A series of articles in Science magazine a month ago (cited below), have transformed my understanding of human civilization in the Pre-Columbian New World. Together with some secondary sources like Wikipedia, the World Almanac 2012, Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel", and a few other websites, the implication is that the history of civilization in the New World is far more united in space and over millennia, far greater in scale, and far more sophisticated than I had believed as recently as two months ago.
In a nutshell, which will probably take multiple more lengthy posts to explore in the future, here is the conjectural narrative.
Several sites in the general vicinity of Monroe, Louisiana show the emergence of the earliest large scale mounds and earth platforms, which were part of projects on a scale comparable to the earlier Sumerian pyramids, Egyptian pyramids, Mesoamerican pyramids, and megalithic complexes of Atlantic Europe in the period from about 3700 BCE to 2700 BCE. These appear to have provided these people with a means by which to more easily endure the periodic flooding of the Mississippi River, do not show signs of large trade networks, and while they may show indications of transitional proto-agriculture, do not show signs of a full fledged food production system based upon eating domesticated plants and animals as the entire basis for their diet.
A little more than a thousand years later (flourishing 1600 BCE to 1000 BCE), however, a civilization that appears to be derived from this first wave of mound builders appears at Poverty Point, which is within a day's walk of the earlier sites in Louisiana. This urban center is much larger in scale, perhaps comparable to a medium sized archaic era Greek city state, and shows clear signs of a trade network that extends as far as Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the North and the Ozarks in the West. It used copper and engaged in fine stoneworking. Its trade network may have even extended farther still. The way that its structures are aligned with solstices and equinoxes, its burial practices, its pottery, and the arrangement of structures in the complex, appear to strongly echo and to probably be antecedent to the Mesoamerican civilizations of the Olmecs (from ca. 1200 BCE), the Mayans (from ca. 900 BCE), and the Woodlands Hopewell of Ohio (from ca. 400 BCE).
The Inca civilization, as a well organized technological large scale civilization as opposed to merely a group of people engaged in disconnected hamlet scale agriculture, fishing, hunting and gathering, appears to derive largely from Mesoamerica. For example, pottery appears in Ecuador ca. 3200 BCE, but does not appear in Peru until around 1800 BCE, and the earliest large scale states emerge in the Inca region ca. 0 CE, about a millennium after the Olmecs and the Mayans. At the point of Columbian contact, there were regular trade and communication relationships between the Aztecs who had consolidated political control of Mesoamerica in a civilization clearly derivative of the Olmec and Mayan civilizations, and the Inca civilization.
Timing and broad outlines of the way that their communities were planned also suggest that a couple of large scale village network societies in the Amazon, ca. 0 CE to 1650 CE, may have been influenced or informed to some extent by the Poverty Point culture or by Mesoamerican societies that were influenced at a formative point by the Poverty Point culture.
From the Hopi woodland culture emerged a sprawling urbanized region in the vicinity of Saint Louis, Missouri, over a region about a day's walk across along one of the main confluences of the Mississippi River basin called Chahokia around 1000 CE. This civilization took a major hit around the 1160s and 1170s during a major New World drought, and eventually collapsed as an urban complex around 1350 CE around the time of the Little Ice Age, although much declined remnants of this civilization persisted pocketed throughout its prior range up until the point of European contact at which point European diseases dealt a further blow to what was left of this civilization.
Chahokians worked copper, had fine stonework, constructed gigantic earthworks with invisible interior elements (layers of black earth, white gravel and red earth, inside mounds corresponding more or less to the layers of hell, Earth and heaven in their cosmology) on a scale comparable to the Egyptian pyramid at Giza or the largest Mesoamerican pyramids, although no traces of a written language have been uncovered at this point.
The central complex may have housed 10,000 to 20,000 people, and the larger area may have housed 75,000 people, making the complex a bit larger than the largest urbanized complexes of the Amazon (about 50,000), and in the top ten of Mesoamerican cities at their Pre-Columbian peak (the largest urban area in the Pre-Columbian New World, in the vicinity of what is now Mexico City had about 300,000 people). It was by far the largest urbanized area in what is now the United States and Canada.
