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In some alternate history, Europeans never discovered the Americas for one reason or another. Maybe the initial motivations just weren't there, or maybe the visionaries of the day fell ill and died before they could change the western world forever. Obviously this would drastically change European history quite significantly in several ways. However, this had me thinking.

What of the Native Americans? If the Europeans never discovered their land as early as they did, would the indigenous people of the Americas have eventually formed their own states? Would the empires of South America eventually reach north to conquer the North American mainland? How about their technology? In the absence of the scientifically-minded Europeans to share their technologies, would the people of the Americas inevitably invent them on their own?

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    $\begingroup$ How would you define a "nation-state", in this scenario? $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Feb 12 '18 at 1:49
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    $\begingroup$ There were several of those already in the Americas before Europeans showed up. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Feb 12 '18 at 1:59
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    $\begingroup$ "Never" is a very long time. Maybe the European discovery of the Americas could be postponed by 50 or 100 years; the only effect would be to make the conquest easier. (In the real history the Aztec empire put up a credible fight; Cortez won only with the help of local allies, such as Tlaxcala.) Europe was developing fast in the Renaissance and the indigenous peoples of the Americas were technologically about 3000 years behind. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Feb 12 '18 at 2:49
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    $\begingroup$ Please note that the Europeans didn't really form them either until more than 300 years after the discovery of the new world $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Feb 12 '18 at 11:02
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    $\begingroup$ I love questions where the answers all help you learn about the real world! $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Feb 12 '18 at 19:12

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The native Americans DID form their own nation states in south america. The Maya, the Inca, the Aztec, the Pueblo.

The idea that the North American natives were all a bunch of stone age subsistence hunter-gatherers exists because something like 90% of them died out from the diseases that swept the continents after the Europeans made their first brief contacts with them on the edges of their civilizations. The stone age tee-pee dwellers we ended up conquering were actually the post-apocalyptic remnant of an originally much larger more complex culture. There is archaeological evidence that they actually were experimenting with copper smelting, and possibly a few in the pacific north west may have even begun tinkering with iron. The reason why these metal artifacts were not listed as crafted by the natives is due to 2 reasons:

  1. By the time Europeans were having extended contact with them the methods to produce such items had been lost (again, we were dealing with the last few stragglers left over from an apocalyptic series of plagues). Europeans never witnessed natives crafting metal and thus assumed that meant they had never known how in the first place.

  2. Because until recent archaeological digs there was no first hand evidence of metal crafting, historians dismissed any Native American made metal artifacts as something the Europeans must have given to them for trade.

Here's an image of some native american daggers that until recently had been dismissed as European made trade goods:

Native American Daggers

So in summary, they were pretty well on their way to doing exactly what you describe before our diseases put the boots to 90% of their population in what may be the worst and yet also hardly recorded plague in human history.

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    $\begingroup$ That is actually incredibly fascinating. Thanks for the answer. $\endgroup$ – DMQ Feb 12 '18 at 2:03
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    $\begingroup$ Mississippian mound builders are high on my list of under appreciated cultures. They’re considered distinct from the Pueblo right? $\endgroup$ – Random Feb 12 '18 at 2:29
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    $\begingroup$ something else to keep in mind, until the Spanish seeded the Louisiana purchase with stocks of wild horses in early preparation for the colonization effort Native American cultures had no domesticated animals aside from dogs. Horses had been extinct for about 10,000 years prior to their reintroduction by the Spanish. It is theorized that this is why they developed so slowly technologically. $\endgroup$ – TCAT117 Feb 12 '18 at 2:32
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    $\begingroup$ Not just in the southwest: in the northeast, you had the Iroquois Confederacy. The Cherokee might have had something similar in the southeast. In the northeast, pack animals are perhaps less important than you might think, as it's possible (and was more so pre-industrialization) to travel and do long-distance trading by canoe. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Feb 12 '18 at 5:45
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    $\begingroup$ @chux en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Native_American_disease_and_epidemics has lots of citations and sources. $\endgroup$ – Yakk Feb 12 '18 at 20:19
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Have you been following the news recently? About a week and a half ago, stories such as Lasers Reveal a Maya Civilization So Dense It Blew Experts’ Minds seemed like they were everywhere. Detailed lidar surveys of northern Guatemala revealed the remains of a massive Mayan settlement consisting of "about 60,000 homes, palaces, tombs and even highways". Based on this new information, they're speculating that the Mayan civilization may have had a population of 10 million people, comparing quite favorably to European nations of the time - and, indeed, to many modern nations.

