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The First Americans
Nature Bulletin No. 360-A   November 29, 1969
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

THE FIRST AMERICANS
When the Norsemen and then Columbus "discovered" America they found people here -- people with bronze skins and straight black hair. Because he thought he had sailed across the world and found a sea passage to India. Columbus called these people "Indios". He was wrong but we still call them Indians.

It is now generally accepted by scientists that the first humans arrived on this American continent some thirty or forty thousand years ago. It is believed that they came from Asia, across what we call Bering Strait. The distance from the islands at the westernmost tip of Alaska to the easternmost tip of Siberia is only 59 miles. In clear weather you can see from land to land. In ancient times there may have been a bridge of solid ice between the two shores, or there might have been an actual land connection between the two continents. But even if there were a 5-mile gap of water it could have been crossed in primitive canoes by hungry people hunting for game. Hunger has been the mainspring of civilization.

There have been various fantastic theories advanced to account for the origins of the first Americans. One would have us believe that they were survivors from a fabled "lost continent", called Atlantis, that sank beneath the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Another attributes them to a continent, called Mu, that sank in the Pacific. A third, based upon the curious similarity of outline between the east coast of South America and the West coast of Africa, assumes that those two continents once were joined and somehow drifted apart. The parallel between the pyramids of Egypt and those of the Mayans of Yucatan, and other similarities in the cultures of those races, gave rise to a theory that the "lost tribes of Israel" somehow arrived here in America. These are pipe dreams .

Man i8 an inquisitive animal. He digs and digs. He has uncovered a lot of ancient homes and artifacts -- utensils, tools, clothing and ornaments made of clay, stone, bone or metal. Prehistoric man, until he learned how to grow plants -- how to farm -- lived in caves. Or as a nomad, following grazing animals, he lived in tents of skins. When he learned how to kindle fire, his campsites were permanently marked by the charcoal of those fires. He left the bones of the animals he ate, and his own bones. In New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and elsewhere we have uncovered such relics of bygone peoples on this continent.

Here in Chicagoland, for instance, there used to be a number of two types of mounds built by two races of people who lived here before the white man came. One race built pyramidal or "haystack" mounds of the types preserved along the Ohio, Mississippi and Illinois valleys. The other race lived farther north and built effigy mounds in the shape of some animal -- wolf, deer, bird or serpent.

The significant fact is that both races met here to trade and constructed their characteristic mounds which had either a religious or a utilitarian purpose. The southern people had corn, beans and squashes. The northern people had copper and birch bark. They swapped. Apparently, Chicago has always been a trading place and a crossroad. America has been termed the melting pot of peoples. That is true. Regardless of where we came from, or how we got here we should be proud of it.


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