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Guide to North American Archaeology

Definition and Characteristics of Archaeology in North America


Guide to North American Archaeology

North America


By North American archaeology, investigators usually mean the native cultures of United States and Canada. Mexico, even if geographically included in North America, is part of the culture area of Mesoamerica. The region at the border between the United States and Mexico, since this is a modern limit that did not exist in the past, is considered a transitional area between the Southwest and the very northern limit of the desert tradition of Northwestern Mexico.

The broad cultural regions used by archaeologists to organize the prehistory of North America are based on geographical/environmental zones as well as on cultural similarities and differences identified by early anthropologists in the late 19th century. These regions are usually further subdivided in internal sub-areas that broadly correspond to the distribution of one or more cultural traits, such as artifact typologies, settlement organization, or assemblage of tools. In some cases, these areas can also correspond to the distribution of one or more specific Native American linguistic groups at the time of the European arrival.

North America Cultural and Geographic Regions

North America is geographically bounded by the high mountain chain of the Rocky Mountains that runs from North to South on its western side and a lower mountain system, the Appalachians, that runs along its eastern side. Between these two chains is the Central Lowland whose far north is occupied by the Canadian Shield and the far north Arctic territories and whose southeastern end, toward the Atlantic ocean, is occupied by the Coastal Plain.

In terms of the environment, investigators recognize six broad zones in North America: the Arctic, the Subarctic, the Pacific Coast, the Eastern Forest, the Coastal Plain, the Central Plains with grasslands, and the desert. These areas broadly coincide with ethnographic regions and culture areas defined by early anthropologists in the 19th century and are still used today by archaeologists.

The Traditional Culture Areas of North America are:

These convenient divisions, however, are not rigid boundaries and should neither hide internal variability through time and space nor inter-regional contacts. Furthermore, these culture areas are particularly useful only for a small portion of the history of human colonization of the Americas. They, in fact, correspond to a climate, vegetation and sea level pattern that took place around 5000 years ago (ca 3050 BC). Before, even if with internal temporal shift and small local differences, North American groups shared the so-called Paleo-Indian and Archaic cultural traditions.

North American Archaeology: Cultures and People

Some of the groups that inhabit(ed) ancient (and modern) North America and whose cultural traditions are well known archaeologically include: Aleutian Tradition, Inuit, Norton, Dorset and Thule traditions, Nootka, Haida, Kwakwaka'wakw (formerly Kwakiutl), Makah, Chumash, Gabrieliño, Mono, Paiute, Shoshone, Anasazi, Mogollon, Hohokam, Hopewell, Mississippians, Dakota, Cherokee, Iroquois, Algonquians, Fremont Culture.

North American Sites

Some important North American sites include: Meadowcroft Rock Shelter, Blackwater Draw, Dry Creek, Bluefish Caves, Kimmswick, Koster, Olsen-Chubbuck, Lindenmeier, Folsom, Borax Lake site, Cahokia, Moundville, Windmiller Mounds, Gunther Island, Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, Pecos, Bandelier National Monument, Zuni Pueblo, Bat Cave, Ventana Cave, Hopewell, Aztalan, Serpent Mound, Poverty Point, Warren Wilson, Etowah, Spiro Mounds, Snaketown, Ozette, Prince Rupert Harbor, Willamette Valley, Nunguvik, Saatut, Parowan Valley, Shoop site, Thunderbird site, Toltec Mounds site, Toqua, Lost Terrace, Hidden Cave, Hagen site.


Gibbon Guy (Ed.), 1998, Archaeology of Prehistoric Native America. An Encyclopedia, Garland Publishing Inc.

Pauketat Timothy R. and Diana DiPaolo Loren (eds.), 2005, North American Archaeology, Blackwell Publishing

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