The Mississippian culture of which Chahokia was a focal point engaged in maize and pumpkin farming, as well as the farming of a few domesticates or semi-domesticates later abandoned as food sources, although they may have significantly supplemented their food sources with hunting, gathering and fishing. At one major feast whose remnants were unearthed by archaeologists at Chahokia, those present dined on about 9,000 deer.
Chahokia's trading network, colonies and strong cultural influences extended throughout the entire Mississippi basin from the Rocky Mountains to the Great Lakes to the Appalachian Mountains and also throughout all or most of the American South where Chahokia's culture overlaps heavily with the Southeastern Cultural Complex. For example, trade brought Chahokia Great White shark teeth from the Atlantic, and minerals from Georgia and Alabama. The mythology and rituals of the Osage Indians correspond closely to the Chahokian ceremonial system that we know from archaeology. Indian tribes that speak the Sixouian languages, of which the Osage language is a part, were spoken in a linguistic area ca. 1500 CE that corresponds closely to the core Chahokian aka Mississippian cultural area. Their "national sport" was a game a bit like Bocci ball in which one threw of ring or disk and then tried to throw your spear as close to that point as possible, which attracted large crowds of spectators, was as popular among average people as softball or soccer, and was the subject of high stakes gambling.
Thus, as recently as two or three hundred years before Columbus arrived in the New World, almost all of the United States to the east of the continental divide and to the west of the Appalachians and the South of the Great Lakes and almost all of the American South were all part of a reasonably united cultural complex that had its most direct common origins (admittedly with a couple of intervening "dark ages") in the vicinity of Monroe, Louisiana around 3700 BCE.
It may not have been one centralized megastate, but it could fairly be compared to the kind of balkanized area with a shared culture found in Europe or in the Indian subcontinent. At a time depth of something on the order of 1600 BCE to 900 BCE, the Poverty Point culture heir in the Monroe, Louisiana area was probably one of the formative cultural contributors (together with important local innovations, particularly with the addition of the domesticated plants to the mix) to the earliest sophisticated civilizations of Mesoamerican and those civilizations, in turn were probably formative cultural contributors to the civilizations of South America in the greater Inca geographic region and in the Amazon. The successors to the Poverty Point culture in North America called the Mississippian culture centered at Chahokia, that may have bloomed via a combination of improved climate conditions, the development of a variety of maize that thrived in the North American climate (derived from the Mesoamerican version which was domesticated somewhere in the vicinity of the Pacific Coast of modern Mexico), and high profile astronomical events like Hailey's Comet and a major supernova, reinvigorated that culture.
It is also hardly a stretch to suppose that the Uto-Aztecian language speaking populations of Northern Mexico and the American Southwest (including the Ute's of Colorado) and the Anasazi (whose civilization collapsed in the megadroughts 1160s and 1170s) probably have their origins in the Aztec civilization of Mesoamerica, which may in turn have a deep time depth connection to Poverty Point, Louisiana.
There is a solid argument supported by strongly suggestive evidence that directly or indirectly, almost all of the civilized cultures in the Americans trace their roots to a significant extent to an ancient civilization of mound builders ca. 3700 BCE in the vicinity of Monroe, Louisiana.
On the other hand, we also know that the Apache and Navajo Indian tribes of the American Southwest a derived from the Na-Dene people of the Pacific Northwest and arrived in the American Southwest as a result of a migration around 1000 CE.
This superculture spanning five millennia and providing a source that had dramatic cultural influences on large swaths of both North American and South America probably did not extent quite everywhere in the New World. The indigenous cultures to the west of the North American continental divide and to the North of the Great Lakes, and possibly also some in the American Northeast, parts of Florida, and "uncivilized" parts of South American were probably not a part of this superculture.
