Indian Technology

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Editor: Stanley I. Kutler
Date: 2003
Dictionary of American History
From: Dictionary of American History(Vol. 4. 3rd ed.)
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1310L

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Page 306


INDIAN TECHNOLOGY. Native Americans lived in harmony with their environments, but they also actively manipulated elements in those environments to meet their physical needs. Technology can be defined as the use of tools to increase the effects of human impact on the natural environment. The major tools used by Native Americans included fire for managing forest and grassland resources, various implements designed for hunting, agricultural implements, irrigation and other water management systems for agriculture, and astronomical tools.

Uses of Fire

The use of fire as a tool was widespread in the Americas. Although lightning-set fires were common, Indians set fires deliberately. On the East Coast of the United States,Page 307  |  Top of Article early historical accounts describe some forested areas as parklike—the forest floor was grassy with little under-brush. These conditions were maintained by natural and human-set fires. Fire promoted new growth of grass, which in turn provided an attractive habitat for deer. The lack of underbrush made it easier to hunt with bows and arrows. In what is now California, research has demonstrated that periodic burning of the chaparral increased the available browse for deer, leading to higher numbers and greater health of offspring. Burning also promoted long, straight branches of Corylus for basketry in California, and the soil around stands of wild sedge and ferns was cultivated to promote fine, straight roots. Basket making as a technology probably reached its highest point of sophistication in California.

Iroquoian agricultural communities in the Northeast Woodlands and Muskogeans in the Southeast used slash-and-burn techniques to clear and prepare their fields. Trees were girdled and left to die, and the dead trees were felled and burned, enriching and warming the soil for planting. On the Great Plains, fires were set to encourage the growth of new grasses and sometimes to drive game animals toward hunters or to surround them.

Hunting Technologies

The sinew-backed bow, arrow straighteners, and arrows and spears with stone points are all examples of Native technology. On the Northwest Coast and in the Arctic, sea animals were hunted with harpoons fitted with detachable heads that came loose from the shaft when they lodged in the animal. Makah whale hunters used long lines with sealskin floats attached to buoy the whale to prevent it from sounding and swamping their canoes. Throughout the Americas, weirs, nets, hooks, and spears were all used in fishing.

Development of Agriculture

Agriculture is a form of technology in that it involves direct human intervention in natural processes. Although the earliest domesticated plants were probably volunteers that favored the disturbed soil around human habitations, Native people could divert water to them, move them to more accessible locations, and ultimately collect and plant their seeds. Domestication creates a symbiotic relationship between plants and humans and changes the physical characteristics of seeds. They become larger, their coats become thinner, and they cling tightly to the plant so that they must be loosened and broadcast by humans. Hoes and planting sticks became part of the process of agriculture.

Although corn is generally considered the most important foodstuff domesticated by Native Americans, it originated in northern Mexico and made its way into the American Southwest by about 750 B.C. and into the Northeast by about A.D. 200–300. It followed far earlier domestication in the Northeast of sumpweed (c. 2000 B.C.), sunflowers (c. 1500 B.C.), and chenopodium (c. 1500 B.C.). The oily seeds of these plants supplemented the diets of hunter populations. Another important plant was the bottle gourd, which was used for containers rather than food. Scholars debate, however, whether the gourd was domesticated or simply gathered in the wild.

The traditional triad of foods raised by Native American populations—corn, beans, and squash—were introduced from Mesoamerica, and they gradually came to dominate the diets of Indian communities. They were generally planted in a form of intensive cropping. The corn plants provided support for climbing beans, while squash plants formed a ground cover that conserved moisture and kept soil temperatures moderate. Beans fixed nitrogen in the soil, necessary for healthy growth of the corn. Indian agriculturists took full advantage of the complementary nature of these three crops. The genetic variability of corn led to the development of specialized varieties. The Hopis in central Arizona developed a variety with a seed that produces a very long root and a very long shoot. The seed can be planted at a depth of about a foot, and the root grows down to reach ground moisture while the shoot pushes up through the soil. The Senecas in New York planted three different varieties that ripened at different times, had different uses, and represented three basic types of corn: dent, flour, and flint.

Irrigation Systems

A crucial aspect of technology in the arid Southwest was the control of water resources, both for agriculture and to meet the needs of daily life. The remains of extensive irrigation canals indicate that the Hohokams in the lower Arizona desert had a sophisticated water management system by about A.D. 800. The canals drew water along about 500 miles of the Salt River in the basin where Phoenix now sits. The canals represent a remarkable expenditure of energy. Some are as broad as 75 feet and nearly 100 miles long.

At Chaco Canyon in northeastern New Mexico, nine major Pueblo dwellings lined the banks of the lower Chaco River during a period beginning about A.D. 920. These and a number of smaller outlying pueblos housed nearly 10,000 people. The Pueblos thrived because of their ability to husband and control available water supplies. Pueblo Bonito, rising to a height of five stories in parts and containing about 800 rooms, is probably the best-known dwelling in this complex. Prior to A.D. 900, the Chaco River flooded seasonally, and crops were planted on the floodplain. Water also collected in natural basins along the rim of the canyon, and in heavy rains there was runoff from the rim down the sides of the canyon. By about 900, however, the river cut its way deeply into the canyon bottom and became so entrenched that it would not flood. Irrigation became necessary. Earthen dams were built to contain the streams' waters. Diversion walls and canals brought the water to the fields, and sluice gates controlled the flow. Diversion walls were built along the slopes of the main and side canyons to channel runoff water intoPage 308  |  Top of Article canals. Bordered and gravel-mulched gardens preserved the soil moisture.

