Indigenous peoples of the Americas

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Indigenous peoples of the Americas
Distribution of Indigenous Peoples in the Americas.svg
Current distribution of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas (not including mixed people like mestizos, métis, zambos and pardos)
Total population
~54 million
Regions with significant populations
 Mexico11.8–23.2 million[1][2]
 Guatemala6.4 million[3]
 Peru5.9 million[4]
 Bolivia4.1 million[5]
 United States3.7 million[6]
 Chile2.1 million[7]
 Colombia1.9 million[8]
 Canada1.8 million[9]
 Ecuador1 million[10]
 Costa Rica104,143[18]
 Puerto Rico19,839[24]
 French Guiana~19,000[25]
 El Salvador13,310[26]
 Saint Vincent and the Grenadines3,280[27]
 Trinidad and Tobago1,394[30]
Mostly Christianity (Catholic and Protestant), along with various Indigenous American religions
Related ethnic groups
Mestizos, Métis, Zambos, Pardos, and Indigenous Siberian peoples

The Indigenous peoples of the Americas are the inhabitants of the Americas before the arrival of the European settlers in the 15th century, and the ethnic groups who now identify themselves with those peoples.


city-states, chiefdoms, states, kingdoms, republics,[33] confederacies, and empires
. Some had varying degrees of knowledge of engineering, architecture, mathematics, astronomy, writing, physics, medicine, planting and irrigation, geology, mining, metallurgy, sculpture, and gold smithing.

Many parts of the Americas are still populated by Indigenous peoples; some countries have sizeable populations, especially Bolivia, Canada, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru and the United States. At least a thousand different Indigenous languages are spoken in the Americas. Some, such as the Quechuan languages, Arawak language, Aymara, Guaraní, Mayan languages, and Nahuatl, count their speakers in the millions. Many also maintain aspects of Indigenous cultural practices to varying degrees, including religion, social organization, and subsistence practices. Like most cultures, over time, cultures specific to many Indigenous peoples have evolved to incorporate traditional aspects but also cater to modern needs. Some Indigenous peoples still live in relative isolation from Western culture and a few are still counted as uncontacted peoples.


boy, in the desert of Monument Valley, Arizona, United States of America. The Three Sisters buttes are visible in the background.

Application of the term "

linguistically distinct Indigenous peoples of the Arctic regions of the Americas—such as the Aleuts, Inuit, or Yupik peoples, who entered the continent as a second, more recent wave of migration several thousand years later and have much more recent genetic and cultural commonalities with the Aboriginal peoples of the Asiatic Arctic Russian Far East
—these groups are nonetheless considered "Indigenous peoples of the Americas".

The term Amerindian, a portmanteau of "American Indian", was coined in 1902 by the American Anthropological Association. However, it has been controversial since its creation. It was immediately rejected by some leading members of the Association, and, while adopted by many, it was never universally accepted.[41] While never popular in Indigenous communities themselves, it remains a preferred term among some anthropologists, notably in some parts of Canada and the English-speaking Caribbean.[42][43][44][45]

term of art used in some legal documents, including the Constitution Act, 1982,[48] though in most Indigenous circles Aboriginal has also fallen into disfavor.[49] Over time, as societal perceptions and government-Indigenous relationships have shifted, many historical terms have changed definition or been replaced as they have fallen out of favor.[50] Use of the term "Indian" is frowned upon because it represents the imposition and restriction of Indigenous peoples and cultures by the Canadian Government.[50] The terms "Native" and "Eskimo" are generally regarded as disrespectful, and so are rarely used unless specifically required.[51] While "Indigenous peoples" is the preferred term, many individuals or communities may choose to self-describe their identity using a different term.[50][51]

