Native American contributions
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abstract art- Abstract art was used by nearly all tribes and civilizations of North and South America. Native American art was believed to be primitive until the 1990s, when it served as inspiration for the modern American abstract art movement.
almanacs- Almanacs were invented independently by the Maya. Their culture arose and they began using them around 3,500 years ago, while Europeans are known to have created written almanacs only after 1150 AD. Almanacs are books containing meteorological and astronomical information, which the Maya used in various aspects of their life.
anesthetics- American Indians used coca, peyote, datura and other plants for partial or total loss of sensation or conscious during surgery. Western doctors had effective anesthetics only after the mid-19th century. Before this, they either had to perform surgery while the patient felt pain or knock the patient out.
apartment blocks-The Anasazi and other tribes which once thrived in the present day South-West of the USA, developed complex multistory apartment complexes, some of which are still in use today. The Native Pueblo communities in present-day New Mexico continue to reside in some of these ancient multistory apartment complexes which were constructed by their ancestors many centuries ago, even before the first apartments were built in the United States during the 1700s. Pueblo Bonito, one of the seminal archaeological sites today is a marvelous example of this ancient Native American multistory apartment complex construction technology from the Anasazi and Hohokom time periods about a thousand years ago.
art to be viewed from space-The Nazca lines were created by the ancient Nazca in modern day Peru. The Nazca built these artworks, which could only be viewed from the sky or from space. It was as if the ancient Nazca were building monuments, which only their Gods could view from up in the sky. Some of these artworks, otherwise known as the Nazca Lines, could only be viewed from the sky and each one of these amazing works of Nazca art spans several miles across in size and dimension in the Peruvian desert.
aqueducts-The ancient Andean Native American cultures such as Chimu and the Moche lived in very dry environments. Yet, despite the dryness of the areas where these Native American peoples resided, they were able to thrive, build great cities, towns, and civilizations. This was largely due to farming in these dry regions, which these peoples engaged in and farming is largely dependent upon the availability of fresh water. Using extensive aqueducts, these Native Americans were able to transport water from the rivers, mountain streams, and lakes to their fields and build the food base required for building great civilizations. The Incan later expanded on these already constructed aqueducts and built even more complex and large aqueduct system in the Incan Empire.
The Mesoamerican Aztecs also constructed complex aqueducts to bring water to their vast city of Tenochtitlan.
aspirin- Native Americans have been using willow tree bark for thousands of years to reduce fever and pain as were the ancient peoples of Assyria, Sumer, Egypt and Greece. When chemists analyzed willows in the last century, they discovered salicylic acid,. the basis of the modern drug aspirin.
atlatl- Paleo-Indians from over 6,000 years ago had developed a highly developed spear thrower in the form of the atlatl to hunt wooly mammoths, giant sloths, mastodon, muskox, giant beaver, early caribou, steppe wisent, saber-toothed cat, and other pleistocene animals. Using the atlatl, these ancient Paleo-Indians were able to traverse much of the Americas from Alaska down to Mexico and Central America and into South America, all the way down to Chile as they hunted and followed these pleistocene megafauna within a short 3,000 year time period from about 14,500 years ago to about 11,500 year ago.
beans-Most commonly eaten beans today, were originally cultivated in the Americas by Native Americans. Beans along with squash and maize formed the "Three Sister (crops)" which were grown by many Pre-Columbian American cultures, tribes, nations, and civilizations.
bottle gourds-The ancient Mexicans learned to first cultivate the bottle gourds around 8,000 BC. American Indians raised bottle gourds for use as bowls, scoops, colanders, ladles, spoons, can-teens and dippers. Larger gourds were used as cooking vessels. Eastern Woodland Natives hung bottle gourds on poles in their cornfields to serve as habitats for insect-eating birds (a form of biological pest-control, which the Native Americans developed). Native Americans in Northern Peru also used bottle gourds as floats for fishing nets.
