What did the Native Americans know about geography?

Before contact with Europeans, that is.

For example, did North American Indians know that there was a mountain range and beyond that a coastline on either side of the continent? To what extent was each tribe familiar with the others? Did the NA Plains Indians know that there were great civilizations with impressive buildings to their south? Did the Aztecs and/or Incas know that there were 2 great land masses joined by a narrow isthmus? To what extent were these two cultures in contact with each other?

The natives of the Northwest carved a very interesting large map on a rock in eastern Idaho near the Snake river. It showed rivers, passes and such over a multi-state area.

It was broken up and carted away by souvenir hunters long ago.

Makes you think about the term “savages”.

There were reports about the “Oregon River” (Columbia) being known to natives of the Minnesota/Wisconsin area in the late 1700’s. Such reports prompted in part the belief that there was a mostly water path to the Pacific that was later important in the Lewis and Clark expedition.

A fair bit, apparently:


I Googled for a good link to the carving I just mentioned. Found some info about a “Map Rock”, but according to this page it appears quite intact. This could not the one I was refering to (which was further east, near a US highway and ruined). But it does show the general idea.

Given the total dissimilarities between these two societies, I would think that neither had knowledge of the other–and they certainly had no trade.

Their calendars show no similarities. The Maya had a written/carved language that the Aztecs inherited and reshaped while the Inca had nothing similar. (The Inca did have a system of knotting ropes as mnemonic devices for carrying messages, but nothing that would be classified as a written language.) There were no shared food crops. (Some may argue that the distinct climates of the Andes vs Central America prohibited dispersion of food, but the Incas did have a (small) presence in the tropical region of South America contiguous to Central America.) There was no exchange of weapons or domesticated animals that are not nearly as dependent on climate.

On the other hand, several food crops developed in Central America did make the transition to North America, although the fairly large Northern Mexican desert slowed that process considerably. For whatever reason, shipbuilding never caught on as a major effort in the Caribbean Basin, so exchanges between, say the Aztec and the Natchez never blossomed, although we cannot conclusively say that they were unaware of each other.

English settlers landing on the Atlantic coast were told of the Great Lakes by the more southernly Indian nations before the French wandered inland to find them based on the tales of the northen nations.

There was probably some knowledge of places “beyond,” although there may not have been any specific curiosity to explore or identify such places.

No so. Corn (maize) and several kinds of beans were shared throughout the Americas. Maize was domesticated in Mexico and rapidly spread both north and south.

IIRC, there was certainly trade, as well as cultural diffusion, between Mexico and the central U.S. at least, with Mesoamerican-influenced artifacts being found in the burials of the Moundbuilders.

Here are some references on Mesoamerican-South American contacts. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find anything definte on the web yet.