The Métis people of Canada can be contrasted, for instance, to the Indigenous-European mixed race

caboclos in Brazil) of Hispanic America who, with their larger population (in most Latin-American countries constituting either outright majorities, pluralities, or at the least large minorities), identify largely as a new ethnic group distinct from both Europeans and Indigenous, but still considering themselves a subset of the European-derived Hispanic or Brazilian peoplehood in culture and ethnicity (cf. ladinos


Spanish-speaking countries, indígenas or pueblos indígenas ('Indigenous peoples') is a common term, though nativos or pueblos nativos ('native peoples') may also be heard; moreover, aborigen ('aborigine') is used in Argentina and pueblos originarios ('original peoples') is common in Chile. In Brazil, indígenas or povos indígenas ('Indigenous peoples') are common of formal-sounding designations, while índio ('Indian') is still the more often-heard term (the noun for the South-Asian nationality being indiano). Aborígene and nativo is rarely used in Brazil in Indigenous-specific contexts (e.g., aborígene is usually understood as the ethnonym for Indigenous Australians). The Spanish and Portuguese equivalents to Indian, nevertheless, could be used to mean any hunter-gatherer or full-blooded Indigenous person, particularly to continents other than Europe or Africa—for example, indios filipinos

Indigenous peoples of the United States are commonly known as

Native American name controversy


The various Nations, tribes, and bands of Indigenous peoples of the Americas have differing preferences in terminology for themselves.[53] While there are regional and generational variations in which umbrella terms are preferred for Indigenous peoples as a whole, in general, most Indigenous peoples prefer to be identified by the name of their specific Nation, tribe, or band.[53][54]

Early settlers often adopted terms that some tribes used for each other, not realizing these were derogatory terms used by enemies. When discussing broader subsets of peoples, naming has often been based on shared language, region, or historical relationship.

endonyms from the native languages. Other terms arose during periods of conflict between the colonists and Indigenous peoples.[56]

Since the late 20th century, Indigenous peoples in the Americas have been more vocal about how they want to be addressed, pushing to suppress use of terms widely considered to be obsolete, inaccurate, or

United States government responded by proposing the use of the term "Native American", to recognize the primacy of Indigenous peoples' tenure in the nation.[57] As may be expected among people of over 400 different cultures in the US alone, not all of the people intended to be described by this term have agreed on its use or adopted it. No single group naming convention has been accepted by all Indigenous peoples in the Americas. Most prefer to be addressed as people of their tribe or nations when not speaking about Native Americans/American Indians as a whole.[58]

Since the 1970s, Indigenous (capitalized when referring to people) has gradually emerged as a favored umbrella term. The capitalization is to acknowledge that Indigenous peoples have cultures and societies that are equal to Europeans, Africans, and Asians.[54][59] This has recently been acknowledged in the AP Stylebook.[60] Some consider it improper to refer to Indigenous people as "Indigenous Americans" or to append any colonial nationality to the term because Indigenous cultures have existed prior to European colonization. Indigenous groups have territorial claims that are different from modern national and international borders, and when labelled as part of a country, their traditional lands are not acknowledged. Some who have written guidelines consider it more appropriate to describe an Indigenous person as "living in" or "of" the Americas, rather than calling them "American"; or to simply call them "Indigenous" without any addition of a colonial state.[61][62]


Settlement of the Americas

Map of early human migrations based on the Out of Africa theory; figures are in thousands of years ago (kya)[63]

The settlement of the Americas began when Paleolithic hunter-gatherers entered North America from the North Asian Mammoth steppe via the Beringia land bridge, which had formed between northeastern Siberia and western Alaska due to the lowering of sea level during the Last Glacial Maximum (26,000 to 19,000 years ago).[64] These populations expanded south of the

genetic composition as reflected by molecular data, such as DNA.[70][71]

The precise date for the peopling of the Americas is a long-standing open question, and while advances in

DNA analysis have progressively shed more light on the subject, significant questions remain unresolved.[72] While there is general agreement that the Americas were first settled from Asia, the pattern of migration, its timing, and the place(s) of origin in Eurasia of the peoples who migrated to the Americas remain unclear.[66] The "Clovis first theory" refers to the hypothesis that the Clovis culture represents the earliest human presence in the Americas about 13,000 years ago.[73]

