Early Native American Science
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Native American Science


February 2017 - Probably the greatest contribution of Native American people to science before 1500 AD was the domestication of several plants that were very useful both to them and now to the people of the whole world, especially sunflowers in eastern North America. People had to work for many hundreds of years to help the wild plants that grew near them to evolve into plants that would be useful to people.

North American people also worked hard to develop medicines to take care of people who got sick. Different tribes used different plants, depending on their environment. For example, people chewed milkweed roots to cure lung diseases like bronchitis. Native American doctors (who could be men or women) made tea from boneset leaves to treat fevers and colds. They mixed pokeweed roots with fat to cure skin diseases, and a tea made from pokeweed berries to treat arthritis and rheumatism. They used jewel weed to cure cases of poison ivy. Most of these medicines didn't work, but neither did European, Asian, South American, or African medicines from the same time.

One Native American medicine that did work was powdered charcoal, which medical workers mixed with water and gave to cure stomachaches, most often probably caused by food poisoning.


Another North American invention was the snowshoe. Probably the earliest snowshoes were invented in Central Asia, about 3000 BC, and then people in North America learned about them through the Inuit in Alaska. But soon people were using snowshoes all over the snowy parts of North America, and they each developed their own different kinds of snowshoes.
As you go further south, where the snow was warmer and wetter, people made their snowshoes longer and narrower. Cree snowshoes were nearly six feet long, almost like skis! Iroquois snowshoes are narrower and shorter so that they could walk in forests where the trees were close together.

Some people think that Native people in North America also invented the bow and arrow. While the bow and arrow were first invented in Asia in the Early Stone Age, long before people first came to North America, apparently the people who came to North America did not know how to use bows and arrows. They may have invented the bow and arrow for themselves, independently, about 500 AD, but it's also possible that they learned about bows and arrows from the Inuit to their north, who learned about bows and arrows from East Asian traders. Soon people were using bows and arrows all over North America, and they became very important for hunting and for war.

Learn by doing: go for a walk on snowshoes
More about Native American farming

Bibliography and further reading about North American science before 1500:

Science in South and Central America
More about Native Americans
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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