These 5 ancient cities once ruled North America—what happened to them?
Published November 21, 2022
12 min read
Long before Europeans arrived in the New World, indigenous Americans raised pyramids and palaces, temples and tombs in booming cities whose sizes rivaled those in Europe. Citizens of Cahokia traded extensively with Mesoamerican neighbors; the mysterious Teotihuacan people had ties throughout Central America. Spiro Mounds is believed to have been as powerful and sophisticated as the Inca or Aztec. Investigators continue to uncover major urban centers that bear witness to America’s first megalopolises.
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Teotihuacan: epicenter of architecture and art
At its peak in 400 A.D., Teotihuacan, just 30 miles northeast of present-day Mexico City in the Valley of Mexico, reigned as perhaps the largest city in the Americas. More than 100,000 Teotihuacanos dwelled among an impressive array of palaces, temples, plazas, avenues, and thousands of apartment buildings within 8 square miles. Along with soldiers, priests, and merchants Teotihuacan also had a flourishing artist population whose wares influenced Mesoamerican cultures. It is Mexico’s most significant archaeological site.
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Significant enduring structures include the imposingly tall Pyramid of the Sun, believed to have venerated a deity within Teotihuacan society; and Pyramid of the Moon, used for ritual sacrifices of animals and humans–proof found beneath it include the bodies of pumas, eagles, wolves, and 12 humans, 10 of them decapitated.
Sometime around A.D. 750, the central city burned, possibly at the hands of invaders, and Teotihuacan never recovered. Archaeologists still have to unravel the mystery of who and whereabouts the Teotihuacanos came from.
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Cahokia: cosmopolitan trade center
Around 1000 A.D., a complex metropolis thrived in the rich floodplain near present-day St. Louis, Missouri at the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois Rivers. Known as Cahokia, it was the largest city north of Mexico, with an estimated population between 10,000 and 20,000–rivaling that of European cities of the era. At least 100 raised structures dominated the city, some topped with houses and other buildings, while others were used as burial mounds. The largest building, known as Monks Mound for the Trappist monks who lived nearby in the 1800s, is a terraced structure rising 98 feet into the air. Its base, occupying 14 acres, is larger than the footprint of Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Khufu.
Little is known about this ancient civilization’s rulers or history, but, based on scholarly research, it was a cosmopolitan center of trade, crafts, and architecture. People from Mississippi exchanged goods with people as far north as Wisconsin and possibly with Mesoamerican cultures south.
Beginning around 1175, something or someone began to threaten the Cahokians, judging by the protective wooden palisades they set up around the city center. The city might have been less livable due to a cooling climate or stress on the environment. By 1350 or so, the Cahokians had dispersed.
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Robots in the tunnels
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Photograph by REUTERS/Henry Romero/Alamy Stock Photo
In 2003, heavy rainfall opened up a sinkhole at the base of Teotihuacan’s Temple of Quetzalcoatl, revealing a hitherto unknown tunnel. Though stones blocked it, a team led by Mexican archaeologist Sergio Gomez used ground-penetrating radar to discover that the 338-foot passageway ran under the temple and seemed to end in a chamber. Gomez began digging the tunnels in an effort to discover royal burials. Two small, remote-controlled robots named Tlaloc II or Tlaloque, after Aztec rain gods, are helping him. They and their human handlers have unearthed more than 100,000 artifacts, including jewelry, bottles of beetle wings, jaguar bones, rubber balls, and greenstone statues of three women and one man. No royal or other bodies have been found so far. It is believed that the subterranean passages were used to offer gifts to the gods or storm gods, or for ceremonies.
Chaco Canyon: capital of formidable women
Rivaling the Cahokian culture in complexity, if not in size, was the Chaco culture well to the west, in what is now New Mexico. From the 800s into the 1200s, ancestral Puebloan people lived in more than 150 settlements around Chaco Canyon, occupying sprawling stone mansions with hundreds of rooms–the most important of which is Pueblo Bonito, the center of the Chacoan world. They traded, farmed, and performed religious ceremonies. They spread out over hundreds of miles, spanning the west, north, or south. Locals harnessed the intermittent flow from local streams through ditches and canals to water their crops of beans, squash, and corn. Exotic goods like scarlet macaws, cocoa, and other exotic goods were brought in by traders from the Mesoamerian south.