However, evidence of pre-Clovis cultures has accumulated and pushed back the possible date of the first peopling of the Americas.
Paleosiberian peoples and Ancient Native Americans, which later migrated towards the Beringian region, became isolated from other populations, and subsequently populated the Americas.[87][88]

Pre-Columbian era

The Pre-Columbian era refers to all period subdivisions in the history and prehistory of the Americas before the appearance of significant European and African influences on the American continents, spanning the time of the original arrival in the Upper Paleolithic to European colonization during the early modern period.[89]

The Kogi, descendants of the Tairona, are a culturally-intact, largely pre-Columbian society.[90]
The Tairona were one of the few indigenous American tribes that were not fully conquered.

While technically referring to the era before


Nahua peoples
, had their own written languages and records. However, the European colonists of the time worked to eliminate non-Christian beliefs, and burned many pre-Columbian written records. Only a few documents remained hidden and survived, leaving contemporary historians with glimpses of ancient culture and knowledge.

According to both Indigenous and European accounts and documents, American civilizations before and at the time of European encounter had achieved great complexity and many accomplishments.[96] For instance, the Aztecs built one of the largest cities in the world, Tenochtitlan (the historical site of what would become Mexico City), with an estimated population of 200,000 for the city proper and a population of close to five million for the extended empire.[97] By comparison, the largest European cities in the 16th century were Constantinople and Paris with 300,000 and 200,000 inhabitants respectively.[98] The population in London, Madrid and Rome hardly exceeded 50,000 people. In 1523, right around the time of the Spanish conquest, the entire population in the country of England was just under three million people.[99] This fact speaks to the level of sophistication, agriculture, governmental procedure and rule of law that existed in Tenochtitlan, needed to govern over such a large citizenry. Indigenous civilizations also displayed impressive accomplishments in astronomy and mathematics, including the most accurate calendar in the world. The domestication of maize or corn required thousands of years of selective breeding, and continued cultivation of multiple varieties was done with planning and selection, generally by women.

Inuit, Yupik, Aleut, and Indigenous creation myths tell of a variety of origins of their respective peoples. Some were "always there" or were created by gods or animals, some migrated from a specified compass point, and others came from "across the ocean".[100]

European colonization

The European colonization of the Americas fundamentally changed the lives and cultures of the resident Indigenous peoples. Although the exact pre-colonization population-count of the Americas is unknown, scholars estimate that Indigenous populations diminished by between 80% and 90% within the first centuries of European colonization. The majority of these losses are attributed to the introduction of Afro-Eurasian diseases into the Americas. Epidemics ravaged the Americas with diseases such as smallpox, measles, and cholera, which the early colonists brought from Europe.

The spread of infectious diseases was slow initially, as most Europeans were not actively or visibly infected, due to inherited immunity from generations of exposure to these diseases in Europe. This changed when the Europeans began the human trafficking of massive numbers of enslaved Western and Central African people to the Americas. Like Indigenous peoples, these African people, newly exposed to European diseases, lacked any inherited resistances to the diseases of Europe. In 1520 an African who had been infected with smallpox had arrived in Yucatán. By 1558, the disease had spread throughout South America and had arrived at the Plata basin.[101] Colonist violence towards Indigenous peoples accelerated the loss of lives. European colonists perpetrated massacres on the Indigenous peoples and enslaved them.[102][103][104] According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census (1894), the North American Indian Wars of the 19th century cost the lives of about 19,000 Europeans and 30,000 Native Americans.[105]

The first Indigenous group encountered by Columbus, the 250,000

Taíno rebellion

Following years of mistreatment, the Taínos began to adopt suicidal behaviors, with women aborting or killing their infants and men jumping from cliffs or ingesting untreated cassava, a violent poison.[106] Eventually, a Taíno Cacique named Enriquillo managed to hold out in the Baoruco Mountain Range for thirteen years, causing serious damage to the Spanish, Carib-held plantations and their Indian auxiliaries.[109][failed verification] Hearing of the seriousness of the revolt, Emperor Charles V (also King of Spain) sent captain Francisco Barrionuevo to negotiate a peace treaty with the ever-increasing number of rebels. Two months later, after consultation with the Audencia of Santo Domingo, Enriquillo was offered any part of the island to live in peace.


