Native Indian societies are widely seen as unchanging before Europeans came into the picture. This view sometimes has almost religious overtones. Amerindians lived in harmony with their world, and this harmony was broken by the White man.
Yet this view is at odds with a growing consensus among archeologists. Rapid cultural evolution was already under way in eastern and central North America when the first Europeans arrived. Had their arrival been postponed long enough, they would have encountered millions of sedentary Indians in a zone stretching from the lower Mississippi to southern Ontario. A northern Aztec Empire.
The northern end of this zone experienced the most rapid change. Nomadic hunter-gatherers roamed over southern Ontario and New York State until late in prehistory. Then, some time after 500 AD, these Iroquoian-speaking peoples began to settle into villages and cultivate corn, beans, and squash.
After a slow start, this cultural evolution began to accelerate circa 1300 AD. The result, according to anthropologist Bruce Trigger, was “a dramatic revolution in Iroquoian life”:
[…] Houses became longer and were inhabited by many more families. The length of the houses varied greatly. They were located closer together and began to be aligned parallel to one another in groups that may have been occupied by related matrilineages or individual clans. Villages were surrounded by more elaborate fortifications, and at least some of the village planning may have been intended to reduce the amount of palisades that had to be constructed and manned in order to defend a settlement (Noble 1969:19). Higher frequencies of house extensions and of interior house post densities suggest that individual houses were being occupied for longer periods than previously. This would also have encouraged sturdier construction.(Trigger, 1985, p. 92)
These changes in material culture went hand in hand with an increase in social complexity:
In New York State cultural groupings ancestral to the historical tribes of that region – including the Five Nations Iroquois – also become more clearly defined. […] In all these areas many communities continued to increase in size, probably mainly as a result of the union of two or more existing ones. Many settlements had 1,500 inhabitants. While houses became shorter, they still differed considerably in size. Village planning became more elaborate, with open spaces being provided as work areas and for the disposal of garbage. (Trigger, 1985, p.100)
The increase in social complexity brought changes in political organization:
[…] There is also widespread evidence at this time of neighbouring and hitherto autonomous settlements clustering close to one another to form “tribes.” The best documented example is Tuck’s (1971:214-16) demonstration that two villages, one small and the other much larger, settled within a few kilometres of each other between AD 1450 and 1475 to found the Onondaga nation. The larger village was itself the result of an earlier fusion of two small ones. This drawing together of communities to form larger settlements and tribes led to the abandonment of many formerly settled areas and produced more widely separated clusters of human habitation. It also created new political groupings, each of which embraced more people than any previous ones in this part of North America had.(Trigger, 1985, p. 102)
There were also ideological innovations that may have come from places farther south, such as the ritual killing of prisoners of war:
Certain key elements, including the use of prisoners, the removal of the heart, the killing of the victim on an elevated platform and in view of the sun, and finally the cooking and eating of all or parts of his body, connect this northern Iroquoian ritual with ones practised in the southeastern United States and in Mexico by the Aztecs, although many specific differences remain. (Trigger, 1985, p. 97)
>Finally, there was an intensification of warfare that began before the arrival of European traders or settlers:
There is now also much archaeological evidence of warfare after AD 1400 between Iroquoian groups in the London area and the Fort Meigs culture, found in extreme southwestern Ontario and around the western end of Lake Erie. […] Hence the warfare between the Neutrals and the Central Algonkians which continued into the 1640s might have been the final stages of a conflict that had begun in the prehistoric period. (Trigger, 1985, p. 107)
Trigger concludes that these processes of State formation and militarization were endogenous:
[…] archaeologists may have oversimplified the late prehistory of the Iroquoian peoples and underestimated the dynamism of their cultural pattern and its capacity to generate new forms of creative and destructive behaviour. The Iroquoians now seem to have evolved the essential features of their way of life before the first Europeans appeared along the east coast of Canada. (Trigger, 1985, p. 108)
This cultural evolution was actually accelerating when the Europeans arrived. What if their arrival had been postponed? The Iroquois would have certainly surpassed the mound builders of the Mississippi valley and probably reached a level of civilization like that of the Aztecs.
Such a scenario almost did happen. Indeed, conditions were far from ideal when the English and the French began to settle North America. Western Europe was just returning to the population levels that had existed before the Black Death. The North Atlantic was entering a cold period, called “The Little Ice Age,” that made trans-oceanic crossings difficult. Finally, the Turks were pushing deep into Central Europe, laying siege to Vienna in 1529 and 1683 and vowing to drive on to Cologne.
Had this fragile context taken a turn for the worse, there might have been insufficient will or ability to colonize the Americas. European settlers would have perhaps arrived on the Eastern Seaboard only in the late 1700s.
And beyond the Appalachians, they would have found millions of sedentary Amerindians living in fortified cities and recently united under the aegis of the Iroquois Confederacy …
Trigger, B.G. (1986). Natives and Newcomers: Canada’s “Heroic Age” Reconsidered, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.