Between about A.D. 1020 and about 1120, perhaps 100,000 pine trees were cut for building and firewood in the Chaco Canyon area. Building largely ceased after 1120, however, and by about 1220 the pueblos were abandoned. The onset of drought in the San Juan River basin that lasted from 1130 to 1190 probably explains the abandonment. Even the sophisticated water control systems in Chaco Canyon could not deal with the severity and duration of the drought.

Archaeoastronomy and Technology

Time is a preoccupation in modern industrial societies, but Native people in North America also had a deep concern for the passage of time and the marking of important celestial events that coincided with changes in the seasons. Certain structures represent a sophisticated technology of telling time. At Fajada Butte near the pueblo ruins in Chaco Canyon, three slabs of stone leaning against a rock face on an outcropping of the butte cast patterns of light and shadow upon a spiral carved into a rock face. The spiral is bisected by a dagger of light just before noon on the day of the summer solstice. On the day of the winter solstice, two daggers of light brush the edges of the spiral. Although there is some debate about whether the slabs that create the shadows were deliberately placed there by human beings, the spiral is obviously a human artifact, and it demonstrates a sophisticated knowledge of celestial movements and a permanent marker of solstice events.

Although solstice observation is generally associated with agriculturists, there is evidence that it was also practiced by hunter peoples in North America. Medicine wheels in Saskatchewan indicate that the Blackfeet may have oriented their tepees on a north-south axis that allowed observation of eastern sunrise solstice sites. A medicine wheel at an elevation of about 7,500 feet in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming is a circle of stones with twenty-eight spokes radiating from a central cairn and six perimeter cairns. It provides sighting alignments for the summer and winter solstices and possibly for the helical rising of the bright stars Sirius, Vega, and Aldebaran.

Solstice alignment on a major scale appears in Mississippian mound sites in the southeastern and central United States. Computer analysis of twenty-eight mound sites in the lower Mississippi River valley revealed a regular pattern of orientation. The people who constructed these mounds around ceremonial plazas had all adopted a common distance measure of 155.8 feet, called the "Toltec Module" because it was first noted at a site in Arkansas that had a clear solstice orientation. It was also apparent that fully 75 percent of the Mississippian mound sites analyzed featured one or more solar alignments. Mound clusters generally had one clearly oriented for observation of winter solstice points, but summer solstice, equinoctial, and even some stellar sightings (most commonly Vega and Sirius) were also important. The alignment of mounds helped to alert a widespread population to the time for harvesting and planting their floodplain gardens.

Adaptation of New Technologies

The story of Peter Minuet buying Manhattan Island from the Indians for twenty-four dollars worth of beads and trinkets is deeply embedded in the American consciousness as an indicator of, at worst, the gullibility of American Indians or, at best, the lack of technological sophistication of Native people. The replacement of clay pots with copper kettles, deerskin clothing with woven cloth, and bows and arrows with guns is seen as the beginning of Indian cultural decline. These adaptations, however, represent more of an assimilation of new technologies into Indian worldviews than any Native belief that Europeans were culturally superior people.

European glass beads first used in trading were larger than the small seed beads used in contemporary bead-work. Clear beads resembled crystals that were used in divining while colored beads could resemble wampum, the white and purple cohoag shells that were ground into rounds, drilled, and strung. Wampum was not a trade item, and it was analogous to money only in that strings of wampum were given by killers to the families of their victims to assuage their guilt. Wampum strings were woven into belts, and the patterns carried meaning that was read into the belts by recitation of sacred texts. They were used to put into permanent form agreements between tribes, or between tribes and colonial governments and finally the United States government. The analogy of trade beads to wampum beads probably led the Canarsees, the tribe that Minuet encountered, to consider that they were striking an agreement with him rather than selling anything.

Copper kettles have a similar meaning. Thousands were acquired by Native people in exchange for furs and food, and because they were more durable than clay vessels, they were used as household items, but they are also found in burial sites. Much as some personal possessions were buried with the dead for use in another world, copper kettles were sometimes smashed flat or broken and placed over the head of the corpse in a manner similar to the use of clay pots.

Indians adopted guns primarily as weapons of war rather than for hunting. The bow and arrow were a more efficient hunting tool than the cumbersome muzzle-loading musket of European manufacture, and although more powerful, the musket was less accurate. Indians more quickly adopted the flintlock rifle, which was much faster to fire, over the musket. They also used guns in some ceremonies to produce a sound like thunder, which was considered a deity. Thus, technology and traditional belief systems were melded.

Although American Indians did not domesticate animals, use wheeled vehicles, or develop metallurgy (except for beaten copper ornaments), they were able to draw from their environments what they needed for survival,Page 309  |  Top of Article utilizing their human energy to cajole fire, water, plants, and animals into meeting their needs. They adapted European technologies (livestock, metal tools and weapons, glass beads) into their own cultures, using them for both utilitarian and spiritual purposes.


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Miller, Christopher J., and George R. Hamell. "A New Perspective on Indian-White Contact: Cultural Symbols and Colonial Trade." Journal of American History 73, no. 2 (September 1986): 311–328.

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Clara Sue Kidwell

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3401802051