What are two differences between the Native peoples of North and South America?

Quick answer:

Speaking generally of North and South American Native peoples ignores the vast diversity of these two continents. Generally speaking, North American native peoples lived in egalitarian societies while South Americans were more hierarchal. Today, South American Native peoples tend to be more integrated into society at large than their North American counterparts.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

It is difficult to generalize about the diverse native populations of North and South America, and any generalizations which can be justified involve placing the Aztec and Mayan people, geographically North American, among the cultures of the South. The reasons for doing this actually help to crystalize the broad distinctions between the two. The Aztec and Mayan people in Mexico both built large cities, with public art and architecture on a grand scale. At the center of these cities were courts with complex, hierarchical cultures and rituals. North American Native people were generally more egalitarian and often nomadic. When they did remain in one place and build, it was generally on a smaller scale.

This difference helps to explain another important distinction: the greater degree of integration between the colonizers and the colonized in the South. Many historians have focused on the cultural differences between the English and Dutch settlers in the North and the Spanish conquistadors in the South, but the differences between the Native populations were also influential. When the Spanish came to South America, they found complex, hierarchical structures within large stone-built cities, a culture similar in many ways to their own. The European settlers in North America had completely different lifestyles and philosophies from the Native people they encountered, to whom even the concept of owning land was alien. The Spanish undoubtedly treated the Native Americans as inferior, but they had much more common ground, and were able to integrate much more quickly and successfully than the colonizers and colonized who lived parallel lives in North America.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

An answer to this question can only speak in generalities. The Native peoples of each American continent are diverse within themselves, and speaking of all North American and all South American native peoples as homogenous groups will leave out the vast diversity that exists within the different regions. That being said, there are some general differences that can be mentioned.

Generally speaking, Native societies in South America, particularly in the Andes, were characterized by hierarchical caste systems. The Inca, the Tiwanaku, and the Huari were multi-ethnic empires that had caste systems ranging from royalty, nobility, and priests at the top to peasants and slaves at the bottom. North American societies tended to be smaller, ethnically homogenous, and more egalitarian. There are exceptions, such as the egalitarian Achagua in the Amazon and the hierarchical societies of Cahokia in the Midwest of North America.

Today, most South American Native peoples are integrated into society at large. Ever since contact with Europeans, there was a decent degree of intermarriage. There are very few people on the continent who are entirely European in ethnicity. By contrast, most Native Americans in North America have lived apart from Europeans. Their populations, therefore, are smaller, yet more autonomous and homogenous. Mexico is an exception to this, as it has a large mestizo population.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I can think of two major differences between the cultures of North and South American indigenous populations. First, North American indigenous populations were far more mobile than those in South America. As far as we are able to discern from archaeology and historical studies, First Nations peoples of North America practiced a hunter-gatherer subsistence lifestyle. They might spend one season in one region, hunting deer or catching fish, and travel during another season for the purpose of gathering wild foods like berries. Some First Nations tribes did practice small-scale subsistence agriculture, but nothing like that of South American tribes. In South America, life was far more centralized to city-kingdoms. In fact, several prosperous and highly stratified societies developed in South America. For example, the Inca empire had a range of very wealthy elites to (relatively) poor laborers. Wealth became concentrated in the capital city of Cuzco, as people were required to send goods to this administrative center as tax payments. Not only were luxury goods from the reaches of the empire sent to the capital; food produced in the agricultural parts of the empire was redistributed through the capital as a sort of security system in case of crop failure. This was a far more stratified and administrated society as compared to the relatively egalitarian, nomadic lifestyle of North American peoples.

Another major difference, which manifested itself in societal structure, were beliefs about the relationship between the sacred and the profane. Most North American indigenous cultures held that there was no difference between the world we live in and the spiritual realm. The god(s) were in all things, all people, and all places, and it is our duty as humans to co-exist with all of nature as a part of the same spiritual entity. By this same belief, god(s) or the sacred did not really become concentrated in or limited to just one individual. Anyone could "channel" god(s), and it was not off-limits to anyone in particular. However, in most South American indigenous cultures, things were quite different. The leaders of the great empires and city-kingdoms I mentioned before were often considered god-kings. This means they might have been considered an earthly manifestation of god(s,) or they were believed to be the best and most direct advocate for the people in dealing with god(s). Sometimes rulers were believed to have been descended from god(s) themselves. It is in part because of this belief that so much wealth was concentrated centrally in South American indigenous cultures-- sending as much wealth as possible to the person who negotiates with god(s) is sure to get you on their good side! 

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial