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The ancestors of modern Native Americans arrived in what is now the United States at least 15,000 years ago, possibly much longer, from Asia through Beringia.

At the time of the first contact, the indigenous cultures were quite different from those of the proto-industrial and mostly Christian immigrants.

Some Northeastern and Southwestern cultures, in particular, were matrilineal and operated on a more collective basis than the Europeans were familiar with.

The differences in cultures between the established Native Americans and immigrant Europeans, as well as shifting alliances among different nations in times of war, caused extensive political tension, ethnic violence, and social disruption.

Native American cultures are not normally included in characterizations of advanced stone age cultures as "Neolithic," which is a category that more often includes only the cultures in Eurasia, Africa, and other regions.

Over time, the United States forced a series of treaties and land cessions by the tribes and established reservations for them in many western states. The ways Native Americans refer to themselves vary by region and generation, with many older Native Americans self-identifying as "Indians" or "American Indians", while younger Native Americans often identify as "Indigenous" or "Aboriginal".

The term "Native American" has not traditionally included Native Hawaiians or certain Alaskan Natives, such as Aleut, Yup'ik, or Inuit peoples.

Since the end of the 15th century, the migration of Europeans to the Americas has led to centuries of population, cultural, and agricultural transfer and adjustment between Old and New World societies, a process known as the Columbian exchange.