This also means that the vast majority of people in the New World, at the time of European contact, either were part of a Chalolithic culture, or had ancestors within the last few hundred years who had been, even if their own society had reverted to a hunter-gather mode.
The Viking presence in the New World was contemporaneous with the high point of the Mississippian culture (ca. 1000 CE to 1350 CE), which may explain both why the Vinlanders could not dominant the locals and gain sweeping control of North American the way that the Iberians of half a millennium later would further South, and this small Viking civilization collapsed at about the same time that the Chahokia did for basically the same Little Ice Age climate driven reasons.
This archaeological background also suggests that in addition to the "Guns, Germs and Steel," that Jared Diamond notes, that a critical advantage that the Europeans arriving in the New World, at least in North America, had was timing. They encountered the indigenous North Americans not at their glorious peak of ca. 1000 CE, but two or three centuries into an era of decline, comparable perhaps to the period from 1200 BCE to 900 BCE, following Bronze Age collapse, or from 476 CE to 776 CE that we call the "dark ages" following the collapse of the Roman Empire. Indigenous North American civilization has just about hit bottom and not had time to meaningfully recover yet, when it was hit anew first by devastating European diseases, and close on the heels of this devastating series of plagues, by a population with guns, swords, and military history that surpassed that of the Native Americans (including the experience of fighting distant foreign wars in the Crusades), a written language, horses and other domesticated animals, long distance sea travel, a somewhat more effective social organization.
If the North American population had managed a few hundred more years to reignite their civilization (and probably adopt the written language of the Mesoamericans in some form), they might have been far better able to hold their own, perhaps even more effectively than the Aztecs and Incas did. Yes, they were behind in a relentless march of progress and faced limitations in their domesticated plant and animal options that the European population that they encountered had not. But, the development and dissemination of a flood of new evidence in the couple of decades since Diamond wrote his book, suggests that the lag was closer to hundreds of year than several millennia as he suggested in his book.
This narrative of the emergence of New World civilization is profoundly more unified and cohesive in time and in space than was previously known. This helps to explain the mystery of why there were so few and such geographically expansive language families in North American where there had not previously been known to be such large scale societies (the advanced Inca and Aztec societies and prior existence of the Mayans and Olmecs made the modest number of languages in the geographically smaller anyway areas of Mesoamerica and Pacific South America explainable long ago). It also provides suggestive evidence regarding what kinds of linguistic relationship between known North American language families might exist at what time depths, so that linguists can know what they should expect to be the most fruitful places to look for genetic linguistic connections between known North American language families. And, these narrative suggests that the process of linguistic consolidation in North American may be more similar to that seen in the Old World and at much shallower time depth in North America, than we have previously believed.
The existence of more advanced than previously known civilizations in the Amazon also helps explain why such a seemingly hunter-gatherer dominated, population fragmenting jungle could possibly have any language families that have as much geographic extent as the ones we have observed do (although, of course, vast numbers of South American languages are unclassified isolates or micro-language families) and gives us a relatively recent event (linguistically speaking) to explain why their connections can have a relatively shallow time depth relating them to each other. Again, this supports the conclusion that linguistic unity really does flow from the same expanding society with a technological edge process we've seen in the Old World, rather than following some different rule, which makes the inference that any unexplained large language families is the product of a lost prehistoric culture that will eventually be discovered stronger.
Implications For Population Genetics
Finally, before I make a final conjecture, this unified narrative has implications for efforts to cast light on prehistoric Native American populations from modern population genetic data. The assumption that a person with Native American genes was representative of a stable genetic population at the place where his or her 16th century Native American ancestors are known to have lived for tens of millennia prior to that point in time is manifestly contrary to what our emerging understanding of the archaeological evidence reveals. We know that there were dramatic ebbs and falls of archaeological cultures in particular regions at least for the past six thousand years or so, that were driven by more than random chance factors governing individual hunter-gatherer tribes in an unstructured way. These cultures were large in extent, wide in geographic distribution, engaged in some documented folk wanderings supported by archaeological and oral historical and early explorer historical evidence, and we now have some generalized context within which to know what direction any influence on 16th century population genetics due to Pre-Columbian migrations would have flowed if the cultural impacts of the known archaeological cultures had a demic component.