bunk bed-The ancient Iroquoian longhouses housed several families together. The concept of bunk beds were developed by these Native Americans peoples, since these longhouses included several bed combinations which featured one bed built on top of another akin to bunk beds in the modern era.
calendars- Were developed by Native Americans throughout North America, Mesoamerica, and South America. They are known to have been in used since 600 BC. American Indian calendars were so precise that by the 5th century BC they were only 19 minutes off.
causeway-The Aztecs built many giant causeways that connected the mainland to their capital city of Tenochtitlan located in the heart of the Aztec empire. The causeways served as arteries used for transporting food, goods, people, prisoners, and wastes during the heyday of the Aztec Empire during the 1300s to the 1500s.
chewing gum- American Indians in New England introduced the settlers to chewing gum made from the spruce tree. The Mayans, on the other hand, were the first people to use latex gum; better known to them as chicle.
chinampas-Floating gardens which were highly productive areas used for farming and growing food, were constructed by the ancient Aztecs to provide food and sustenance to their 250,000 inhabited city of Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs used the chinampas in and around Tenochtitlan to grow corn, squash, beans, tomato, avocado, chill, peppers, and all others sorts of food products to feed the burgeoning population of their great metropolis.
chocolate- The Mayans were the first to drink cocoa. This tradition was later passed on to the Aztecs who called the beverage xocalatl. Natives in mesoamerica introduced it to the Spanish and Portuguese, but they kept the beloved xocalatl from the rest of Europe for nearly a century.
dams- The Aztecs in Tenochtitlan constructed great dams during the heyday of the Aztec Empire. Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire, was first built on a small island that was located in the western section of Lake Texcoco in 1325 AD. The Aztecs created a large artificial island around the small island using a system that was similar to building the chinampas (floating gardens in the lake that was used to grow food for the cities' population). To provide drinking water to the cities' population of over a quarter of a million inhabitants, the Aztecs built a system of dams that separated the salty waters of the lake from the rain water that was accumulated during periods of heavy rains. The Aztecs also used the dam to control the level of water in the lake and prevent their city from being flooded during times of heavy rains. To prevent flooding, the Aztecs constructed an inner system of channels that helped to control the water level and held the level steady during flooding and periods of intense rains.
Cortés's and the other Spanish conquistadores destroyed these engineering marvels that the Aztecs had developed during the previous 200 years.
dog breeds- Dog breeds believed to have been bred by Native Americans are the xochiocoyotl (coyote), xoloitzcuintli (known as xolo or Mexican hairless), chihuahua, the Carolina dog, and the Alaskan malamute.
electroplating– The ancient Moche independently developed electroplating technology without any Old World influences. The Moche used electricity derived from chemicals to gild copper with a thin outer layer of gold. In order to start the electroplating process, the Moche first concocted a very corrosive and a highly acidic liquid solution in which they dissolved small traces of gold. The technique also involved copper, which was then inserted into the resulting acidic solution. The copper then acted both as a cathode and an anode, and this generated the necessary electric current needed to start the electroplating process. The gold ions in the solution was attracted to the copper anode and cathode and formed a thin layer over the copper, giving the latter the appearance of a solid gold object, even though gold only coated the outermost layer of the copper object. The Moche then allowed the acidic solution to boil slowly, causing a very thin layer/coating of gold to permanently coat the copper anode and cathode. This advanced electroplating technique was developed during 500 AD by the ancient Moche, a thousand years before Europeans invented the same process.
embalming – Egyptians are known for mummification, which began around 6000 BC to 600 AD. In what is now Chile however, the Chinchoro peoples are known to have been embalming and mummifying their dead since around 5000 BC. The terms mummification and embalming are interchangeable. Embalming is using preservatives to prevent decay of the body. Many other Native American peoples further perfected the art of embalming and mummification including the skilled Moche peoples in present day Peru.
ephedra – The ancient Aztecs used ephedra in order to treat common colds. Unlike the Chinese version of the ephedra, the New World ephedra that was used by the Native Americans contained more milder alkaloids.
