How did Native Americans get their food?
The first Americans, who wandered here from Asia, were big game hunters. They came here during the Ice Age, as long as 60,000 years ago. During the Ice Age, many mammals were giant sized, because large animals do not lose their body heat. Using only stone-tipped spears and fire to kill and drive animals off of cliffs, these first Americans killed and ate so many of the large mammals, that they became extinct.
Many Native American tribes continued to live a "hunter-gatherer" lifestyle. Men went out daily in search of food, now hunting smaller animals. Women and children gathered plants and seeds to eat. [shown right is a woman from the Pomo tribe with a baby basket] Tribes split into small groups of less than 100 people and they had to keep moving into new areas, looking for food. The environment these smaller tribes now entered determined what would happen next.
Those tribes that lived in areas like the Pacific Northwest or the Eastern Woodlands, had plenty of animals to hunt or to fish. They settled down in one area and the women began to farm. In the Pacific Northwest fishing was the easiest way to get food. [shown left - the wealthy Kwakiutl tribe] Tribes like the Anazazi and later the Hohokam [shown right], lived in the desert Southwest. You would think that they would move on, because there is little plant or animal life in the desert, but these tribes grew "wealthy" because of farming. They dug irrigation ditches to bring water to their crops from rivers. And they began to grow the most important crop in America, maize [corn].
Maize began to be traded and eventually spread into the Eastern Woodlands. Most tribes turned to farming what they called the "Three Sisters," corn, beans and squash [like pumpkins]. Tribes grew larger because there was more food and [because of that] less war. The Mississippian culture was able to build a huge empire, forcing people to grow crops like corn. Since game was plentiful, there was always meat to eat too.
The arrival of the horse on the Great Plains turned farmers into hunters. The Spanish brought the horse to America and eventually there were herds of wild horses roaming the plains. The tribes of the plains, like the Lakota, captured these horses and began to use them to hunt the American bison [the buffalo]. There were millions of buffalo and because they provided so much food, tribes left their homes to follow the buffalo herds as they migrated thousands of miles across the plains. It seems like every tribe, no matter where they lived, found a way to get food from their environment.