Now, as a matter of practicality, the small founding population of the New World, the limited demic impact of the known later waves of migration from Asia in most of the New World, and the serial founder effects applicable to even broad geographic regions that have been a partial cause of genetic distinctions between Latin American indigenous peoples and certain groups of North American indigenous peoples, mean that huge swaths of North American Indians in the geographic range of the Mississippian Superculture and its antecedents may have been so genetically homogeneous after seven thousand or so years of a nomadic hunter-gatherer existence in the region of people all derived from the same small founder population, that any subsequent impacts of demic migration and/or replacement may be virtually invisible at all but the most fine grained levels in modern genetic data.
Also, the existence of the Mississippian superculture with its known ups and downs, materially alters the kind of demographic models that are a plausible fit to reality for North American Indians. The most plausible demographic model given current evidence is that in the post-Clovis, pre-Mound Builder United States that there was a rapid early expansion of perhaps three thousand years or less from a small Beringian founding population that filled the continent at a low hunter-gatherer population density, that there was probably a peak as more effective Clovis hunting methods expanded human populations at the expense of prey populations over a thousand years or so, that there was probably a human population crash over a few centuries immediately after the Clovis era when overhunting and ecological collapse related to overhunting reduced the carrying capacity of the environment using a Clovis culture "business model" and didn't stabilize until the surviving Native Americans found a new way to survive in harmony with their megafauna free environment, that a quite low effective population baseline of pure hunter-gatherers (which would be mutationally limited due to a small effective population) whose numbers ebbed and flowed meaningfully with medium and long term climate conditions and prey population health for about seven thousand years (providing lots of occasions for minor bottlenecks that could shed low frequency genetic mutations), and that there was a population expansions attributable to Poverty Point from ca. 1600 BCE to 1000 BCE followed by some degree of population decline followed by gradually rebuilding populations until a much more dramatic population expansion ca. 1000 CE to 1160 CE, followed by a population crash across the New World at that point, followed by gradual recovery or gradual slump in population until about 1350 CE, followed by a Little Ice Age and civilization collapse population slump that is only starting to recover at the point of European contact, at which point there is another well documented slump and massive episode of intra-Native American and Native American-European admixture where historically documents and modern population genetics provide solid estimates of population sizes at given points in time, the impact of deadly diseases and admixture percentages. Both Poverty Point era and the Chahokian era provide particularly likely contexts for unusually high admixture, migration and replacement events. We can produce similar big picture, moderately detailed, archaeologically driven demographic histories using the latest available discoveries in Mesoamerica and in differing parts of South America.
This is obviously a much more complex demographic history than one could produce with a simple back of napkin exponential approximation of the kind very often used in actual published papers on prehistoric population genetics, but now that we know quite a bit about what actually happened, over simplifying that demographic history when we try to extrapolate modern population genetic data to prehistory with implicit assumptions about that demographic history that we know not to be true are inexcusable if we want to have the best possible evidence regarding the population genetics of the Americas in prehistory.
Did Asian Ideas Help Trigger New World Civilization?
While none of my sources mention the possibility, I also offer up one conjecture, which I myself don't actually necessary believe is more likely than not, but which is, given the timing of the events in question a far more plausible possibility than would have been at all supportable a couple of decades ago.
This is the possibility that some of the rise in New World civilization that started to emerge at Poverty Point could have been given a critical boost from exposure to Asian ideas.
The case of a cultural influence from Leif Erikson's 1000 CE on the culture centered around Chahokia is still so devoid of evidence, and even more weak in plausibility, since there don't seem to be any recognizable similarity in kinds of ideas or cultural features that could have been transmitted, even though it is possible that an idea could have been passed from person to person from Vinland to Chahokia, and there would have even been established trade routes in the Great Lake basins and Mississippi River basin which would extend to the Saint Lawrence seaway and Upstate New York, to carry those ideas, in a manner akin to the Eurasian Spice Road. Since, there is some evidence to suggest may have brought some Bronze Age technologies (and even simple versions of Tartan weaving patterns) to Mongolia and China from Europe and West Asia. While it could have happened, it didn't seem to have happened.
