New York City's Prehistoric Roots

Learn all about NYC’s fascinating past by exploring the natural forces that shaped the environment and landscape, along with the people who would transform the “Island of Many Hills” into the greatest and most influential city in the world.


In order to understand what makes Manhattan so unique, we must explore its prehistoric roots.

250 Million BC: Pangea

Pangea is derived from the Greek word “Pan”, meaning All and “Gea”, meaning Earth. In 1912, geophysicist Alfred Wegener used the term to describe a supercontinent in his Theory of Continental Drift. If you look at a world map today, this idea of moving land masses formerly united in an interlocking puzzle would help explain identical minerals with the same electromagnetic structure along with numerous dinosaur and plant samples found across great distances.


2 Million BC: The Ice Age

2 million years ago marked the beginning of an Ice Age that covered much of North America in a thick sheet of ice. This mass, known as the Laurentide Ice Sheet would reach as far down as the southern states at its apex. It would grow and recede three times, spreading rock formations and carving out valleys and rivers, including our own Hudson River.


19000 BC: Peak of the Ice Age in New York City

At the apex of the Ice Age, the Laurentide Ice Sheet would reach a maximum thickness of 2,000 feet – blanketing even our tallest buildings. The weight of this mass would compress the land below for millennia, forming a dense bedrock (the famous Manhattan schist) which makes the ideal foundation for the weight and height of today’s modern skyscrapers.


12000 BC: The Great Melt

The ice retreated and in its wake were marshlands, streams and forests teeming with wildlife and fish. Large beasts such as wooly mammoths, bears and bison would carve migratory paths through this newly minted wilderness. This fertile terrain would create more ecological diversity than any of the US National Parks, including Yosemite or Yellowstone.


700 BC: Rise of the Algonquians

One of the first tribes to settle in the Hudson River Valley were the Algonquians. They are direct descendants of New York’s first residents – Nomads who would arrive from the north about 11,000 – 12,000 years ago. Their ancestors moved with the seasons and migration of animals which they hunted for survival. Early villages were composed of tight formations of round-roofed homes covered in birch bark and protected by a hedge against surrounding predators.

The Impact of Agriculture

Like many humans of this era, the Algonquians would eventually learn how to plant crops. This ground-breaking discovery would transform their culture of loosely associated nomads into larger and more established tribes and communities. The Iriquois would move into the area west of the Algonquins. Like their neighbors, they also planted corn, beans and squash which would soon prompt competition for land, food and resources.

The Algonquian Diet

To compliment their primary diet of corn, squash and beans, Algonquians were avid hunters with a preference for deer, moose, and small game. They also fished for trout, salmon and local shellfish, especially oysters which were thriving in nearby rivers and lakes.

Lenni Lenape: The Original Native New Yorkers

The Algonquians who would settle the Hudson Valley and surrounding areas would eventually come to be known as the Lenni Lenape. “Lenni” meaning “genuine, pure, real, original,” and Lenape, meaning “ancient ones”. The earliest Lenape were also nomadic but would eventually have their own agricultural revolution, leading to the expansion of larger, more established communities, and setting up a solid foundation for their trade-based economy.

Lenape Lifestyle, Trade and Commerce

The Lenape were a thriving culture that existed for 400 generations, estimated to be 10,000+ years. Learning to live off the land and with the seasons, much of their economy would be built on animal fur trade. The Lenape were extremely gifted hunters/trappers, farmers and weavers and would overcome countless obstacles to enjoy an age of prosperity.

Henry Hudson's First Encounter with The Lenape
Curated by Fine Print NYC
@History101NYC

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