What is the history of humans in North America? To answer this question, Kirk Johnson
, the Sant Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, takes the viewer on an odyssey of time and space, from the entrance of humans into North America to today’s fossil fuel dependent civilization. In this high interest video, the third episode of a three-part series, major events in the human settlement of the North American continent are discussed in a relevant and dramatic manner. Dr. Johnson conveys a sense of wonder and provides an enthusiastic introduction to mind expanding vistas of deep time and dramatic episodes in the story of humans in North America.
Dr. Johnson begins the discussion on an Alaskan glacier, and describes the perils of ice age North America. A thousand-mile wide land bridge once existed between Asia and North America allowing access for early humans. These explorers likely used boats to journey along the coast, eventually exploiting the animal and mineral riches of the virgin continent. The discovery of 13,000-year-old Arlington Man on an island off the coast of Southern California seems to confirm the hypothesis of coastal exploration. An extraordinary sample of North America’s large mammal population, or megafauna, has been unearthed at the iconic La Brea Tar Pits located within the great city of Los Angeles. Trapped in sticky asphalt were found amazing animals such as saber-toothed tigers and mastodons. Soon after humans entered North America, much of the original megafauna disappeared, likely due to hunting by early people armed with deadly Clovis spear points, whose lethal cutting ability is demonstrated by Dr. Johnson using a block of ballistics gel. Eventually, early Native Americans developed agriculture and established permanent settlements such as the “architectural marvel” of Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde, Colorado, the immense Cahokia Mound near St. Louis, Missouri, and the stone cities of the ancient Maya in Yucatan, Mexico. The European exploitation of North America began with the conquest of the Aztec empire, whose capital, Tenochtitlan, once supported hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, the export of the first “cash crop”, tobacco, and eventually the westward expansion and the discovery of the fertile soils of the Great Plains. Soils are the result of the decay of rocks and organic matter, and require much time to develop. The original soils of the eastern coast became depleted by agriculture, leading George Washington to predict in a letter to Alexander Hamilton that the population would be compelled to move westward in search of pristine soil. Another impetus for westward expansion was the discovery of gold in California, leading to the adrenalized Gold Rush of 1849. Gold was first found in streams, but eventually prospectors began mining and searching for characteristic gold-bearing quartz veins, the products of past earthquakes that created cracks serving as conduits for hot, mineral-laden fluids from earth’s mantle. At the San Francisco Mint, Dr. Johnson examines an amazing, recently discovered five-pound nugget of gold. The invention of the steam locomotive led to the next expansion, the Transcontinental Railroad connecting both east and west coasts. In this immense effort, Chinese laborers used hand tools and explosives to dig tunnels through the granite Sierra Nevadas. The next great resource, oil, is documented by the history of Los Angeles, where oil is pumped from the ground even today. The incredible ice-age fauna preserved at the La Brea Tar Pits is another example of the significance of the discovery of oil in Los Angeles. The asphaltic "tar" of La Brea is a bi-product of the region's petroleum. Despite all of humanity’s achievements in North America, looming threats exist in the form of fossil fuel driven climate change, and the possibility of earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest. Layers of sediment, and “ghost forests”, tell of cyclical earthquakes and tsunamis. Today, millions of people live in danger along the Oregon and Northern California coastlines due to activity along the Cascadia subduction zone. A stress-relieving earthquake is overdue, and each passing year increases the odds that a disastrous temblor will occur, potentially endangering the inhabitants of Seattle and other large cites in the region. Despite all of this, North America will endure long into the future, and is predicted to merge again with Europe sometime in the next 175 million years to form the next supercontinent, dubbed Pangaea Ultima.
The PDF contains a two-sided video worksheet consisting of 40 multiple choice and true-or-false questions, and a sorting question whereby the students place the events in the history of North American settlement in order from the beginning to the present. The PDF also includes an answer key and an MS Word download link. You will need to obtain a DVD of the video, use the PBS Internet site, or YouTube