Very little is known about the prehistory of America, making it a fascinating time period to investigate. Every day, old views and beliefs are being challenged, new ideas are being brought forth and questioned, and the field is wide open to speculation and ridicule.
Prehistory is the study of the time before history was recorded or written down. In America, prehistory begins before Europeans and their missionaries arrived to record details of the native people and America’s habitats and wealth. According to traditional historical events, history in America began in the 1400s. However, as we uncover more scientific data and discover more ancient artifacts, we find that Europeans may have come to America long before history was being recorded.
10. Camels Originated in North America
Imagine taking a stroll through the wilds of Northern Canada and meeting an animal that almost looks like a desert camel. This animal, called a camelop, lived in North America from 3.5 million to 11,700 years ago.
Researchers have discovered that the camel originated in North America and they believe that the camelop traveled across the Bering land bridge some three to five million years ago. Slowly, the animal migrated south, adapted to its new environment, and became what we now recognize as the camel of the Middle East.
While we have all been taught that the desert camel of today has a hump to help it survive harsh, desert conditions, that hump actually developed in North America. Researchers are discovering that the camelop’s hump developed out the the need to survive the harsh winters and long periods of darkness during prehistoric America. The humps later proved useful for survival in desert climates.
Why aren’t there any wild camels in North America today? Many of the camelops were hunted by early Americans for food. The camels also migrated farther south, into South America, where they evolved into the alpacas and llamas we know of today.
9. Bears as Big as SUVs
Predators were, of course, far larger in prehistoric America than they are today, and one of the largest predators was the short-faced bear. This monstrous bear was an amazing six feet tall when it walked on all four legs. However, when it stood on its hind legs, this monster bear was as tall as 12 feet and it weighed around 1,500 pounds.
Why was this bear so large? During the time of the short-faced bear, there were far more fierce predators living in America. These other predators included dire wolves and wild cats such as the American lion. The bear’s large size would have intimidated the other predators and given them a reason to hunt easier prey.
About 11,000 years ago, the short-faced bear became extinct. By this time, the smaller grizzly bear had made its home in North America and was competing for the same food as the larger bears. People during this time would have co-existed with this large predator and may have also contributed to the bear’s ultimate demise as its food sources dwindled.
8. Dire Wolves
Thanks to Game of Thrones, the dire wolf has returned to the public’s wild imagination, but few people realize that this wolf actually lived in prehistoric America. Its bones have been discovered from Alaska to Florida and Mexico. Numerous skeletal remains of the dire wolf have been found in the La Brea Tar Pits of Los Angeles, California.
While little is known about the dire wolf, scientists believe that it may have hunted in packs. Surprisingly, their diets consisted mostly of other large animals, including bison and mastodons.
Dire wolves existed from 125,000 to 10,000 years ago. They weighed about 130 pounds and grew to a length of six feet from nose to tail. Sadly, like the short-faced bear and other large mammals, the dire wolf became extinct due to unclear causes.
7. When People Came to America
For the past few decades, people have been taught that the first people to arrive in North America 13,000 years ago had traveled across the Bering land bridge. Today there is a growing amount of evidence that this theory is incorrect.
Now scientists and researchers are saying that humans may have arrived in North America as long as 130,000 years ago. These early people crossed the water with boats and settled along the southern California coast.
Evidence that supports this theory was uncovered at a site where the remains of a mastodon were found. Scientists who studied the elephant’s bones discovered that the bones had been deliberately broken, as if early humans had cracked open the bones to get at the nourishing marrow. Hammer stones were also found at the site, further proving that early humans had used these stone tools to break open the bones.
Of course, this is not the only site proving that humans were in North America before the Bering land bridge was uncovered, but it is one of the oldest sites found so far.
6. Skeletal Remains of Giants
It almost sounds like a story out of a child’s imagination, but giant people did live and rule in North America’s prehistory. During the 1800s, newspapers across the United States reported on the findings of giant bones. Many of these bones, it was reported, were turned over the The Smithsonian Museum and were never seen again.
Today, archaeologists and amateur scientists continue to find skulls and skeletons of large people who lived in North America long ago. Many of these giant skeletons have been found inside burial mounds. Others have been found in caves and in seemingly random burial sites.
How tall were these early giants? The skeletons that have been found and examined place them at over seven feet tall, with some reaching a height of 10 feet tall.