So, yes, it's entirely plausible that the pre-Columbian American people could have developed nation-states, because they actually did just that in the real world.

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    $\begingroup$ Actually, the discover showed the existence of multiple cities and strongly hinted at trade. That does not imply a single nation, let alone a post-feudal nation state. $\endgroup$ – MSalters Feb 12 '18 at 16:20
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    $\begingroup$ That's should be Lidar not lasers. Lidar is like radar but with lasers. $\endgroup$ – user32463 Feb 12 '18 at 22:47
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    $\begingroup$ OP already knows that there were large nations in South America, it's right there in the question: "Would the empires of South America eventually reach north to conquer the North American mainland?" $\endgroup$ – pipe Feb 13 '18 at 8:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Steve - Yes, lidar is "like radar but with lasers". A lidar survey uses lasers, thus both the headline ("Lasers Reveal...") and my description of it as a "laser survey" are still accurate, even if slightly less precise than if they'd said "lidar" instead of "laser". $\endgroup$ – Dave Sherohman Feb 14 '18 at 11:04
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The existing answers address the fact that Native American states did exist, with distinct, valuable, vibrant cultures.

Excellent.

The second portion of the OP's question is about technology, large empires, etc.

I highly recommend Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" for anyone interested in this topic. It's basically an extended discussion of why Europe conquered the rest of the world, instead of, say, North America conquering Europe.

In terms of the New World, several factors limited the native's ability to develop advanced technology, but the largest was:

Lack of Draft Animals

The llama was the largest native domestic animal, after the extinction of horses, oxen, and others around 10,000 years ago - probably due to over hunting and climate change around the time that the Americas were first settled over the land bridge.

This limited civilization in the Americas because they could not harness large, domesticated animals to power their agricultural society. Food supplies were less secure, which limited the size of cities. Since cities are centers of learning and drive innovation this slowed technological advancement in the New World.

Lots of other factors, including ease of access to mineral wealth (one could literally pick loose coal off the ground in parts of the UK...) played an important role, but the lack of draft animals was absolutely key.

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  • $\begingroup$ The key word is productivity. The horse, ox and water buffalo between them were the difference that allowed the Eurasian Old World (Europe, Middle East, India, China) to develop the food surpluses necessary to have extensive merchant, warrior, priestly, and crafting classes. However, that is not to say that productivity might not have been increased some other way, given enough. Just because draft animals are the easiest animals, don't mean they were the only one available to ancient civilizations. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Feb 12 '18 at 23:14
  • $\begingroup$ @kingledion, that's true. But draft animals gave cultures with them a large push on rapidly improving productivity. Also the people with draft animals could eat them and use them to produce fertilizer, which allowed them more access to food even in places that were not very productive, while increasing the productivity of existing fields. This allowed the population to increase faster, which helped boost productivity even more. Cultures without draft animals had to rely on tech and farming innovations, as well as slowly increasing the population. $\endgroup$ – Dan Clarke Feb 13 '18 at 3:57
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    $\begingroup$ "Guns, Germs, and Steel" bring up good points but also faces a lot a well argued criticism. Make sure to read some of the opposing viewpoints before/after. $\endgroup$ – mbrig Feb 13 '18 at 5:13
  • $\begingroup$ I question the lack of draft animals. There are pictures of moose being used for ploughing. Admittedly, because they are not very sociable, it would take several dozen generations of selection to get a tractable one. $\endgroup$ – Sherwood Botsford Feb 13 '18 at 23:19
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    $\begingroup$ @SherwoodBotsford "Guns, Germs, and Steel" actually addresses this. The author asserts - and a don't remember what evidence he provides, but it seems plausible - that it is not possible to domesticate a species whose social structure lacks an pack leader. Cows, horses, dogs, elephants etc. all have a bull, alpha, matriarch or similar, which human masters supplant. Moose lack this kind of social structure, and therefore cannot be domesticated. The fact that modern populations have not domesticated moose provides at least some support to the theory that it is not possible. $\endgroup$ – codeMonkey Feb 14 '18 at 13:09
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The Indians did form nations: The Iroquois, Apache, Comanche, Arapaho, Navajo, etc.

Whether they would have eventually invented more advanced technology is a question that is, I think, impossible to answer because it is speculating about a hypothetical.

