Human beings have inhabited the Americas for tens of thousands of years. And long before Europeans colonized the region, it was home to indigenous people who had developed their own practices and technologies there. In fact, the Native Americans were responsible for many innovations that have left an impact on modern life today. So here’s a look at just some of them.
20. Pain relief
If we were to feel a headache coming on, nowadays we’d likely just run to the drugstore for some aspirin. However, things weren’t always quite so convenient. People once had to get a lot more creative in their efforts to relieve pain. And the Native Americans were masters in this field.
Among the many concoctions that indigenous Americans used for medicinal purposes was a tea made from the bark of a black willow tree. It contains a chemical called salicin, and when this gets inside a person’s system it generates salicylic acid – a key component found in contemporary aspirin pills.
19. Oral birth control
Oral contraceptives can be an extremely effective means of preventing an unplanned pregnancy. In fact, if such drugs are utilized correctly, the odds of falling pregnant slip to just 0.1 percent. The pill was officially introduced to the United States at the start of the 1960s, but Native Americans had been taking something similar for a long time before that.
As far back as the 18th century, certain Native American tribes were ingesting a plant-based medicine for contraceptive purposes. The Shoshone used a herb known as stone seed, and the Potawatomi tended to use a plant called dogbane. And this went on some two centuries before western medical practitioners had developed their own oral contraception.
In the colder reaches of the North American continent, several indigenous groups have traditionally relied on fish for survival. But with limited resources, obtaining this seafood could prove to be a difficult task. With that in mind, it was necessary to think of something to help in this vital endeavor.
So, groups such as the Yup’ik, Aleut and Inuit pulled the skin of dead creatures over a bone structure. The first kayaks were made from the skin of mammals such as seals, because they didn’t absorb the cold water. These rudimentary vessels then allowed these groups to wade out into bodies of water in search for food.
In the midst of a particularly hot day, it’s widely recommended that you reach for a bottle of sunscreen. Having said that, there’s also research which suggests that you should apply the stuff to your skin every single day regardless. That’s because studies have found that it can slow down the appearance of wrinkles and saggy skin.
Sunscreen is an important concoction, and it turns out that it can be traced back to the Native Americans. In fact, tribes in the north east of the continent utilized sunflower oil to protect themselves from the sun. Some tribespeople from the south west, on the other hand, used the western wallflower mixed with some water, while others used sap produced by aloe plants.
16. Bunk beds
In tight living quarters, it can be vital to make use of whatever space is available. This becomes particularly necessary in places such as prisons, hospital dormitories and hostels. But how are you to use the space in such a way as to keep everyone comfortable?
Enter the bunk bed, which is essentially just a frame and mattress placed over another. Apparently, they were thought up by the indigenous people known as the Iroquois. Members of this group used to reside in long houses, and so they needed to free up some room. As a result, loading beds over one another was an ideal solution.
Though 19th century Scottish doctor Alexander Wood is credited for creating the first hypodermic syringe, earlier versions of the tool existed long before that. In fact, before European colonization, indigenous groups in South America had devised their very own.
The South American natives developed a syringe of sorts which consisted of the hollowed bones of a bird connected to a small bladder. They could inject remedies with this device, and a larger version of it could even apparently perform enemas.
14. Chewing gum
Chewing gum is a popular product nowadays, but it can be traced back in different forms to several ancient cultures. The Chinese, Indians and ancient Greeks are all said to have chewed on some version of gum. But the version we know and love today was initially developed by Native Americans.
Indigenous tribes used to munch on a substance produced from the sap of spruce trees. Later, Europeans who settled in New England started doing this themselves, and it wasn’t before long that gum became marketable. Indeed, the first commercial version of the product arrived in 1848 when John B. Curtis began selling The State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum.
Of course, it wouldn’t exactly be right to say that the indigenous people of the American continent invented corn. But we can certainly say that they were the first to domesticate it. And this is thought to have happened thousands of years ago in the southern part of modern-day Mexico.
According to research published by Matsuoka et al in 2002, all corn developed from one unique harvest around 9,000 years ago. And from here, it dispersed across the continent. The start of the corn harvest is still an important time for many indigenous people in North America today – with festivities taking place annually to mark the occasion.
Given its extremely functional and versatile properties, rubber is used widely throughout modern society. The material is strong, flexible and waterproof, and it can be seen in things as varied as cements, shoes, tires, rain jackets, adhesives and hoses. At first, however, it was utilized for much more simple purposes.
Before the Spanish colonized the Mesoamerica region, the native Olmec people created rubber balls for the purposes of a game. They did this by extracting latex from the hevea plant – otherwise known as the rubber tree. After that, the Aztecs made tubs and waterproofed other objects by coating them with rubber sap.
11. Suspension bridges
Modern suspension bridges first came into being at the beginning of the 19th century, and they represented an impressive feat of engineering. However, simpler versions had existed long before that across different civilizations around the globe. In Asia, they were used in the mountains of the Himalayas, and the Incas made use of them in South America.
However, it’s the Mayans who created the earliest suspension bridge ever to be discovered. The Maya Bridge at Yaxchilan was built to pass over the Usumacinta River in the Mexican state of Chiapas, and it is believed to have been constructed as far back as the seventh century.
