From the tip of South America to the Arctic, Native Americans developed scores of innovations—from kayaks, protective goggles and baby bottles to birth control, genetically modified food crops and analgesic medications—that enabled them to survive and flourish wherever they lived.
In fact, early European explorers who reached the Western Hemisphere were apparently so impressed by the achievements of the people they encountered that they felt compelled to dream up stories about Native Americans being descendants of ancient Phoenician traders or a lost tribe of Israel, in an effort to explain the source of their technological prowess.
“People don’t realize the ingenuity or the knowledge that native people had, and continue to have about the world around them,” explains Gaetana De Gennaro, a supervisory specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, who manages a permanent interactive exhibit on Native American inventions.
Because various Native American groups were connected through trade routes, new inventions created by one group could quickly spread from North to South and East to West, according to De Gennaro, a member of the Tohono O'odham tribe in southern Arizona.
It may be a crop, but corn was carefully cultivated by ancient farmers as long as 10,000 years ago. Native Americans then taught European colonists how to grow the crop.
“Everybody knows about corn, but they don’t know that it’s a food that wouldn’t exist without human intervention,” says De Gennaro.
Farmers in northern Guatemala and southern Mexico selectively bred teosinthe, a wild grass, for many generations to enlarge the ear and develop kernels that were soft enough for humans to eat. Once they’d created the corn plant, their invention spread throughout the Western Hemisphere.
Some Native American inventions were appropriated by the Europeans, who had the trading networks and manufacturing infrastructure to commercialize them, and who sometimes added improvements. For example, rubber was a material developed by Native Americans, and then Columbus took a rubber ball back to Europe, De Gennaro says.
After Charles Goodyear developed the vulcanization process in the 1830s to allow rubber to withstand heat and cold, colonizers developed vast rubber tree plantations in Asia to produce the raw material for factories. “Now, rubber is used all over the world,” De Gennaro says.
The Inuit in the Arctic developed the concept of a small, narrow boat, with a sealed cockpit to protect the paddler from sinking in the event that the craft capsized, according to Canadian technology historians David Johnston and Tom Jenkins. The classic vessels were fashioned entirely from natural materials, with wood or whalebone frames covered by stitched sealskin or other animal hides. Today, the kayaks in use across the world are sometimes built from modern materials such as plastic and carbon fiber, but as De Gennaro notes, “the design is still essentially the same.”
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The Inuit also invented goggles fashioned from wood, bone, antler or leather to protect their eyes from over-exposure to sunlight reflected from expanses of snow. “They’d put a slit in there, to simulate the way that you can squint,” De Gennaro says. “It cut down on the ultraviolet rays that got into the eyes.” The snow goggles were the predecessors to today’s sunglasses.
Cable Suspension Bridges
The Inca of South America figured out how to weave mountain grasses and other vegetation into cables, sometimes as thick as a person’s body, and then used them to build super-strong suspension bridges that spanned across gorges. Some of the structures spanned longer distances than anything European engineers of the time could construct with stone, though modern steel suspension bridges eventually achieved far greater scale. The last of the ancient Inca-style grass cable suspension bridges still spans a gorge in Peru’s Canas Province.
Natives in South and Central America invented the technique of enriching soil and piling it to build raised garden plots called chinampas on swampy land and in lakes, according to Emory Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield in their Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World. The technique was a forerunner of raised-bed farming used for modern vegetable production.
The Iroquois took dried and greased bear gut and added a nipple fashioned from a bird’s quill to create bottles that could be used to feed infants, according to Iroquois historian Arthur C. Parker.
Anesthetics and Topical Pain Relievers
Native American healers pioneered pain relief. In what is now Virginia, natives used jimson weed (scientific name Datura stramonium) as a topical analgesic, grinding the root to make a plaster that they applied to external injuries such as cuts and bruises, according to Keoke and Porterfield’s book.
Healers also had patients ingest the plant as an anesthetic as they set broken bones. Another native remedy for pain and inflammation was tea brewed from the bark of the American black willow (Salix nigra), which contains the chemical salicin. Once it gets into the body, salicin produces salicylic acid, the active ingredient in modern aspirin tablets. Native Americans also used capsaicin, a chemical found in hot peppers, for topical pain relief, according to De Gennaro.
Native Americans fashioned syringes made of animal bladders and hollow bird bones to inject medications, according to Technology in America: A Brief History. The technology didn’t show up in European medicine until the 1850s, when Scottish physician Alexander Wood began using needles to inject morphine to relieve pain.
When Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean, he found natives resting in hammocks, a bed made from cotton netting and suspended between two trees or poles, according to his letters. Hammocks were so comfortable and convenient that European sailors began sleeping in them on merchant and naval ships, according to Indians of North America.
The Shoshone and Navajo tribes used stoneseed, also known as Columbia Puccoon (Lithospermum ruderale) as an oral contraceptive, long before the pharmaceutical industry developed birth control pills.