The Spanish crown found it difficult to enforce these laws in distant colonies.

of conquest-era central Mexico suffering from smallpox

Epidemic disease was the overwhelming cause of the population decline of the Indigenous peoples.[111][112] After initial contact with Europeans and Africans, Old World diseases caused the deaths of 90 to 95% of the native population of the New World in the following 150 years.[113] Smallpox killed from one third to half of the native population of Hispaniola in 1518.[114][115] By killing the Incan ruler Huayna Capac, smallpox caused the Inca Civil War of 1529–1532. Smallpox was only the first epidemic. Typhus (probably) in 1546, influenza and smallpox together in 1558, smallpox again in 1589, diphtheria in 1614, measles in 1618—all ravaged the remains of Inca culture.

Smallpox killed millions of native inhabitants of Mexico.[116][117] Unintentionally introduced at Veracruz with the arrival of Pánfilo de Narváez on 23 April 1520, smallpox ravaged Mexico in the 1520s,[118] possibly killing over 150,000 in Tenochtitlán (the heartland of the Aztec Empire) alone, and aiding in the victory of Hernán Cortés over the Aztec Empire at Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City) in 1521.[citation needed][101]

There are many factors as to why Indigenous peoples suffered such immense losses from Afro-Eurasian diseases. Many European diseases, like cow pox, are acquired from domesticated animals that are not indigenous to the Americas. European populations had adapted to these diseases, and built up resistance, over many generations. Many of the European diseases that were brought over to the Americas were diseases, like yellow fever, that were relatively manageable if infected as a child, but were deadly if infected as an adult. Children could often survive the disease, resulting in immunity to the disease for the rest of their lives. But contact with adult populations without this childhood or inherited immunity would result in these diseases proving fatal.[101][119]

Colonization of the Caribbean led to the destruction of the Arawaks of the Lesser Antilles. Their culture was destroyed by 1650. Only 500 had survived by the year 1550, though the bloodlines continued through to the modern populace. In Amazonia, Indigenous societies weathered, and continue to suffer, centuries of colonization and genocide.[120]

Indigenous people at a Brazilian farm plantation in Minas Gerais
ca. 1824

Contact with European diseases such as smallpox and measles killed between 50 and 67 per cent of the Indigenous population of North America in the first hundred years after the arrival of Europeans.

1775–82 North American smallpox epidemic and the 1837 Great Plains smallpox epidemic brought devastation and drastic population depletion among the Plains Indians.[127][128] In 1832 the federal government of the United States established a smallpox vaccination program for Native Americans (The Indian Vaccination Act of 1832).[129]

The Indigenous peoples in Brazil declined from a pre-Columbian high of an estimated three million[130] to some 300,000 in 1997.[dubious ][failed verification][131]

The Spanish Empire and other Europeans re-introduced horses to the Americas. Some of these animals escaped and began to breed and increase their numbers in the wild.[132] The re-introduction of the horse, extinct in the Americas for over 7500 years, had a profound impact on Indigenous cultures in the Great Plains of North America and in Patagonia in South America. By domesticating horses, some tribes had great success: horses enabled them to expand their territories, exchange more goods with neighboring tribes, and more easily capture game, especially bison.

