Traditionally, the very beginning of the United States’ history is considered from the time of European exploration and settlement, starting in the 16th century, to the present. But people had been living in America for over 30,000 years before the first European colonists arrived.
When Columbus landed on the island of San Salvador in 1492 he was welcomed by a brown-skinned people whose physical appearance confirmed him in his opinion that he had at last reached India, and whom, therefore, he called Indios, Indians, a name which, however mistaken in its first application continued to hold its own, and has long since won general acceptance, except in strictly scientific writing, where the more exact term American is commonly used. As exploration was extended north and south it was found that the same race was spread over the whole continent, from the Arctic shores to Cape Horn, everywhere alike in the main physical characteristics, with the exception of the Eskimo in the extreme North (whose features suggest the Mongolian).
Origin and Antiquity
Various origins have been assigned to the Indian race. The more or less beleivable explanation is following. At the height of the Ice Age, between 34,000 and 30,000 B.C., much of the world's water was contained in vast continental ice sheets. As a result, the Bering Sea was hundreds of meters below its current level, and a land bridge, known as Beringia, emerged between Asia and North America. At its peak, Beringia is thought to have been some 1,500 kilometers wide. A moist and treeless tundra, it was covered with grasses and plant life, attracting the large animals that early humans hunted for their survival. The first people to reach North America almost certainly did so without knowing they had crossed into a new continent. They would have been following game, as their ancestors had for thousands of years, along the Siberian coast and then across the land bridge.
The most marked physical characteristics of the Indian race type are brown skin, dark brown eyes, prominent cheek bones, straight black hair, and scantiness of beard. The color is not red, as is popularly supposed, but varies from very light in some tribes, as the Cheyenne, to almost black in others, as the Caddo and Tarimari. In a few tribes, as the Flatheads, the skin has a distinct yellowish cast. The hair is brown in childhood, but always black in the adult until it turns grey with age. Baldness is almost unknown. The eye is not held so open as in the Caucasian and seems better adapted to distance than to close work. The nose is usually straight and well shaped, and in some tribes strongly aquiline. Their hands and feet are comparatively small. Height and weight vary as among Europeans, the Pueblos averaging but little more than five feet, while the Cheyenne and Arapaho are exceptionally tall, and the Tehuelche of Patagonia almost massive in build. As a rule, the desert Indians, as the Apache, are spare and muscular in build, while those of the timbered regions are heavier, although not proportionately stronger. The beard is always scanty, but increases with the admixture of white blood. The mistaken idea that the Indian has naturally no beard is due to the fact that in most tribes it is plucked out as fast as it grows, the eyebrows being treated in the same way. There is no tribe of "white Indians", but albinos with blond skin, weak pink eyes and almost white hair are occasionally found, especially among the Pueblos.
Major Cultural Areas
From prehistoric times until recent historic times there were roughly six major cultural areas, excluding that of the Arctic (see Eskimo), i.e., Northwest Coast, Plains, Plateau, Eastern Woodlands, Northern, and Southwest.