America was the last continent to be inhabited by men. When the Ice Age began, some 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, native hunters from the regions of Siberia and Asia began to follow herds of animals, including mammoths and reindeers, that were migrating due to climate change. They travelled through the Bering Strait in Alaska, a frozen corridor of terrestrial bridges that arose when sea levels lowered as a result of the formation of glaciers, and arrived in the northern region of the American continent. Over the centuries they moved south, reaching the area of Patagonia, at the southern extreme of the continent, more than 6,000 years ago.
During this long migratory process the hunters had to adapt to the different environments and diverse cultures began to emerge. Some groups remained as hunters and gatherers, while others worked on agriculture, converting wild plants into important edible plants such as yucca and corn. They also discovered the plasticity of clay and developed ceramic art. In different regions civilizations were created, including the Incans in South America, the Mayans and Aztecs in Mesoamerica and the Pueblo in southwestern Northern America.
Over 500 years ago America was discovered by the occidental world and was later conquered and colonized by the Spaniards, Portuguese, French and Dutch. This contributed to the extinction of many indigenous ethnic groups, wiped out by wars and occidental diseases.
Since Western men arrived, native Americans tried to protect their environment, culture and languages but many were forced to abandon the areas in which they were born to seek work and food due to the destruction of their land.
A number of small groups survived the European conquest and colonization and continue to exist today in the Caribbean, Central America, South America and North America. Many of these groups are at risk of extinction due to the invasion of their land by occidentals in search of gold, diamonds, wood, petroleum and other natural resources that attract industries. These tribes however, have maintained many of their cultural beliefs and traditions.
The Bribri settled in the Talamanca Valley in Costa Rica and in the border between Panama and Costa Rica. Their population is around 3,000, comprised of 400 families, and they form 1.7% of the total population of Costa Rica. They use rotative slash and burn agricultural techniques and hunt frequently. Their relationship with nature is one of the essential contents of their culture and they preserve their language in both written and oral form.
The Kayapo, also known as the Xikrin or Txhukahamal, are located in one of the nine villages in Xingu Park in the southern region of the state of Para in Brazil. They have a population of around 5,000 and are an extremely ecologically advanced group. They continuously work to obtain a perfect balance and harmony with the ecosystem and cultivate a number of plants using biological insecticides. The tribes people are characterised by the large disk they place in their lower lip.
The Mayoruna, also known as the Matis and Maiuruna, occupy the swamps and forests south of the Amazon River in Peru. They also live in the Amazonian state in Brazil and have an estimated population of 3,000. The men pierce their earlobes, nose and lips with pieces of wood, palm trees and bird feathers. They also tattoo their faces, decorate the septum of their noses with shells and make jewellery out of monkey teeth.
The Xavante are located to the east of the Mato Grosse state in the Brazilian Amazon. They have a population of around 10,000 and are a very proud and strong indigenous group. They have had a reputation for being extremely aggressive and war-like. They have a dualistic character, meaning that their group is divided into two clans and marriage is only allowed between members of opposite clans.
Museo de las Americas in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico has a wonderful exhibit on American tribes.
Museo de Las Americas opening hours:
- Monday to Friday – 9:00 to 12:00 and 13:00 to 16:00
- Saturday – 10:00 to 17:00
- Sunday – 12:00 to 17:00
- Adults $6.00
- Children, students and adults aged over 65 $4.00
- Information signs at Museo de las Americas in San Juan, Puerto Rico