Some Indian nations -- the Aztecs, Inca, and Maya -- had advanced to levels comparable to ancient Egypt and Babylon. But most of the rest were still limited to stone age technology or just the beginnings of metal working. One could debate endlessly why this was so. (And just discussing it is liable to get you accused of racism.) Are Indians genetically indisposed to technology? Was it because of some environmental factors? Did they labor under bad governments or some other social liability? Lack of communication with other cultures to share knowledge? Religions that did not encourage a scientific world view? Just bad luck that they didn't get some crucial geniuses while Europe did? Etc. I'm sure there are a million theories.

Depending on what theory you find convincing, you could then discuss what it would take to overcome the problem. Given that historians debate the question, for a fiction story you could pick a theory that makes your story work.

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    $\begingroup$ To editor: "Indian" is not offensive to many Native Americans. For instance, I grew up around the Quinault Indian Nation, and they'll fight you if you try to say they aren't Indians. $\endgroup$ – Azuaron Feb 12 '18 at 15:23
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby Navajo Nation: American Indian. Iroquois: Indian Nation. Comanche: Indians. Arapaho: Indian reservation. All terms taken from the official websites of those tribes. You can also read about the National Congress of American Indians' "State of Indian Nations" address on Indian Country Today, the largest Indian media network. The "offensiveness" of the term "Indian" for Native Americans is largely pushed by white people, not American Indians. $\endgroup$ – Azuaron Feb 12 '18 at 18:31
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    $\begingroup$ The term "Indian" is not generally considered offensive by Indians. Some white people consider it to be an offensive term to use to describe Indians. White people demonstrate their respect for Indians by presuming to know better than they what they should and should not find offensive. $\endgroup$ – Jay Feb 12 '18 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ Offensiveness aside, the main reason I (as a white guy) use the term Native American is that Indian is not specific enough. When I say Indian, I really mean someone from India. I know far more Indians (>10) than I do Native Americans (0) though. $\endgroup$ – Jared Becksfort Feb 12 '18 at 19:55
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    $\begingroup$ And the truth is that you can find Native American (or American Indian) scholars, activists, academics, etc. taking various positions on the “right” terminology. For example, Christina Berry, who’s a member of the Cherokee nation, says that “In the end, the term you choose to use (as an Indian or non-Indian) is your own personal choice. … Very few Indians that I know care either way,” while also suggesting that more specific terms are preferable, whereas Russell Means states unequivocally that he believes “American Indian” to be the correct term (and that the “American” part is important). $\endgroup$ – Obie 2.0 Feb 13 '18 at 2:28
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I highly recommend you read Charles C. Mann's 1491 for insight into the pre-Columbian Americas. This may give you a better idea of how the native civilizations of North, Central, and South America could have progressed.

As mentioned before in another answer, the majority was wiped out by disease by the time most Europeans arrived. Even in an alternate history, eventually they will have to meet with the Europeans. So forgive me for not remembering this bit of information correctly (or the terminology), but a reason why they died out so fast was that they didn't have the same amount (or lacked a certain kind) of antibodies or antigens that people in Europe, Asia, and Africa already had as they have been in contact for some time. This makes sense just by looking at a map and seeing how isolated the Americas are from the rest of the world.

In an alternate history, maybe the Americans (as in the natives of the Americas) would be advanced enough medically to contain such an epidemic before it wiped them out if they were to eventually come in contact with the Europeans?


On an entirely different topic in regards to your last question, you asked if they would inevitably invent technologies on their own in the absence of the scientifically-minded Europeans. Well, they did have a their own scientific understanding of the world, just different from the Europeans. Just look at Mayan structures, they would have to have some kind of mathematical understanding, and they even claim to have discovered the concept of zero (on their own). An even earlier civilization than the Mayans were the Olmecs, who cross bred wild cord and a grass, to produce Maize... a genetically modified crop that wouldn't have been made without human intervention (also mentioned in the book above). That food fed a growing population.

It would be interesting to think of what other advances they could have made on their own without European intervention. But with the rising popularity of alternative forms of food production cropping up these days, such as Permaculture, (look into Bill Mollison's Permaculture: A Designer's Manual), you'll find there is a sophistication of more "tribal" methods of agriculture than the popular form of mono agriculture in the western world. Natives in north America practiced controlled burning of forests, for example.

Maybe agricultural methods are a bit of a side step from the science question, but it was just to illustrate that there was a dynamic and sophisticated culture who had a deep understanding of the land they lived on, and one that today we are still learning about.