Indigenous historical trauma (IHT)

Mayan women in Antigua Guatemala
Map of all
Indian Residential Schools in Canada, including gravesites. This map can be expanded and interacted with.
  Confirmed discoveries of gravesites   Investigations underway as of July 30, 2021
  Investigations that concluded with no discoveries   Other Indian Residential Schools

Indigenous historical trauma (IHT) is the trauma that can accumulate across generations that develops as a result of the historical ramifications of colonization and is linked to mental and physical health hardships and population decline.[133] IHT affects many different people in a multitude of ways because the Indigenous community and their history is diverse.

Many studies (such as Whitbeck et al., 2014;[134] Brockie, 2012; Anastasio et al., 2016;[135] Clark & Winterowd, 2012;[136] Tucker et al., 2016)[137] have evaluated the impact of IHT on health outcomes of Indigenous communities from the United States and Canada. IHT is a difficult term to standardize and measure because of the vast and variable diversity of Indigenous people and their communities. Therefore, it is an arduous task to assign an operational definition and systematically collect data when studying IHT. Many of the studies that incorporate IHT measure it in different ways, making it hard to compile data and review it holistically. This is an important point that provides context for the following studies that attempt to understand the relationship between IHT and potential adverse health impacts.

Some of the methodologies to measure IHT include a "Historical Losses Scale" (HLS), "Historical Losses Associated Symptoms Scale" (HLASS), and residential school ancestry studies.[133]: 23  HLS uses a survey format that includes "12 kinds of historical losses," such as loss of language and loss of land and asks participants how often they think about those losses.[133]: 23  The HLASS includes 12 emotional reactions and asks participants how they feel when they think about these losses.[133] Lastly, the residential school ancestry studies ask respondents if their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents or "elders from their community" went to a residential school to understand if family or community history in residential schools are associated with negative health outcomes.[133]: 25  In a comprehensive review of the research literature, Joseph Gone and colleagues[133] compiled and compared outcomes for studies using these IHT measures relative to health outcomes of Indigenous peoples. The study defined negative health outcomes to include such concepts as anxiety, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, polysubstance abuse, PTSD, depression, binge eating, anger, and sexual abuse.[133]

The connection between IHT and health conditions is complicated because of the difficult nature of measuring IHT, the unknown directionality of IHT and health outcomes, and because the term Indigenous people used in the various samples comprises a huge population of individuals with drastically different experiences and histories. That being said, some studies such as Bombay, Matheson, and Anisman (2014),[138] Elias et al. (2012),[139] and Pearce et al. (2008)[140] found that Indigenous respondents with a connection to residential schools have more negative health outcomes (e.g., suicide ideation, suicide attempts, and depression) than those who did not have a connection to residential schools. Additionally, Indigenous respondents with higher HLS and HLASS scores had one or more negative health outcomes.[133] While there many studies[135][141][136][142][137] that found an association between IHT and adverse health outcomes, scholars continue to suggest that it remains difficult to understand the impact of IHT. IHT needs to be systematically measured. Indigenous people also need to be understood in separated categories based on similar experiences, location, and background as opposed to being categorized as one monolithic group.[133]



In the course of thousands of years, Indigenous peoples domesticated, bred and cultivated a large array of plant species. These species now constitute between 50% and 60% of all crops in cultivation worldwide.

grasses in the valleys of southern Mexico. Numerous such agricultural products retain their native names in the English and Spanish lexicons.

The South American highlands became a center of early agriculture. Genetic testing of the wide variety of cultivars and wild species suggests that the potato has a single origin in the area of southern Peru,[144] from a species in the Solanum brevicaule complex. Over 99% of all modern cultivated potatoes worldwide are descendants of a subspecies Indigenous to south-central Chile,[145] Solanum tuberosum ssp. tuberosum, where it was cultivated as long as 10,000 years ago.[146][147] According to Linda Newson, "It is clear that in pre-Columbian times some groups struggled to survive and often suffered food shortages and famines, while others enjoyed a varied and substantial diet."[148]