fan - The Ancient Mayans independently invented the hand held fan (independent of the Chinese). The Mayans used the fans to provide cool air breeze to those who used it to air themselves. Many Mayan sculptures and paintings depict members of the Mayan nobility and royalty being fanned by servants. In addition to being used as a tool to increase one's comfort in the stifling humid heat of Meso-America, fans were also used to increase the oxygen supply in a fire, thereby causing the fire to burn more intensly.
freeze-drying - The ancient Andean Amerindian peoples learned to freeze dry potatoes and other food items, so that the resultant dehydrated powder could be stored for years and then later transported across vast distances to feed countless hungry peoples. The Spanish conquistadors used this very Andean invented freeze drying technique to transport several tonnes of dehydrated potatoes across the vast Atlantic Ocean back to Europe to feed hungry Europeans.
foot plow - The Ancient Peruvians developed and then employed the foot plow for tilling the soil in the cold Andean mountain region. They invented the foot plow around the time agriculture developed in the Andes around 8,000 years ago. Foot plows greatly assisted Andean farmers to more intensely plow the land and increase the yields from the soil.
Forceps- Medical instruments, which were invented by the Ancient Inca to grasp and then manipulate or extract objects from human tissue. The Inca used forceps for surgeries before European colonization.
Geographical Names- Native Americans have had a major impact in names of locations and places commonly used today. There are 26 states in the United States alone whose names derive from Native Americans. Most notable however, are the countries of Canada and Mexico. Names do not limit themselves to political states; there are also mountains, rivers, cities, lakes, and counties deriving from indigenous terms. For a full list see Native American Geographical Names.
Government: Indian governments in eastern North America, particularly the League of the Iroquois, served as models of federated representative democracy to the Europeans and the American colonists. The United States government is based on such a system, whereby power is distributed between a central authority (the federal government) and smaller political units (the states).
Historians have suggested the Iroquois system of government influenced the development of the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution. In 1988, the United States Congress passed a resolution to recognize the influence of the Iroquois League upon the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Granaries-The Inca built extensive granaries throughout their empire, where they stored surplus crops including freeze dried potato which could be used to feed the population during periods of food shortages, crop failures, and droughts. The efficient Inca granary system enabled the officials in the empire to prevent mass starvation, by storing surplus crops in these vast granaries during times of bumper harvest and distributing the surplus crops from the granaries to the hungry masses during periods of food shortages. The Pinkuylluna Mountain Granaries is a good example of these ancient but highly efficient granaries which the Incas developed.
hammocks- Hammocks were commonly used in the Caribbean, South and Central America at first contact with Europeans. The Spanish liked the comfortable way of sleeping and adopted them. Europeans eventually used them as the primary way of sleeping on ships.
harpoons-The Inuit had developed the harpoon independent of any Old World influences, in order to hunt seals, walrus, and whales. The Inuit of West Greenland called the harpoon, maupok. Harpoons enabled the Inuit to hunt large marine mammals from a distance in their dugout canoes in the open Arctic Ocean.
igloos – Built by the Inuit and other Arctic native peoples, igloos were constructed for many centuries as a form of protection and shelter to house people from the harsh Arctic weather. While the temperature outside an igloo was often times in the freezing range, the temperature within an igloo was stable ranging from 2 °C and above. For example, the Central Inuit people in Northern Canada (especially those, who lived around the Davis Straits), lined the inside living area of an igloo with animal skin and hides. This assisted in increasing the temperature within an igloo from around 2 °C to 10–20 °C, thereby insuring a more comfortable existence for the inhabitants of the igloo from the fierce cold outside.
Inca road systems – The Inca built one of the most extensive road systems in the ancient world. The Incas built upon the roads, which were originally constructed by previous Andean civilizations such as the Chimu, Nazca, Huari, Moche, and others. The Incas also further refined and expanded upon the earlier innovations and systems laid in place by the previous Amerindian cultures. The Incan road system, at its peak, spanned over 20,000 miles and crisscrossed mountains, rivers, deserts, rainforests, and plains. The road system connected the empire from the Andes mountain in Colombia all the through to Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, North-Eastern Argentina, and present-day Northern Chile. The Inca roads were used to transport food, goods, people, and armies, while Inca officials frequently relayed messages using the roads across the vast stretches of the Inca Empire. In areas, where rivers blocked the directions of the roads, the Incas constructed elaborate and complex suspension bridges.
