transportation, hunting, and warfare. The Sioux were a deeply spiritual people, and their traditional belief system was centered around the concept of the Great Spirit and the interconnectedness of all things. Today, the Sioux continue to play a significant role in the cultural and political life of the Great Plains Region, and they are recognized as a sovereign nation by the United States government.

Toltecs

The Toltecs were a civilization that dominated central Mexico and influenced much of Mesoamerica from the 10th to 12th centuries CE. Based at their capital of Tula, the Toltecs rose to prominence in the Early Postclassic Period after the fall of the great Classic Period civilizations. Skilled artisans and architects, the Toltecs made advances in urban planning, agriculture, and crafts. Their mythic founder, Quetzalcoatl, spread a cult seeking peace and knowledge. Toltec arts like pottery, obsidian tools, and carved stone boxes and columns incorporated motifs like feathered serpents, jaguars, and warriors.

Ute People

The Ute People are Native American Tribes that historically inhabited the Great Basin Region and Rocky Mountain Region of the Western United States. The Ute People developed a unique culture, adapting to diverse environments through hunting, gathering, and trading, and playing a significant role in the Fur Trade Era.

Wampanoag People

The Wampanoag People are a Native American Tribe residing in the Northeastern Region of the United States, particularly in present-day Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Wampanoag People had a rich cultural heritage, engaging in agriculture, hunting, and fishing, and playing a crucial role in the early interactions between Native Americans and European settlers, including:

Woodland Mound Builders

Woodland Mound Builders were a group of Native American Cultures that emerged in the eastern part of North America in the Woodland Period (1000 BC–1000 AD). The Woodland Mound Builders are known for their elaborate burial mounds, which were used to bury leaders and other important people. The Woodland Mound Builders are also known for their advanced agriculture, trade, and metalworking skills.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Native American Societies Before European Contact — APUSH 1.2 Notes, Review, and Terms
  • Date Prehistory–1491
  • Author
  • Keywords AP US History, Bering Land Bridge APUSH, Mesoamerica, Desert Culture, Hunters and Gatherers, Nomadic Lifestyle, Pueblos, Tipis, Three Sisters, Cahokia, Native American Indians, Woodland Mound Builders APUSH, Adena Hopewell APUSH, Land Bridge APUSH, Mound Builders APUSH, APUSH Native American Tribes
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 18, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update September 11, 2023

Taxonomies