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    $\begingroup$ We didn't have the ability to deal with diseases effectively until the last century or so, and we're iffy on dealing with pandemics even now. It seems unlikely there'd be such advances to germ theory, immunization, virology, and associated other sciences and technologies and still be oblivious to and out of contact with Eurasia. Especially as there were people in the Americas who never lost contact with Eurasia in the first place. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Feb 12 '18 at 15:53
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps if Leif Eriksson had been more successful in his endeavor the pandemic which swept the Americas had been earlier allowing a longer period of recuperation for the native nations and a better immunization for the people who got in contact with the next wave of Europeans? Also perhaps metalworking would have gotten a wider spread faster with trade with the Vikings? $\endgroup$ – Doomfrost Feb 12 '18 at 16:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Doomfrost: That's an interesting thought, but the problem is that there were many pandemics: smallpox, influenza, diphtheria, measles, typhus . . . and a lot of these actually caused multiple pandemics. For example, huge numbers of American Indians were killed by smallpox pandemics in the 1780s, nearly three hundred years after the Americas' first smallpox pandemics. $\endgroup$ – ruakh Feb 15 '18 at 6:37
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Any society would have been in serious trouble when ninety to ninety-five percent of the population died to pandemics right before the foreigners who carried those diseases invaded.

There has been a serious academic argument that there were limits to how advanced a society could have existed in the New World, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. It argued that, because going north or south takes you into a different climate zone, and going east or west keeps you in the same one, then taking into account natural barriers like rivers and mountain ranges, the Old World had much larger climate zones. Then, most of the megahauna of the Americas went extinct after the first humans arrived and started hunting and burning. He argues that this made it inevitable that the Native Americans would have fewer domesticated animals, especially no horses, and therefore fewer deadly diseases to infect Europeans with than vice versa, since those often evolve in animal species and then hop over. He also makes arguments about how the Natives who remained hunter-gatherers either couldn’t have become farmers, or actually had before the population collapse and couldn’t sustain it afterwards. (For example, the grain highest in protein they might have farmed gives people hay fever.) He also discusses the distribution of natural resources such as tin and copper to make bronze.

If you take this as far as it will go, Europeans were the only people in the history of the world who ever missed an opportunity, and everybody else did the best they could given their geographic bad luck. (A statement I doubt Diamond would literally agree with.) Stephen Jay Gould mocked, for example, the part of the book that suggested that China’s geography caused it to be unified, which prevented it from having the kind of international competition that might have discovered the New World. Paraphrasing: “In the universe where the Chinese colonized North America, wouldn’t we saying, ‘Of course it was inevitable: Europe’s geography left it fragmented into tiny nations like Spain and Portugal that wasted all their energy fighting each other. They never could have had the resources to conquer the New World?’”

If you want the Americas to do better post-contact, you do want to explain why the pandemics never happened. If they had some kind of limited contact with people like the Vikings who exposed them to measles, smallpox, influenza and the like but didn’t conquer them, and they had already rebuilt from the first wave of those diseases, that might help explain it. Perhaps New World plants like potatoes and maize were introduced to more parts of the Americas through trade. If the point of divergence is earlier, perhaps more domesticable paleolithic megafauna survived.

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    $\begingroup$ Potatoes are indigenous to the Andes (in South America). A huge proportion of the world's domesticated crops were domesticated in the New World and then exported to the Old, not the other way around. In addition to potatoes, this includes such staples as tomatoes, corn/maize, peanuts, blueberries, cranberries, pumpkin/squash, and cocoa/chocolate. $\endgroup$ – 1006a Feb 13 '18 at 23:01
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, exactly. If the Americas had not been trading with the Old World, they could still have traded more with each other. North America could then have grown corn and potatoes, and did grow many of those other plants. $\endgroup$ – Davislor Feb 13 '18 at 23:15
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, I see. Probably would need a greater seafaring tradition, then, to transport goods in large quantity past the Darién Gap. $\endgroup$ – 1006a Feb 13 '18 at 23:22
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People here have mentioned several large South American indigenous states, and several of the larger

I would like to point out the civilization of Cahokia, situated near the present-day city of Saint Louis:

enter image description here

It reached its peak in the 13th century, and goods traded all across North America passed through this city.

At its base, the main pyramid is larger than the pyramid of the sun at Teotihuacan, Mexico. It was an impressive city.

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Postulate one additional change besides the lack of Europeans:

The immigrants over the Bering Straight did not exterminate the megafauna. Both camels and horses were native in North America. This would have given them two draft animals.

(It's not clear to me that domesticating buffalo is out of the question too.)

The necessary change would be simple: The domesticated them before eating them all.

This radically changes cultures. The plains tribes had a huge cultural expansion once they got horses from the Spanish. At last, a way to hunt buffalo. You have the potential of the interior plains with the equivalent of Mongols and Cossacks.

