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Native American Cultures 20,000 BC – 1500 AD

The process of change through cultural contact and the mixture of various populations will probably continue as long as human live on earth, but it will probably never again attain the dramatic proportions that it did in North America in the last few centuries....it will not be repeated in world history until we encounter life on another planet
-Native Roots; How The Indians Enriched America – Jack Weatherford (1991)

music credit: disco biscuits - 42 (2007/03/10 Langerado, FL)

The above video spans from 20,000 BC to 5,500 BC and attempts to represent the cultural progression and social interactions of the first humans to migrate and settle in North America.

The Zeitgeist (‘spirit of the time’) is defined as the ethos or energy of a human culture at any given time. It represents their way of life from political and economic practices to religions traditions. Ultimately, the goal was to create a visual timeline of social progression and cultural exchange on the continent, based on what is known about the social nature of these early human societies (Waldman, 2000).

Cultural exchange of knowledge, such as agricultural, hunting and building techniques is a paramount aspect of such a social history. As the chronology unfolds, interactions and exchanges between different cultures ought to be emphasized. Those cultures that possessed the best techniques for exploiting the natural environment were more fit (‘successful’) and assimilated neighboring populations, most often, driving the people and their culture towards extinction. Visualizing the Zeitgeist attempts to illustrate this cultural dance as it unfolds through time.

The visualization is a scripted and extremely researched story. In Adobe After Effects, a physical relief map of North America provided the tracing image for a wireframe outline of the continent. As shown below;


Geographical and Archaeological research was synthesized to determine the projected nature of massive climate changes that occurred as the Earth moved out of the Pleistocene into the Holocene epoch (Dyke and Prest, 1987). A gradual melting of the Laurentide and Cordilleran ice sheets represents the most significant geography changes to transpire during this climate flux. Using existing data a chronological map of the projected glacier retreat was used as a tracing image in After Effects as shown below;


There are a few competing conceptions on the precise nature of the first human migrations onto North America (Fiedel, 2000). The ice-free corridor theory suggests that as these glaciers melted a passageway developed, resulting in the dispersal and colonization of humans across much of North America (Anderson, 2000). By referring to the physical map of North America as a tracing image the dispersal routes were hypothesized based on which route would conserve the most energy. It seems plausible that these early humans choice to hunt in open fields, where prey resides, rather than trek over or across large landmasses. By plotting large data sets noting the precise location of archaeological dig sites a map can be created which properly depicts the locations of major social centers (Buchanan, 2007). Lastly, differences in regional natural resources and artifact dispersal across North America suggest a number of things about social influence and exchange that occurred at any given time between North American cultures (Smith, 2005). All of this information was considered during the development of dispersal routes and colonization localities in Adobe After Effects shown below;

humans1 humans2humans3

What Next?
Ultimately, time constrains did not allow me to fully complete this project. I would like to extend it to around 1500 A.D. to watch what will happen to the Native American cultures once the European Zeitgeist begins its viral spread across the continent. I am currently attempting to develop a dynamic database that can store geographic and cultural information as entered, but also visualize this information in a real time basis. The animation would then be versatile and able to adapt to new information as it become available. Also, I would love to extend this project over the globe and include many more social and cultural chronologies.


  • Anderson et al. Paleoindian Colonization of the Americas: Implications from an Examination of Physiography, Demography, and Artifact Distribution. American Antiquity (2000) vol. 65 (1) pp. 43-66.
  • Baugh, Timothy G., and Jonathon E. Ericson, eds. Prehistoric Exchange Systems in North America. New York, NY: Plenum P, 1994. Buchanan et al. Investigating the peopling of North America through cladistic analyses of Early Paleoindian projectile points. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology (2007) vol. 26 (3) pp. 366-393
  • Cassidy, James J., ed. Through Indian Eyes; the Untold Story of Native American Peoples. Pleasantville, NY: The Reader's Digest Association, Inc, 1995.
  • Deloria, Philip J., and Neal Salisbury, eds. A Companion to American Indian History.
  • Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002. Driver et al. Classification and Development of North American Indian Cultures: A Statistical Analysis of the Driver-Massey Sample. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (1975) vol. 65 (3) pp. 1-120.
  • Driver et al. Comparative Studies of North American Indians. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (1957) vol. 47 (2) pp. 165-456.
  • Dyke, A.S & Prest, V.K. Late Wisconsinan and Holocene history of the Laurentide ice sheet. Geographie Physique et Quaternaire (1987), 41: 237-264.
  • Eisenstadt. The Civilizations of the Americas: The Crystallization of Distinct Modernities. Comparative Sociology (2002) vol. 1 (1) pp. 43-61.
  • Fiedel. The Peopling of the New World: Present Evidence, New Theories, and Future Directions. Journal of Archaeological Research (2000) vol. 8 (1) pp. 39-103.
  • Hutson et al. Cultural Logic and Practical Reason: the Structure of Discard in Ancient Maya Houselots. CAJ (2007) vol. 17 (02) pp. 123.
  • Nies, Judith. Native American History; a Chronology of a Culture's Vast Achievements and Their Links to World Events. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1996.
  • Smith. Trading Patterns; Ancient American. Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History (2005) vol. 5 pp. 1848-1852.
  • Waldman, Carl. Atlas of the North American Indian. New York, NY: Checkmark Books, 2000.
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