As we’ve reported, historians have often been skeptical that “savages” were able to create many of the world-changing innovations attributed to them. Such prejudice led to whispers that Indigenous peoples were actually a lost colony of Christians or Israelites.
Such myths exist today and are still discussed by archaeologists who refute that an Indigenous Native person could have had an innovative mind creative enough to invent world-changing indigenous inventions.
In order to give some more credit to where credit is due to our ancestral innovators, here are eight Native and indigenous inventions and innovations that changed the world.
The Spinning Top
Documentarians of the Lewis and Clark expeditions know Indians of North America invented the spinning top. In the records of their 1804 expedition, Lewis and Clark wrote that they saw Native children playing with something they had never seen.
“They were seen to be playing a game with a strange wedge-shaped piece of wood, which was spun with a string,” said their writings.
Asphalt Tar Repair and Waterproofing of Roads
Asphalt, which is also referred to as the lowest grade form of oil, was used to repair roads by Native cultures east of the Missouri River as far back as 8,000 B.C. Additionally, the Chumash in California used and traded asphalt so much that some archeologists refer to the tribe as the asphaltum culture. The tribe had access to the asphalt thanks to today’s presently known “La Brea Tar Pits” located in present-day Los Angeles.
This invention came from a plethora of tribes that used various forms of balm, lotions or salve to protect their skin from strong sun rays. The Zuni used the western wallflower (Erysimum capitatum) as a sunscreen or sunburn treatment by mixing the ground plant with water and applying it to the skin. Southwest tribes treated sunburn with aloe vera, a popular treatment today. Precontact North American Indians used fats from animals and oil from fish or plants for sunscreens.
Northeast tribes used oil from sunflower seeds. Pennsylvania Indians used petroleum jelly due to their proximity to petroleum deposits.
Yes, you read that right. North American Northeast indigenous peoples created the suppository. It was a small plug with medicinal properties made from the dogwood tree (Cornus paniculata) that were then moistened, compressed and inserted to treat hemorrhoids.
Non-Slip Shoe Spikes / aka Crampons
When winter hits and ice is covering the ground, just know that those small spikes you attach to your shoes were invented by the Paleo-Indians of the North American Arctic. They were made of bone or ivory, and were attached to the bottom of footwear in about 1000 B.C.
The same type of protection against slipping was created by the Inuit people of Alaska, who sewed strips of sealskin or chips of ivory to their footwear.
No, we don’t mean that Star Trek character. Vulcanization is the process of adding chemicals, such as sulfur to latex to allow for a process to shape rubber into permanent forms that are resistant to melting at warm temperatures.
The Olmec, in the Yucatán Peninsula of what is now Mexico, created the process of vulcanization in about 1700 B.C. by adding phenols, acetic acid or other chemicals to pliable tree sap. The Olmec would use this process to create toy balls, waterproof ponchos, balloons and more.
In 1839, Charles Goodyear replicated the Olmec process by accident when he spilled a mixture of chemically processed rubber on a hotplate, that he eventually would use as a process to create tires.
The Olmec invented the oldest mirror in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica in about 1700 B.C. The Olmec used a polished hematite (Fe2O3), a black to reddish mineral and the most common source of iron. They created the mirror by grinding and polishing the mineral, but the exact process for this technology remains unknown.
Other indigenous cultures, such as the Maya, used polished iron pyrite, while other indigenous cultures used gold, silver, copper, anthracite (hard coal), and obsidian.
Mouthwash, Oral Care and Mouth Pain Treatments
Northeastern North America tribes used a plant known as gold thread (Coptis trifolia) as a mouthwash and as a treatment for oral pain. The Chippewa (Anishinabe), Mohegan, Potawatomi, and Menominee tribes also used it as a soothing agent for babies, by rubbing it on
their gums while they were teething. The Menominee and Penobscot tribes also used gold thread as a mouthwash and as a canker sore cure due to it’s pain-relieving properties.
The Aztec people also used sea salt as a mouthwash and as a rinse for sore throats.
For further reading check out more of our articles regarding inventions created by Indigenous people:
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