What were the main characteristics of Native Americans’ lives prior to the arrival of European settlers?
There were millions of Native American people in the Americas before contact with Europeans, and their lifestyles and cultures were very diverse, influenced by their respective environments, as well as contacts with other peoples. A few generalizations can be made about most Native American, however. First, most (but not all) did not believe in private property in the European sense (i.e., that it could be held by an individual in perpetuity). This aspect of Native culture led to clashes with Europeans, particularly the English. Additionally, most Native peoples from Mesoamerica to modern New England (and east of the Mississippi River Valley) were to one degree or another settled agriculturalists, cultivating corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, and other crops. They were not, contrary to contemporary popular culture, nomadic peoples. Indeed, it was only with the arrival of the horse from Europe that many of the Plains Indians that most associate with Native culture today began to embrace a lifestyle that revolved around hunting buffalo. Many, including Mesoamerican and Mississippian peoples, lived in and around large urban areas constructed of earthen mounds or stone. No Native societies featured what Europeans recognized as written languages, and some predominately hunter-gatherer societies were quite egalitarian, but many had formal structures of government and bureaucracies that rivaled those of Europe.
Native American culture was diverse across the Americas and tribal characteristics were mostly dependent upon climate and region. In Eastern North America many tribes practiced a mix of small-plot farming and seasonal hunting. They would also maintain permanent villages and semi-permanent hunting camps which were typically small communities connected by marriage. In the Great Plains and Western North America peoples were much more mobile and dependent mainly on the movement of the buffalo herds for their survival. Trade was also a key characteristic of native life which would maintain complex systems stretching across the continent.
In Central and South America larger permanent cities were established and agriculture was a much more prominent resource to the peoples. Trade would also be prominent as well as cultural and religious warfare between cities and regions.
In all of the Americas a special connection to the natural world was also present which would influence the beliefs of peoples and their place in the world.