You still have the issues of lethal European diseases. Smallpox, measles were the worst.

But your second change: Europe had several bouts with bubonic plague. Suppose that you had another one timed to interrupt the voyages of discovery, and the Europeans are delayed until after the germ theory of disease becomes known. Europeans implement vaccination, and the church, once it had seen the effects of disease in the New World sent missionaries armed with vaccines.

An alternate way to delay the Europeans: The Maunder Minimum is longer and deeper than our version of history. This would have eliminated the resources that would have been used to explore.

A third way to delay: Suppose that the Muslims didn't lose in Spain, and that for the next several hundred years Europe turns into a mess of Islam states.

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If your doing an alternate history, I would say you could change the whole context by changing the one simple fact of the Atlantic exchange that decimated the native civilizations of the America's. Without most of the natives being wiped out by disease the whole of the "conquest" would of been something much different then it turned out.

My thinking is that not only would nations be possible, they would be likely and what the Europeans would be dealing with rather then the isolated groups of survivors that made the Americas a relatively easy conquest. It would resemble something more like our western relations with China and the east in the sense that the west while practicing varying degrees of influence over the area never really conquered them. The civilizations of the Americas would of continued to emerge. Maybe at an accelerated rate with an Atlantic exchange that resulted in an exchange of ideals and technology, rather then death by disease.

just a thought.

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  • $\begingroup$ Godd answer. While it's true that the various European powers did manage to lord it over the locals for a long while in Asia, Indo-China etc., those places never lost their national identity or suffered anything like the population depletion of the Americas and Australia. $\endgroup$ – Oscar Bravo Feb 13 '18 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ What would have happened if the infection worked the other way around? If the europeans who arrived in the new world got infected with something they did not have immunity to? What if some of the survivors of the first forray into the Americas managed to make it back to Europe with the American flu on their ships? $\endgroup$ – Doomfrost Feb 15 '18 at 9:14
  • $\begingroup$ Donka Trumpawolf passing legislation to send western European dreamers back the their own s-hole countries maybe? That's a really great question. $\endgroup$ – Jon Feb 15 '18 at 10:20
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At the present time the following political entities are in existence in the USA:

Caddo Nation of Oklahoma.

Catawba Indian Nation.

Cayuga Nation of New York.

Cherokee Nation, Oklahoma.

Chickasaw Nation, Oklahoma.

Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

Comanche Nation, Oklahoma.

Delaware Nation, Oklahoma.

Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, Arizona.

Lipay Nation of Santa Ysabel, California.

Jicarilla Apache Nation, New Mexico.

Kaw Nation, Oklahoma.

Navajo Nation, Arizona, New Mexico & Utah.

Oneida Nation of New York.

Onondaga Nation.

Osage Nation.

Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma.

Penobscot Nation.

Pinoleville Pomo Nation, California.

Prairie Band Pottawatomie Nation.

Sac & Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska.

Sac & Fox Nation, Oklahoma.

Santee Sioux Nation, Nebraska.

Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.

Seneca Nation of Indians.

Shinnecock Indian Nation.

Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.

The Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

Tohono O'odham Nation of Arizona.

Tuscarora Nation.

Wyandotte Nation.

Yavapai-Apache Nation of the Camp Verde Reservation, Arizona.

Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, California.

And this is just a drop in the bucket since all 567 Federally recognized Indian governments in the USA are considered "Domestic Dependent Nations", even if they use tribe, band, community, pueblo, rancheria, or something else in their names.

So even with the coming of Europeans, there are over 567 current Indian nations in the USA, even if many of them are very tiny.

About 1700 the Iroquois were the overlords of a large region in southern Canada, and the northeastern USA, larger than many present countries. The Comanche, ruled most of the Southern plans of the USA for generations, which is sometimes called "The Comanche Empire".

In Mesoamerica there were many city states and kingdoms with active military, diplomatic, and political lives. The Incas in South American founded a vast empire stretching for three thousand miles from North to South.

Many Indian cultures used agriculture and many important food plants were first raised and modified and improved by Indians.

What was necessary for most of the Indian cultures in North and South American to become civilized was to learn from the civilized cultures in Mesoamerica and South America, and catch up with a few thousand years of advances.

Many Indian cultures in North and South America used pure copper, gold, and silver where it could be found. in South America smelting and alloying of metals was practiced. Metals were mostly used decoratively, but there was some use of metal tools in some societies.

Metallurgy would have continued to advance and spread from culture to culture for hundreds and thousands of years until all the Indian cultures eventually entered the bronze and iron ages.

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