And these were not random giants scattered across the United States. There are surviving legends and stories about entire tribes of tall people living in areas such as Maryland, Florida, and Pennsylvania.
5. There were Stone Builders
Many of us might envision early Americans as nomadic people who roamed the land and lived in temporary housing. While many early Americans were nomadic, there is also strong evidence of stone builders in prehistoric America.
Take, for instance, America’s Stonehenge found in Salem, New Hampshire. Called Mystery Hill, the stone constructions cover nearly 30 acres. Carbon dating shows that parts of the ancient site were constructed 4,000 years ago.
So far, ancient pottery, large fire pits, and tools have been uncovered at the site. The ancient stone structures still stand, and include dens, walls, and a sacrificial altar stone that weighs over four tons.
Ancient stone walls have also been discovered throughout the United States. One such wall was discovered in the Hudson River, 2002, with the use of sonar. The wall, completely underwater, was measured at a length of 900 feet and it has been estimated to be anywhere from 3,000 to 7,000 years old.
It is unclear who built the ancient walls found throughout America, but there are theories that it could have been the Native Americans, Vikings, or Europeans who travelled to the region long before Christopher Columbus was born.
4. Wisconsin Copper Mining
Ancient copper mines with as much as 1.5 billion pounds of missing copper have been discovered in Wisconsin. According to the experts, the mines were operated by an unknown race between 5000 and 1200 BC.
Who were these people and what did they do with all that copper? No one is certain, but reports state that no burial grounds have been found to show who these people were. This could mean that they were not from the area and may have, in fact, come from European countries to mine the much needed metal.
Basic blacksmithing tools and pits have been uncovered near the mines. Hammered knives, axe heads, and other sharp weapons were also found, but these were not traditional Native American weapons.
The Ojibwa eventually migrated to the area along Lake Superior, but believed that spirits inhabited the old mines. By that time, all knowledge of who these ancient miners were was lost.
3. Windover Bog People
The discovery of the Windover Bog bodies made news all over the world in 1982 when a backhoe operator uncovered bones in a Floridian pond. Archaeologists were brought in and over the next few years 167 bodies were found along with thousands of human elements.
The bog burial was reminiscence of the ancient bog burials that have been discovered in northern Europe, and this has led to much controversy over the origins of the Windover bog people.
Carbon dating showed that the bodies were between 6,990 to 8,120 years old. Even more surprising was the condition of the bodies. Scientists who examined the remains discovered that 91 of the skeletons still had intact brain matter.
DNA testing was performed on the surviving brain matter and it was found that the DNA did not match the DNA of local indigenous people in Florida or any modern Native American groups. This has lead many people to believe that the DNA of these ancient bog people to be related to ancient Europeans who could have easily made their way to Florida by boat.
Only half of the Windover Bog has been excavated. The rest of the site remains intact so that in the future, as DNA technology improves, the site and its mysteries might be tackled once more.
2. The Chocolate Trade
Being addicted to chocolate is nothing new. The ancestral Puebloan people of New Mexico also had a thing for cacao. In fact, so strong was their love for the bean that a trading hub was built so that the Puebloans and the Mesoamericans from Central and South America could trade turquoise for the delicious beans.
This recent discovery shows that the early indigenous people were complex traders with good taste. Drinking vessels discovered in New Mexico were tested and found to contain traces of the cacao bean, proving that they drank their chocolate in the same way as the early Mesoamericans.
Besides the chocolate trade, parrots were also brought up to New Mexico to trade for local gems. Meanwhile, turquoise has been found in an ancient Mayan city where there are no turquoise deposits.
1. Buried Domesticated Dogs
Recent evidence shows that early Americans loved their dogs just as much as we do today. Canine burial sites, as old as 10,000 years, have been uncovered, including pet dogs carefully buried alongside people.
How these early domesticated dogs came about is a bit of a mystery. Some believe that early Americans domesticated wolves. While this is entirely possible, other scientists believe that some of these domesticated dogs traveled with people over the Bering land bridge. Of course, it is also probable that both of these events happened in American prehistory.
What remains today are findings that ancient people buried their dogs alongside their villages and in human burial grounds. Care and attention was given to these beloved pets as they were laid to rest, showing us that the ancient people of the Americas were not only smart and ingenious, they were also caregivers to their faithful, canine companions.