How Many Native American Tribes Existed In 1492?

By Antonia Čirjak on May 30 2020 in History

Image  credit: svic / Shutterstock.com
Image credit: svic / Shutterstock.com
  • Today, there are more than 570 different tribes of Native Americans that still live in the US.
  • Most of the Native American tribes had a similar philosophy between themselves when it comes to land: they believed it belonged to nobody, and that no person or tribe actually owns it, but just has the opportunity to use it.
  • It is estimated that more than 300 different languages and dialects existed within the Native American tribes prior to 1492.

1492 is a very important year in the history of the world. From a perspective of a ‘’Westerner,’’ it was the year the world got bigger, as new continents and regions were discovered during the Age of Exploration. However, when it comes to North American territory we know and talk about today, many tribes and different populations were occupying it, long before someone came along with ships and discovered them. 

The life of Native Americans was when we look at their societal structure, quite similar over the whole continent. There were large groups of people that formed a cohesive culture, language, and traditions. The easiest way would be to call them nations, but that classification is not something that we can just easily apply to any new culture we approach. The tribes of Native Americans were organized; most of them had several leaders occupying different social roles. 

Extremely Varying Estimates

The question at hand here is: how many Native Americans lived on this territory before it was found by Columbus and his crew?

The estimates vary to a large extent. Some say how there were less than a million Native Americans around the year 1492, and some suggest that the number could be much higher, closing around 18,000,000 people. However, what we know with a lot more certainty is the fact that there were distinct groups of Native Americans spread all over the continent, and they did not live just in the east when the year of the first contact came. 

Some say how there were less than a million Native Americans around the year 1492, and some suggest that the number could be much higher, closing around 18,000,000 people.
Some say how there were less than a million Native Americans around the year 1492, and some suggest that the number could be much higher, closing around 18,000,000 people.

The Dispersion Of Tribes Across The Continent

On the Northwest coast, the Native Americans led a completely different lifestyle than the people on the Westside. Most of the villages were close to the Atlantic ocean, which meant that they almost did not have to farm for food extensively. The ocean was full of fish, and there was more than enough wood to help them build homes. 

When it comes to California, it is estimated that more than 100 culturally and socially different groups occupied this area. Probably the most familiar tribe from California is the Pomo tribe, a tribe that both hunted for small animals and turned their fields into acorn producing areas. 

The area of the Great Basin (Utah, Nevada, and most parts of Western Colorado) was home to at least three different tribes: Ute, Paiute, and Shoshone. They led a different life when compared to most of the other tribes in North America because the land they occupied was nowhere near potent as it was on the Eastside. They were often called ‘’diggers’’ because they had to dig into the ground that was hot and dry to create food supplies. 

In the Southwest regions of North America, some groups were farming, while some stuck to hunting and gathering of resources and food. The most recognizable tribes here were the Pueblos, who were known for their huge crop production, and the development of water canals for their fields. Also, the Apache and Navajo Indians came to the southwest around the year 1500. 

Finally, the most densely populated area of North America at the time was the Southeast. This was home to many of the tribes: the Cherokees, the Creek Choctaws, and the Natchez, just to name a few. 

More in History

worldatlas.com

WorldAtlas