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Indigenous Inventions and Innovations That Modern Society Owes a Debt To

Vincent Schilling - Indian Country Today
go to original
September 19, 2014

The number of indigenous inventions is staggering, but still the hidden history of the people who inhabited Turtle Island when Christopher Columbus landed prevents many of their contributions to modern life from being known.

Indigenous cultures have spawned thousands upon thousands of innovations that are in use today in the most modern of practices. To continue giving more credit where credit is due to our ancestral innovators, here are 10 Native inventions and innovations that changed the world.

The Parka

Winter is coming, and to whom do we owe thanks for those down coats, vests and ski jackets? Land’s End? Acadia? The North Face? Try again.

Designed to protect the wearer from frigid Arctic temperatures, the parka was created by the Inuit, who called it the anorak. The Russians took the concept and named it the parka, which means “reindeer fur coat.” The original designers used such materials as caribou fur and sealskin, and feathers from the puffin, the cormorant and more. Water repellent, lined with warm fur or stuffed with feathers, the parka has taken on numerous permutations over the decades. But its origin is unquestionably indigenous.


Although China gets credited for inventing paper sometime between 206 B.C. and 220 A.D., it did not spread to Europe until the 10th century or so. Meanwhile, the Maya had invented something even more durable that papyrus, the original material. In the 1500s, botanist Francisco Hernandez recorded observations that the Maya and the Aztec of Mesoamerica manufactured a type of paper made from tree bark, called amate. Many archeologists believe that Mesoamericans had been doing this since 1000 B.C. The process included stripping bark from trees, soaking and pounding it, and fusing it into sheets. This method is still used in parts of Mexico today.

Metal Drill Bits

Prehistoric Indians of America made drill bits of metal which were used, as today, for boring holes. The most ancient to have been found is said to be as much as 7,000 years old. The Mayans in 1500 B.C. also fashioned similar drill bits of various sizes and shapes, out of copper.

Maple Syrup

The Iroquois and Chippewa were the tribes who taught American colonists how to tap maple trees and boil the sap down in order to make maple syrup as well as maple sugar. Though taps now exist to harvest maple sap, the Iroquois were the tribes who once cut v-shaped grooves into which reeds or concave pieces of bark or wood were inserted, to collect each spring harvest.

Physicians’ Bags/Medicine Kits

Archeologists in the Americas discovered ancient doctor’s bags used by physicians of the Paracas culture from 1300 B.C. These kits made for traveling were common among pre-Columbian Indians for the treatment of many ailments. Obsidian scalpel blades, cotton balls, cloths bandages, thread, needles mortars, pestles and syringes are just some of the instruments discovered in the bags by archeologists.

Plastic Surgery

The surgical methodology of repairing injured or missing body tissue was a well-practiced craft of such indigenous cultures as the Aztecs and the Chippewa (Anishnaabe). In 1100 A.D. Aztecs were known to perform expert procedures unknown to European physicians, such as repairing face wounds with no remaining scars, suturing with human hair, crafting artificial noses and more. The Chippewa were known to perform ear surgery to repair torn lobes, or trimming tissue to make the ears match.

Popcorn Popper

Though American Indians used several ways to pop corn, from placing kernels on hot coals to spearing corncobs on sticks, they also crafted clay pots in which they melted animal fat and dropped in the dry kernels for popping. Today the Tohono O’odham still use clay pots, called ollas, measuring up to eight feet in diameter, to pop the golden kernels.

The United States Constitution

The definitive document that outlines the American system of checks and balances and the three branches - the House of Representatives, the Senate and the Presidency - was created with the definitive influence of the Iroquois Constitution, also referred to as the Great Law of Peace. This has been well documented but bears repeating.

This Great Law of Peace, which formed the Iroquois Confederacy of the Oneida, Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, the Seneca and later the Tuscarora, became something of a template for the eventual governmental practices of the United States.

Heart Medicine and Diuretics

Chief Wahoo, the not-so-friendly reminder of offensive mascots in Indian country thanks to the Cleveland Indians, actually derives his name from a healing plant - one that has been used as a diuretic and heart medication for generations. Wahoo, a shrub, is found all over the United States, and the Great Plains and Northeast tribes have traditionally used it to improve circulation and treat edema and congestive heart failure.

Megaphones and Animal Calls

The Iroquois and Chippewa, as well as other tribes in the Great Lakes region, used birch bark rolled into tubes to call moose during hunts and so-called speaking tubes to communicate during large group gatherings so that people could hear one another.

See the original at Indian Country Today

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