I was taught that the Native Americans (both North, then South) primarily came down from Canada from what is now Russia. Whether or not that is true, why did the Native American civilizations from the Central and South Americas advance themselves into the use of cities, with many attendant improvements in the quality of life, while those in North America never did?

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    Do you know the Mississippian culture? – knut Jul 23 '14 at 18:51
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    I don't think your generalization holds very well. Many Native Americans in, e.g., the Amazon basin are still hunter-gatherers. The Anasazi had elaborate roads and cliff dwellings. The Mississippian culture practiced agriculture. – Ben Crowell Jul 23 '14 at 20:27
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    To me this question looks very similar to history.stackexchange.com/questions/94/… – T.E.D. Jul 23 '14 at 21:24
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    A variety of civilizations rose and fell in the Americas before 1492. When the Europeans showed up, they got a snapshot of the way things happened to be at that time. – Ben Crowell Jul 24 '14 at 16:28
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    because geography and proximty to other cultures determines devlopment of society in all its aspects and like africans for instance they too were far from main trade roots and exchanged luttle tech info and goods as a result - the stuff that boosts nations forward – Bak1139 Sep 19 '14 at 20:41

If we look at the rest of the world, it seems city building civilizations require large population growth which is sustainable through farming. Quite simply, if you can't feed a city, the city will fail.

Additionally, in colder regions people need to move to warmer regions with more food in the winter, unless they can store food in sufficient quantities to last through the winter. In case of a bad harvest, it needs to last through 2 winters. If it doesn't, the city will die. In warmer climates people can have more harvests per year, resulting in more food and a more stable supply of food. There were loads of different ways different tribes dealt with this.

Due to the winter, people also need to build shelters that are better at keeping the temperature, or they need to burn more wood. If they burn more wood than grows near the city, the city will die. Running out of wood is seen by some as a major reason for the fall of Cahokia, a large city near St Louis.

There was also the onset of the Little Ice Age from about 1300 onwards, which may have prevented further growth of existing settlements in colder climates, and even lead to their decline.

Solving these problems takes time, and chance. In Central America there were fewer problems to solve, so they had a better chance to reach the city building stage first.

Once all of these problems are solved, population growth will likely still be slower in colder climate, slowing down the time it needs to grow from small settlements to large city states. As the size of the settlements grows, trade between settlements is more likely to grow and therefore the rate of advancement of knowledge is likely to increase. These effects can be - and have been - countered through other effects such as traditions, caste systems, religion, government policy, wars, epidemics, natural disasters, etc. But these effects seem to be far less dependent on climate than the consumption of firewood and the amount of harvests per year are. For example the black death affected all of Europe, regardless of latitude.

In contrast, in Europe the knowledge of growing crops was imported as was much of the population, so they didn't have to solve all of these problems on their own. Add to that the Roman Empire and the Migration Period, and you see how these developments can very quickly become completely random and unpredictable.

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    Disagree - This answer flies in the face of research and convention. At a number of junctions in history and in a number of geographies northern climates with winters were substantially more urbanized than southern latitudes. To your un-cited a priori arguments once could easily counter with winters greatly reduce disease burden, insecurity, and force greater community. This answer is awful and should not be selected as a winner. You arguments on "problems" to urbanization are cherry picked and whimsical and do not follow any analytical structure and are hardly close to exhaustive. – Stuart Allan Dec 11 '15 at 16:34
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    @StuartAllan How does this answer exclude the possibility of northern climates being more urbanized on some occasions? I agree that the answer is poorly cited, so I'm sure if you write a more thorough answer which is properly cited it will soon become the accepted answer. – Peter Dec 11 '15 at 16:39
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    Your answer does not exclude that possibility due to the cop-out appeal to chance. The main problem with the answer, as I sated earlier, is that your list of determinants and logical processes (winter/fuel/food) as the driving factors are cherry-picked, not borne out in historical analysis and literature on environmental impacts of civilization. You ignore other competing factors that vary with latitude. Also - Inca civilization was highly urbanized and is in colder climates - colder than many north native American areas. In short- your regression is missing variables and has low R-squared – Stuart Allan Dec 11 '15 at 16:55
  • @StuartAllen "due to the cop-out appeal to chance" - Are you saying history is deterministic? The rise of civilizations always is chance, it's evolution if we stretch the definition - That's my answer, along with a non-exhaustive list of factors that influence probabilities. As I said before, if you have a better answer, please post it, I won't have a problem upvoting it. – Peter Dec 11 '15 at 17:13
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    @StuartAllan - The Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Crete/Mycenae urbanized wayyyyy before Northern Europe. This is generally believed to be due to climate. It's not until the Renaissance that cold places contributed meaningfully to urbanized culture, mostly due to advances in logistics and technology. (China is a very different story, tho! But we cannot overlook the role climate played in the development of the west, and can't help but find possible parallels in the Americas.) – RI Swamp Yankee Dec 14 '15 at 14:55

The Natives of the Americas advanced their civilizations well enough for the situation they were in. They developed from common stone-age tech level and had agriculture, cities, stone building and pyramid like structures. They developed societies that were comparable to those in remote parts of Europe in the age of the Pyramids, or better, by say 1200 AD. Then they ran out of time to develop on their own as the contact happened.

So why the few thousand year gap? Having to walk across two continents and populate them might slow things down. Lacking any draft animals for meat and cartage sure did not help. Or it could be just luck, and if we "redid" the same trial the Europeans could be delayed and the Amerindians could be landing in Spain.