Inuit snow goggles – The Inuit made snow goggles which protected their eyes against the harsh winds in the Arctic regions of North America, long before sunglasses became available to modern Europeans.
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maize-First cultivated in present-day Mexico by ancient Native Americans several thousand years ago, corn is currently the most cultivated grain in the world with USA being the largest cultivator of maize followed by mainland China. Over 700 million tonnes of maize are grown worldwide annually today in order to feed people and animals. In addition ethanol extracted from corn is also used to fuel engines in millions of vehicles, thousands of planes, and other engines throughout the world.
mathematics-The ancient Olmec and the Mayans, who came after them, independently developed the concept of zero (independent of the ancient Hindus in India) in mathematics. The ancient Mexicans also developed complex arithmetic functions and operations such as additions, subtractions, divisions, and multiplications. The development of mathematics by the ancient Mexicans complemented and assisted them in making sense of the universe, cosmos, astronomy, and Pre-Columbian calendars that was so essential in maintaining a connection between them and the Gods and heavens.
Metallurgy in pre-Columbian America-Many Pre-Columbian Native American cultures, especially the Moche in the Andean regions were skilled metallurgists. Ancient Native Americans mastered smelting, soldering, annealing, electroplating, sintering, alloying, low-wax casting, and many other metallurgical techniques independent of any Old World influences. The Moche were skilled in hammering and shaping gold, silver, and copper into intricate ornamental objects, while the later Incas developed more utilitarian objects using these metals and alloys. Metallurgical techniques later diffused from the Andean region of South America to Colombia and then later to Meso-America, where local artists and metallurgists developed even more unique techniques using a wide range of material, including alloys of copper-silver, copper-arsenic, copper-tin and copper-arsenic-tin.
moccasins-Highly comfortable shoes used by ancient Native Americans to travel vast distances. These shoes were often made of leather and were highly comfortable to wear. In addition, the moccasins could withstand the rugged terrain over which Native Americans traversed in.
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Oral Contraceptive- There are recorded instances of Native Americans who took medicines which prevented pregnancies. Such instances date back to the 1700s, which are centuries earlier from the time modern oral contraceptives were developed by western scientists. The Shoshone tribe used the crushed powder of stone seed as a form of oral contraceptive, while the Potawatomi nation used herb dogbane, which when taken orally would prevent pregnancies.
painting - Mayan paintings from the ancient era found in the archaeological sites, such as Cacaxtla and Bonampak are some of the most refined paintings ever to come out of the Ancient Americas. Besides the Mayans, other Native civilizations were also known for their wall paintings including the Aztecs and the Navajos, who developed the art of sand painting.
palaces- Ancient American civilizations such as the Olmecs, Mayans, Aztecs, Zapotecs, Toltecs, Mixtecs, Moche, Inca, Chimu, Nazca and many more built elaborate palaces. The Mayan palace in Palenque is one of the best examples of Mayan palace architecture there is.
parkas-The Inuit people in the Arctic were the first peoples in the world to develop parkas. Parkas were great insulators, which protected the Inuit people against the harsh Arctic winter. The pocket of air that was located within sewed Caribou fur in a parka, protected a person against the brutal Arctic winter.
pepper- The Native Americans were the first to cultivate peppers of all kinds including chili peppers of all types and sweet red, green, yellow, and all other colorful hues of non-chilli peppers. Peppers were first cultivated by the Native Americans in Meso- America.
petroleum-Ancient Native Americans in present-day Pennsylvania lit petroleum, which seeped from underground to fire ceremonial fires. In addition, they also used petroleum to cover their bodies against insect bites and as a form or jelly to prevent their skins drying out.