Persistent drought around AD 850 coincided with the collapse of Classic Maya civilization, and the famine of One Rabbit (AD 1454) was a major catastrophe in Mexico.[149]

Indigenous peoples of North America began practicing

Indigenous peoples began using fire in a controlled manner. They carried out intentional burning of vegetation to mimic the effects of natural fires that tended to clear forest understories. It made travel easier and facilitated the growth of herbs and berry-producing plants, which were important both for food and for medicines.[150]

In the Mississippi River valley, Europeans noted that Native Americans managed groves of nut- and fruit-trees not far from villages and towns and their gardens and agricultural fields. They would have used prescribed burning further away, in forest and prairie areas.[151]

Many crops first domesticated by Indigenous peoples are now produced and used globally, most notably

blueberries, cranberries, and some species of cotton

Studies of contemporary Indigenous environmental management—including of agro-forestry practices among Itza Maya in Guatemala and of hunting and fishing among the Menominee of Wisconsin—suggest that longstanding "sacred values" may represent a summary of sustainable millennial traditions.[153]


Indigenous peoples also domesticated some animals, such as

guinea-pigs, and Muscovy ducks


Cultural practices in the Americas seem to have been shared mostly within geographical zones where distinct ethnic groups adopting shared cultural traits, similar technologies, and social organizations. An example of such a cultural area is Mesoamerica, where millennia of coexistence and shared development among the peoples of the region produced a fairly homogeneous culture with complex agricultural and social patterns. Another well-known example is the North American plains where until the 19th century several peoples shared the traits of nomadic hunter-gatherers based primarily on buffalo hunting.


The languages of the North American Indians have been classified into 56 groups or stock tongues, in which the spoken languages of the tribes may be said to centre. In connection with speech, reference may be made to gesture language which was highly developed in parts of this area. Of equal interest is the picture writing especially well developed among the Chippewas and Delawares.[154]

Writing systems

Maya glyphs in stucco at the Museo de sitio in Palenque
, Mexico

Beginning in the 1st millennium BCE, pre-Columbian cultures in

Olmec hieroglyphs tablet has been indirectly dated (from ceramic shards found in the same context) to approximately 900 BCE-which is around the same time that the Olmec occupation of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán began to weaken.[155]


phonetic syllabic symbols and logograms). It is the only pre-Columbian writing system known to have completely represented the spoken language of its community. It has more than a thousand different glyphs, but a few are variations on the same sign or have the same meaning, many appear only rarely or in particular localities, no more than about five hundred were in use in any given time period, and, of those, it seems only about two hundred (including variations) represented a particular phoneme or syllable.[156][157][158]

The Zapotec writing system, one of the earliest in the Americas,[159] was logographic and presumably syllabic.[159] There are remnants of Zapotec writing in inscriptions on some of the monumental architecture of the period, but so few inscriptions are extant that it is difficult to fully describe the writing system. The oldest example of Zapotec script, dating from around 600 BCE, is on a monument that was discovered in San José Mogote.[160]

Aztec pictograms, but also writing that uses the Latin alphabet in several languages: Classical Nahuatl, Spanish, and occasionally Latin

Spanish mendicants in the sixteenth century taught Indigenous scribes in their communities to write their languages using Latin letters, and there are a large number of local-level documents in Nahuatl, Zapotec, Mixtec, and Yucatec Maya from the colonial era, many of which were part of lawsuits and other legal matters. Although Spaniards initially taught Indigenous scribes alphabetic writing, the tradition became self-perpetuating at the local level.[162] The Spanish crown gathered such documentation, and contemporary Spanish translations were made for legal cases. Scholars have translated and analyzed these documents in what is called the New Philology to write histories of Indigenous peoples from Indigenous viewpoints.[163]


Mi'kmaq hieroglyphics

Aboriginal syllabic writing, or simply syllabics, is a family of

Inuit, and Athabaskan
language families.

Music and art