But, we know that Bronze Age Asian artifacts made it to Alaska from Asia with Paleoeskimos ca. 2500 BCE, and again with another wave of Dorsett Paleoeskimos ca. 1500 BCE, that there was a Thule (i.e. proto-Inuit) wave of migration that was possible an outgrowth of a culture that was also the source of the Uralic language family around 500 CE, and that there is suggestive evidence for a Na-Dene migration to the Pacific Northwest sometime before 1000 CE, but probably many millennia after the first wave of Native American migration to the New World across the Beringian land bridge around the time of the last glacial maximum when sea levels were lower. A time span for Na-Dene migration of ca. 4000 BCE to 1500 BCE would have been technologically possible in terms of maritime travel technology, and would have been early enough to allow transmission of Asian ideas (probably with minimal demographic impact, if any) to Poverty Point. All of these populations, unlike Leif Erikson's encounter, were substantial enough to give rise to substantial populations, two of which survive to this day in North America (the Na-Dene and the Inuit), and the other two of which each lasted at least a millennium and has left genetic traces of admixture in some of the surviving Arctic and near Arctic North Americans.
Poverty Point is an almost inevitable early destination for anyone exploring North American via the kind of canoe or kayak that Paleoeskimos and the Na-Dene culture had at their disposal. All one needs to do is put your boat in any navigable tributary in the Mississippi River basin that makes up a large share of the entire North American continent and eventually the river will take you there without even having to hazard all that many impassable rapids - these Native American explores lacked nothing that young Huckleberry Finn had. And, a wealth of historical and prehistorical evidence tend to show that exploration and migration frequently run up and down major river systems, be they the Nile, the Danube, the Tigress and Euphrates, the Indus, the Ganges, the Yellow or the Yangtze. Sooner or later, some representative of any exploring new civilization was likely to end up on their shores and carry with him the stories of his travels.
All four of the likely pre-Columbian, post-Clovis waves of migration of new people's to North America were very likely to have happened at a time when someone in Northeastern Siberia who was at least advanced technologically enough to have a boat that could get him to North America from there was likely to be aware to some extent of some of the technological innovations that had taken place in the North Chinese Neolithic of ca. 7,000 BCE - 8,000 BCE that hadn't existed with North American was originally settled by modern humans. Someone even modestly familiar with the ideas associated with that Neolithic cultural complex (or perhaps even a Chalcolithic or Bronze Age cultural complex in North China), while they wouldn't have been able to reproduce the North Chinese civilization in full (just as few people and perhaps no one knows enough individually to reproduce modern American civilization in its entirety), could have provided enough ideas to set the people of Poverty Point on the track towards developing a semi-urbanized, food producing, copper age, stone carving civilization.
As I explained at the start of this conjecture, I'm merely noting that this kind of chain of culture influence is possible, even a plausible possibility that isn't obviously contradicted by what we already know, without actually claiming that it actually happened.
But, the mere possibility that the rise of civilization in the New World might not have been the completely independent innovation that it is widely credited with having been is so paradigm shifting in our understanding of prehistory, and motivated by fact that could not have been known by people investigating this possibility even a couple of decades ago, that it bears further investigation.
Andrew Lawler, "America's Lost City", 334 Science 23 December 2011: 1618-1623 (DOI: 10.1126/science.334.6063.1618).
Andrew Lawler, "Preserving History, One Hill at a Time", 334 Science 23 December 2011: 1623.
Andrew Lawler, "Does North America Hold the Roots of Mesoamerican Civilization?", 334 Science 23 December 2011: 1620-1621.
Jared Diamond, "Guns, Germs and Steel" (1997).