pineapple-Indigenous people residing in what is now Brazil and the Parana valley of Paraguay where the first to cultivate the pineapple. From there, pineapple cultivation spread to Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean. Native Americans used the pineapple as a source of food.
potato chips- George Crum was believed to have invented the potato chip, however that myth seems to be misleading. Crum's purported invention of potato chips became most firmly set after a 1973 advertising campaign by the St. Regis Paper Company, which manufactured packaging for chips. A large ad featuring Crum and his "story" was published in the national magazines, Fortune and Time. It was in the latter 1970s that the variant of the story featuring Vanderbilt became popular because of the interest in his wealth and name, and evidence suggests the source was advertising agencies for the Potato Chip/Snack Food Association.
pottery-Many Native American cultures and peoples independently invented and then developed pottery into fine works of art as well for utilitarian usage. The Moche and Mayans were some of the best potters from the Ancient Americas, and their work still inspires awe amongst us for the level of artistry, creativity, and sophistication which such highly prized works of arts involved. The Navajos are also very skilled developers of pottery and their works in the present time are highly detailed and much prized. Many other Native American cultures also developed their own pottery styles during the ancient time periods and continued to refine their artwork into the modern era.
pyramids-High civilizations in Mexico such as the Toltecs, Olmecs, Zapotecs, Aztecs, Mayans, Mixtecs, developed their own myriad styles of pyramids which served as ceremonial, religious, and administrative functions. One of the largest pyramids in the Americas were constructed by the people in the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacan. In the Andean regions, the Moches, and some ancient Peruvians also constructed gigantic pyramids as well without any influence from Old World civilizations.
quinine-Quinine is a muscle relaxant, which has been used for many centuries by the Quechua people in the Andes area of South America. The medicine was used by many Andean Native Americans to prevent shivering due to cold in the low temperature areas in the high Andes mountains of Peru. The ancient Peruvians would mix the ground bark of cinchona trees with water to eliminate the bark's bitter taste, and then drink the resultant tonic water to sooth their nerves and senses.
quipu-Quipus were developed by the ancient Andean Amerindians. Quipus mimics an accounting, record-keeping, and communication system that uses knots and strings in order to record valuable information related to population, economic data, food grain supplies, calendars, events, etc.
rubber- The Native Americans were the first peoples in the world to extract the sap from rubber trees and then use the sap to make make clothes, balls to be played in ceremonial ball games, and many other utilitarian uses. Amerindians, especially those who lived in the Amazon rainforest found many other uses for rubber. The science and technique of extracting sap from rubber trees and then using the sap to make goods made of rubber then spread to the high civilizations of the Andes and elsewhere in the Americas.
reed boats-A Balsa was a boat that was constructed by pre-Columbian South Americans from woven reeds of Totora bullrush. These reed boats varied in size from that of a small canoe used for navigation, transportation, and for small-scale fishing to large ships of up to 30 metres in length, which were used for transporting royalty and nobility, war, transportation, and bulk goods hauling. They are still used today on Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia by the Native peoples living along the banks of the lake.
snow shoes-Invented and then used first in the Americas by the indigenous tribes, which resided in the cold areas of Northern Canada, Alaska, and Greenland in order to travel across a snow-laden landscape, especially during the long winter months, that gripped all of the region.
suspension bridge- The ancient Mayans constructed a suspension bridge over the Usumacinta river in Yaxchilan. This Bridge at Yaxchilan would have been one of the longest bridges in use in the ancient past. The bridge was constructed in the 7th century AD and was a very long suspension bridge with a relatively level pathway.
syringe-Native American medicine men used syringes made from materials fashioned from hollow bird bones and animal bladders to inject medicine into sick patients and treat the illness of the patients, centuries before syringes were even invented in the West.
tipi- A cone shaped, portable dwelling popularized by Native Americans of the Great Plains. Tipis were warm, durable and comfortable and could be easily broken down and packed. A settlement could be ready to move in about one hour.
