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North America

The Ancient World and Fashion > People of the Americas

During the last Ice Age, Asia and America were linked by a bridge of land and ice. Hunters from northern Asia followed herds of buffalo until they arrived in the northwestern tip of America. Then, very gradually, over thousands of years, people spread out all over the continent. In each area where they settled, the Native Americans established a different way of life.

Arctic People

By around 12,000 BCE people had settled in the frozen Arctic regions. These early ancestors of the Inuit people lived by hunting seals and walruses, fish, and birds. Like their Inuit descendants, the people of the Arctic must have used animal skins to make hooded coats, pants, mittens, and boots. They also carved ornaments from walrus tusks. A miniature ivory mask survives from around 500 BCE, which may have belonged to a chief or a priest.

Hunters of the Plains

It is thought that the first people arrived in the Great Plains area around 10,000 BCE. The people of the plains hunted buffalo for food, and hunters disguised themselves by wearing the skin of a wolf or a buffalo. Like the later people of the plains, the early buffalo hunters must have used buffalo hides to make tepees and clothes. The early plains dwellers probably also held ceremonial dances, when some of them dressed as buffalo.

Traditional Inuit dress
Traditional Inuit dress

Mound Builders

Around 500 BCE a people called the Adena flourished in southern Ohio. Evidence of these people, including small burial mounds, has been found in the Scioto River valley. They were succeeded around 300 BCE by the Hopewell, another great mound-building civilization, who flourished until the sixth century CE. Over time, the Hopewell people built larger burial mounds, until they had become substantial, circular burial chambers. Inside these chambers, archaeologists have found copper bracelets, necklaces made from shells and alligator teeth, wooden masks, and carved wooden pipes.
The Hopewell people were great traders who exchanged goods with tribes as far away as the Rocky Mountains and the Gulf of Mexico, and brought back copper, silver, mica, and quartz. Hopewell craftworkers made copper sheets into designs such as flying birds.They also cut out shapes, such as hands and claws, from mica sheets. No one knows the function of these small, flat ornaments, but they may have been worn as pendants, or sewn onto clothes.
The Adena and Hopewell people probably lived in a similar way to the later tribes of the northeastern woodlands. These people were hunters and gatherers who wore loincloths, cloaks, and moccasins made from leather and decorated with dried seeds and feathers. They painted patterns on their skin and wore feathered headdresses on their heads. In their ceremonies they smoked tobacco from a carved pipe which was passed between them, and they also held dances in which some tribe members wore carved wooden masks.

Traditional Inuit dress is made entirely from animal skins and fur. It must have stayed unchanged for thousands of years.

Early Basketmakers

In the hot, sandy deserts of the southwest, people learned to weave baskets from plant fibers. From the first century CE these desert people, usually known as the Early Basketmakers, used their weaving skills to build conical homes in the sand, and also made baskets to be carried on their backs. Some baskets were lined with gum from plants so they could hold water.

Hopewell people made fine jewelry
Hopewell people made fine jewelry
Native American buffalo hunters
Native American buffalo hunters

The Hopewell people made fine jewelry using a wide range of natural materials. This necklace was made from pearl beads gathered from freshwater shellfish, while the pendants and earrings were fashioned from beaten copper.

These Native American buffalo hunters,painted in the nineteenth century, wear clothes made from leather and feathers. Their ancient ancestors probably dressed in a similar way, though they may not have ridden horses.

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