  • Mayans and Aztecs. – Oldcat Jul 24 '14 at 16:43
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    I suggest that this is not a very good answer. The question was specifically about NORTH American Indians and why they did not achieve a similar level of culture as the empires of Central and South America. You have not addressed that question at all. And what exactly do you mean with "remote parts of Europe in the age of the Pyramids, or better, by say 1200 AD"? That is rather a huge time-scale, don't you think? – fdb Jul 25 '14 at 17:15
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    There is no such continent as "Central America". North America goes down to Panama. Not all parts of the world advances at the same rate, see Egypt versus, say Lithuania. – Oldcat Jul 25 '14 at 17:18
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    Don't be pedantic. If (as in the question addressed here) you juxtapose "North", "Central" and "South America" you are excluding Central from North America. This is not about continents, but cultural regions. – fdb Jul 25 '14 at 17:21

This is mainly because the southern Native Americans had a reliable source of food (corn). The northern ones had to hunt and collect their food and didn't advance to farming that they could survive in one place, probably because they didn't have something with the right potential.

Christopher Lloyd explains it all in his book "Alles in der Welt", English: What on Earth Happened?

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    My understanding is that most of the Native American tribes East of the Mississippi were farmers and only became hunter-gatherers after they had been pushed out of their land. – fdb Jul 23 '14 at 18:21
  • @fdb there is still a difference between building cities and being farmers. if the crop isn't good enough the farmers go to the next place. look at many peoples in jungles that burn trees for nutrient earth... – Armin Jul 23 '14 at 18:29
  • That is true, but in that case you should not say that they "didn't advance to farming". – fdb Jul 23 '14 at 18:31
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    There was agriculture in the American southwest: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agriculture_in_the_prehistoric_Southwest – Ben Crowell Jul 23 '14 at 20:23
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    There was also agriculture in the American East, the Mississippi Valley, Mexico, Central America, South America...essentially every biome it existed in the Old World too. – T.E.D. Jul 23 '14 at 21:22

I think you could argue the peoples living in the Mississippi River region did have a civilization similar in structure to the 'advanced' ones in South America. They had a great deal of water for crops and by staying in one place to tend them, naturally added on to existing structures. I think we look all to often for the obvious structures that we can relate today. BUILDINGS! Somehow people placing massive stones on top of each other is what impresses us. We fail to realize the people who actually put them in place were probably slaves and the King a tyrant. What is impressive to me, are the peoples of the Great Basin, Canada to New Mexico. They followed the great herds of Buffalo and found their water in sacred drinking holes, known only to them. Their lifestyle led to fascinating oral traditions that blend fantasy with the spiritual. To call ancient civilizations 'advanced' because they slovenly piled stones together, is to simply voice what the onlooker holds dear. Please don't disparage my beautiful nomads, because they did not choose to pay taxes and lives on top of one another the way we do.

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    This answer would be improved by research. – Mark C. Wallace Mar 11 '16 at 23:47

They didn't have horses.

Any culture in the course of its development comes to a point where large quantities of some product need to be transported over long distances. Twenty men carrying the same product have to share the profits among themselves. A single horse performing the work of twenty men only requires water and some oats. The same horse can drag a lot more than it can carry. It is therefore more economically viable to make your horse drag the product. Dragging is made easier (more product can be transported) by rollers (round logs that the horse's owner keeps slipping under the board, or platform, on which the product is loaded). Instead of using a dozen such logs and running back and forth, slipping the logs under the board up front and removing them from the back, someone, at some point, will inevitably take one log, shave off all the superfluous wood from it, fashion some kind of primitive suspension brackets - and voila! You've got an axle with a wheel on either end. In comes technological civilization.

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If you don't have horses, there's no point inventing the wheel.

If there are no wheels, there's no point inventing roads (rather than paths), boundaries, city-states as we know them, states as we know them, etc.

Really, that's all there is to it.

Addendum: One of the commentators suggested that there were other draft animals and potential beasts of burden in the Americas. He or she adduced three of them: lamas, bison, and slaves. That's a laugh. European distances are a joke compared to their American counterparts. Control of territories is predicated on quick access and communication. Try walking from New York to Boston, or from Washington D.C. to Chicago, see how long it takes you.

The only reason the Roman Empire and China never tried to conquer one another is the distance is too great even for horses.

When comparing civilizations, the first thing that needs to be examined is the different natural conditions. That's the root of pretty much everything. What did the Americas have that Europe, Asia and Africa didn't? Potatoes, tomatoes, broccoli, cocoa, tobacco. What didn't the Americas have that the others did? Horses. Let me reiterate: that's all there is to it.

P.S. People talk about the invention of the wheel, which is a fallacy. The wheel by itself is completely useless. When we say "the wheel," we really mean two wheels connected by an axle. Which is a log with the superfluous wood shaved off. No horses = no demand for wheels and axles = no wheels and axles = no control of territories = no empires as we know them, no cities, no legislature, no judicial system, no executive power, no palaces, no doric or ionic columns, no opera theatres.

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    Did you get this answer from playing "Civilization?" That's a complex set of interrelationships that few people will understand. – Tom Au Dec 10 '15 at 23:46
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    I didn't say it was a bad answer. I said that it was one that people who haven't played Civ might not understand. – Tom Au Dec 10 '15 at 23:52
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    I liked (and upvoted) your answer. But my earlier point stands. For people that haven't played Civilization (i have), this answer about the link between horses, wheels, roads and city states is hard to understand. If you want broader acceptance, you will have to make your answers clearer to more people. – Tom Au Dec 11 '15 at 3:15
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    Your answer is incorrect as a) there were city states and empires as we know them in Central and South America b) there were paved roads in South and Central America for rapid transport of military supplies and people in Inca/Aztec empires. – Stuart Allan Dec 11 '15 at 16:41
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    Ricky is correct about other animals - Jared Diamond examined this in some depth; there is research to support Ricky's point, if only he would cite it. – Mark C. Wallace Dec 13 '15 at 2:25

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