10. Maple syrup
Of course, maple syrup is an all-time breakfast favorite. A perfect accompaniment for French toast, oatmeal or pancakes, there’s really no better start to the day than by squeezing a dollop onto your meal. The sugary substance has of course become synonymous with the modern Canadian state. But in reality, the syrup predates the establishment of that nation.
Native American groups living in the northeast of the continent are known to have made maple sugar and syrup long before European colonization. Several unconfirmed tales attest to this, but there’s also archaeological proof that sap from maple trees was treated to become syrup. And eventually, settlers from Europe co-opted the techniques of the indigenous groups.
It’s a beautiful, sunny day and you want to make the most of it. So what better way to do that than to tie up the hammock and recline lazily in the heat? However, while they’re somewhat emblematic of the notion of relaxation today, hammocks actually have a history which long predates modern times.
Colonizers from Spain documented the fact that Native American tribespeople predominately in the West Indies lay in hammocks. In fact, Christopher Columbus himself noted this fact in the record of his initial excursion to the region. And in it, he wrote of the indigenous people’s “hamacas, or nets, in which they sleep.”
8. Pest control
Attempts to manage the impact of pests have ultimately been around for as long as agriculture itself. But indigenous Americans specifically came up with their own innovations. For instance, to fight against small bugs such as lice, the Shoshone and Paiute people would wash their scalps with a mixture containing sweetroot.
Elsewhere, the Pima population, who mostly came from modern-day Arizona, would scatter ashes over their plants in order to hinder the damage caused by squash bugs. The Puebloans of the southwestern United States, meanwhile, used to grind up buffalo gourd and spread it throughout their gardens to ward off unwanted bugs. And the Incas would sow and later burn lemon verbena to protect their cotton farms.
In pre-Columbian times, people on the American continent would clean their mouths out with various concoctions. In fact, it’s been said that the Aztecs once had far more effective dental health practises than any Europeans at the time. But across the whole continent, various groups and tribes utilized different methods of taking care of their mouths and teeth.
Indigenous groups in the northeast of the continent would make a mouthwash out of a perennial plant called the threeleaf goldthread. It could also ease oral discomfort; indeed, tribes such as the Mohegan, Menominee, Chippewa and Potawatomi would coat infants’ gums in this liquid to alleviate teething aches. Furthermore, other groups such as the Aztecs washed their mouths and treated throat ache with simple sea salt.
6. Snow goggles
When sunlight bounces off snow and hits people in the eye, it can cause a condition called photokeratitis. This is also known as snow blindness, and it’s apparently comparable to getting sunburned in your eyes. Naturally, people who live in snowy conditions would want to protect against this from ever happening. So, the Yupik and Inuit people designed something to do just that.
The Inuit and Yupik have long worn snow goggles created with various materials such as antlers, walrus ivory, bone, grass and wood. These wrap around a person’s face and only let light in through a thin opening cut into the front. This prevents the eyes from being exposed to too much light, and such goggles were the precursors of contemporary sunglasses.
Before the European colonizers arrived, tobacco had already been widely smoked by the native inhabitants of the Caribbean islands. And according to some reports, Christopher Columbus is said to have picked up the practice there and brought it back home. Apparently, members of his crew came across it during their 1492 excursion.
As explorers arrived on Hispaniola – the island which is today split into the Dominican Republic and Haiti – the indigenous people presented them with dehydrated leaves. Elsewhere, the European sailors found the natives of Cuba smoking a primitive cigar made of twisted tobacco leaves wrapped in plantain or palm.
4. Raised-bed agriculture
Raised-bed agriculture is a practice which can prove advantageous to growers. Basically, it involves setting up a freestanding crop bed over a pre-existing layer of earth. If done properly, this can ensure that crops aren’t hindered by weeds, and it can lengthen the period of time in which one may successfully plant.
Raised-bed farming is a useful technique in contemporary times, but it can be traced back to some indigenous Americans. In the central and southern parts of the continent, people used to create raised patches of land known as chinampas. These were assembled over bodies of water or wetlands – ultimately preceding modern raised-bed practices.
Hockey – whether it be of the field or ice variety – is a popular sport played in many parts of the world today. But did you know that they can both trace their lineage back to a Native American sport called shinny?
Shinny was played in a manner very similar to hockey; a pair of opposing teams lined up on a field or on ice to hit a ball around with curved sticks. And like the modern sport, a point would be awarded to the team which passed the ball through the opponent’s goal. Furthermore, shinny was apparently undertaken by more girls than boys within certain groups.
As we all know, a calendar is essentially a system for managing time. As such, they’re vital components of society, and they have been for a very long time. Numerous civilizations came up with their own methods for keeping track of the passing of time. And the indigenous people of the Americas were no different.
The Mayans, in particular, had a sophisticated calendar structure. It consisted of two years; one with 260 days and the other with 365. This latter one is known as the Vague Year, and it bore similarities to the modern system we employ today. Instead of involving 12 months, though, the Vague Year was made up of 18 months which all contained 20 days. This left five days left over by the year’s end – a time which was said to be unlucky.
1. Baby bottles
Naturally, parents know all about baby bottles, and these objects are an absolutely vital tool when nurturing an infant. But it wasn’t always quite so simple. Different versions of them have existed for a long time now – though they’d be considered primitive by today’s standards.
In the pre-Columbian Americas, the Iroquis people would dry out the guts of a bear and apply a bird’s quill teat to it. Sure, it sounds crude – and frankly a little disgusting – but this device could effectively be used as a baby’s bottle.