tobacco-Tobacco was used in the Americas for many centuries prior to the arrival of white Europeans. Consumed in high doses, tobacco can become highly hallucinogenic and was accordingly used by many ancient Native peoples in the Americas to inspire dreams and dream time. Tobacco was also often consumed as a medicine amongst some tribes, although this was strictly practiced by experienced shamans and medicine men. Eastern tribes in mainland USA also traded tobacco as a trade item in exchange for food, clothing, beads, and salt and would often smoke tobacco during sacred and ritualized ceremonies using pipes. Tobacco was considered to be a gift from the Almighty and it was believed that the exhaled tobacco smoke generated from smoking a pipe would carry one's thoughts and prayers to the creator up above in the heavens.
toboggan- The Innu and the Cree nations of Canada developed a sled in the form of the toboggan. These sleds were used to transport people and cargo across the snow using dogs as draft animals. Huskies were used to pull the sled along the harsh Canadian winter snows.
tomato-Native Americans were the first peoples in the world to domesticate and then grow the tomato. Tomato was an essential ingredient that formed the basis of many Native American foods including tamales, tostado, soups, and salads. Indigenous Meso-Americans were the first peoples in the world to cultivate the tomato several thousand years ago.
tortillas- this staple food well known today was used throughout Mesoamerican and Southwestern cultures. Although they were mainly made of corn, squash and amaranth were also popular among the natives. The tortillas were wrapped around different fillings such as avocado. Today this has resulted in the creation of the modern taco, burrito, and enchilada.
Umbrellas - Independent of the ancient Chinese (who had also invented the umbrellas on their own), the ancient Mayans and the Incas had invented circular umbrellas, which were made from bird feathers.
vulcanization-The ancient Olmec people of Veracruz, Mexico treated the sap from rubber trees with chemicals and shaped the resulting rubber into a myriad of products such as balls, sandals, balloons, rubber syringes, etc centuries before Charles Goodyear invented the process during the 1800s.
wheel-Contrary to popular belief, the Native Americans (from ancient Meso-America) did in fact invent the wheel. However, unlike the ancient civilizations in Eurasia and Africa such as China, Persia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, India, and others where the presence of draft animals facilitated the use of wheel to haul cargo, food, and people in the form of wagons, the ancient Mexicans, who independently invented the wheel, had access to no draft animals at their disposal, which could be used to assist in hauling goods using wagons. The Andean civilizations did domesticate llama and alpaca to haul luggage and goods, but they did not have access to the wheel. In addition, llama and alpaca were not strong enough animals, such as horses, cows, and bullocks, that could be used to haul heavy cargo-laden wagons. The ancient Mexican peoples who invented the wheel independent of any Old World influences, actually used the wheels as bases of miniature children's toys and not for transporting any goods and people across vast distances.
The ancient Mayans made use of wheels for children’s toys and mounted toy animals such as jaguars, dogs, cats, monkeys, etc on wheels.
wigwam - A wigwam, wickiup or wetu is a domed room dwelling formerly used by certain Native American tribes, and still used for ceremonial purposes. The wigwam is not to be confused with the Native Plains tipi which has a very different construction, structure, and use.
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- Jacques Soustelle (11 November 2002). Daily life of the Aztecs: on the eve of the Spanish Conquest. Courier Dover Publications. p. 173. ISBN 978-0-486-42485-9. Retrieved 27 November 2012.
- Wikipedia: Aztec#Education
- H. Lechtman, "A Pre-Columbian Technique for Electrochemical Plating of Gold and Silver on Copper Objects," Journal of Metals 31 (1979): 154-60
- New perspectives on Moche Metallurgy: Techniques of Gilding Copper at Loma Negra, Northern Peru , Heather Lechtman, Antonieta Erlij, and Edward J. Barry online abstract via www.jstor.org
- George Crum
- Keoke/Porterfield. Encyclopedia Of American Indian Contributions To The World.New York, NY: Facts On File, 2002.