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The Chacoan people had no written language, so much of what is known about their society comes from burials. One burial room, for instance, held 13 presumably high-ranking bodies surrounded by thousands of turquoise beads, shells, bowls, and pitchers. DNA analysis revealed that many of these individuals were related to their grandmothers or mothers. It is possible that power was passed down through the maternal line.
By the 13th century, the Chacoans began to leave for other parts of the Southwest. Although it is not clear why, it is possible that severe drought forced them to leave.
The gambler god
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A turquoise pendant found in the Chaco Canyon
Photograph by the Picture Art Collection/Alamy Stock Photo
Today, lands of the Navajo Nation surround Chaco Canyon, and the Navajo have their own story of how the first people came to inhabit Pueblo Bonito and nearby towns. According to one legend, Nohoilpi (the gambler god) came to Earth and established a home in Pueblo Alto in Chaco Canyon. There, he taught men and women how to play some of his games: the three-stick game, the hoop-and-two-long-stick game, and others. The people lost steadily, even giving up their colored turquoise stones until they finally bet people. These, too, were lost. Nohoilpi was so successful that he couldn’t feed all of them, so he sent them all to Pueblo Bonito to give them homes. The gambler god was tricked by the people, who in the end, were cheated. They promised him they would find him a new place and then shot him into space.
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Spiro Mounds: center of wealth and power
In 1933, a group of gold prospectors stumbled across a burial chamber near Spiro, Oklahoma, that had been closed for 500 years. They found amazing treasures inside, including engraved conch shells and pearl and shell beads, large human figures effigy pipes, brightly colored blankets, and robes. Newspapers dubbed the find an American “King’s Tut tomb.”
Twelve mounds, the elite village area, and part of the support city have been uncovered, all that’s left of a prehistoric power that once equaled the size and sophistication of the Aztec and Inca. The Spiro people ruled over Mississippian culture for nearly two-thirds (now East St. Louis), Cahokia (now East St. Louis), and Etowah (Georgia).
The location became a permanent settlement around A.D. 800 and was used until about A.D. 1450. At its zenith, some 10,000 people resided here. Artifacts indicate a large trade network (including copper from Great Lakes and a Conch Shell from the Gulf of Mexico), high-level religious activity, and advanced political system. The agricultural communities were distinguished by large earthen platforms and burial mounds. Leaders built their homes on top the previous chief’s. The higher the mound, it was more prestige for the current leader.
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The Spiro people mysteriously disappeared by 1500, perhaps due to an extended drought and/or political infighting.
Etzanoa: long-lost city
Legend speaks of a vast ancient metropolis of more than 20,000 citizens, ancestors of the Wichita Nation, flourishing at the confluence of the Walnut and Arkansas Rivers, near present-day Arkansas City in south-central Kansas. Etzanoa was referred to by other indigenous groups as the “Great Settlement”. It consisted of houses that resembled large beehives and held around 12 people. There were lush gardens between the homes. During winter, the community would travel with bison herds and erect tipis to shelter them while they were away. They had strong artisan traditions, and a vast trade network that reached as far out as Tenochtitlan (the Aztec capital).
Starting in the late 16th century Spanish conquistadores on a quest for gold contacted the group living in this region. According to Spanish accounts, they were friendly and even shared corncakes. But in 1601, the Spanish, led by Juan de Onate, took hostages and the residents ran away. They attacked the Spanish again, and they fired four cannons back at them. They vanished.
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French explorers who passed through in the 1700s did not find a city, despite the legend. According to archaeologists, smallpox and other diseases were the main causes of death for most of the original settlers. Etzanoa remained a mystery until 2016, when a local teen found a cannonball linked to the 17th-century battle. The remains of the long-lost city were rediscovered.
Portions of this work have previously appeared in Lost Cities of the Ancient World. Copyright (c) 2021 National Geographic Partners, LLC.
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The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.