The first people in North America arrived a very, very long time ago.
It was during the ice age, when thick sheets of ice covered almost all of Canada and large animals like mammoths, camels, and giant bears roamed the land.
These early people made clothing from animal skins to keep warm and made tools and weapons from stone and animal bones. They hunted animals for food, and also gathered plant foods like roots and berries.
No one knows for sure how the first people got to North America. They may have traveled by boat along the Pacific Coast, or they may have walked down an inland path between the huge glaciers that covered Canada and parts of the United States.
Ice Age Animals
Several types of large cats thrived in North America during the last ice age, including the scimitar cat, the saber-toothed cat and the American lion. The scimitar cat was about the size of a lion, but more slender (150 – 250 kg). It was fast, agile and could even climb trees. Unlike most cats, the scimitar cat could see well during the day. It used powerful jaws and long, razor-sharp fangs to prey on bison and young mammoths.
Most people don’t know that camels actually evolved in North America! They spread to Asia and Africa about 2 or 3 million years ago, where they can still be found today. Yesterday's Camel (sometimes called Western Camel or American Camel) roamed western North America from Mexico to the Yukon, from about 1 million years ago to 10,000 years ago, when it became extinct. This distant cousin of the llama ate grasses, leaves and other plant foods, and was larger than the modern camel, standing 2.1 m at the shoulder and weighing about 600 kg.
The steppe bison was one of several species of bison that lived in North America during the ice age. It is larger than its cousin, the American bison, weighing in at between 700 – 800 kg. It also had larger horns and a second hump on its back. It ate mainly low herbs, especially grass. Steppe bison were preyed upon by lions, wolves and humans. The species became extinct about 11,000 years ago.
The woolly mammoth is one of the most well-known ice age animals. It evolved in Eurasia and later crossed the Bering Land Bridge to North America. The woolly mammoth thrived in a tundra environment, and used its long curved ivory tusks to clear ice and snow from the low shrub vegetation it grazed upon. It was about the size of a modern elephant (5500 – 7300 kg), but was covered with long hair and had a humped back. Along with many other ice age animals, the Woolly Mammoth became extinct about 10,000 years ago.
The giant short faced bear was the largest carnivore in North America during the ice age. It was more than 3 metres tall when standing on its hind legs, and weighed as much as 700 kilograms! It fed on large plant-eating mammals such as bison, caribou, and horses, but it is not known whether it was a hunter or a scavenger. This bear lived in North America for about 800,000 years before it became extinct about 10,000 years ago. The giant short faced bear was the largest bear ever to have lived.
The Yukon horse was relatively small, standing just over 1 metre at the shoulder. It thrived in a steppe grassland environment and was among the most common of the ice age animals in Alaska and the Yukon. The diet of the Yukon horse probably consisted mainly of grasses. The Yukon horse became extinct about 12,000 years ago.
Caribou are hardy members of the deer family that have adapted to live in sub-arctic and arctic environments. They are medium-sized deer, with large hooves which enable them to easily travel over marshy tundra and snow. Females’ antlers are generally smaller than those of the males. Caribou migrate to take advantage of seasonal food resources. In the summer they eat grasses and low shrubs and in the winter, they eat mainly lichen. Caribou were one of the few large animals to escape the mass extinction of ice age animals that happened about 10,000 years ago.
While some of the animals that lived during the Ice Age are now extinct, many such as the bald eagle, can still be found across North America. The bald eagle can be identified by its white head and neck, which develop by the age of four years. The wing span of the adult male is about 180 to 213 cm. Females are slightly larger.
The mountain goat prefers steep treeless terrain, and its thick white fur enables it to survive in very cold environments. It has thrived in alpine regions of North America for thousands of years, and was a valuable resource for early inhabitants.
Grey wolves are a very adaptable animal, and could once be found from the Arctic to the Mediterranean in Eurasia, and from the far north to Mexico in North America. Sadly, they have now become extinct or endangered in a number of areas. There are several subspecies of the grey wolf, and they range in size from 100 – 160 cm body length, 50 – 100 cm standing height, and 15 – 80 kg body weight.
Ravens are relatively large birds, black in colour with a wedge-shaped tail. They can be found in almost all areas of the northern hemisphere, from the temperate regions to the cold arctic. Ravens eat a wide variety of animal and plant matter, and are both predators and scavengers. Ravens play an important mythological role in many North American and Eurasian cultures.
Artic ground squirrels are small animals (between 33-50cm long and 530-816g in weight) that inhabit tundra areas of Alaska, northwestern Canada and eastern Siberia. They live in underground burrows and tunnels, in colonies of several hundred. They are herbivores, eating mainly seeds, leaves, grasses, mushrooms and flowers. Arctic ground squirrels hibernate for up to 7 months, from September – April. Their ability to lower their body temperature to below freezing helps them to survive the cold Arctic winter.