Many Americans, and indeed students around the world, are brought up with the notion that Christopher Columbus came upon a savage frontier when he “discovered” the Americas, with no more than the odd gathering of squalid huts awaiting the waves of Europeans. In truth, the “New” World boasted some of the largest and fascinating cities in the world at the time of their construction, up to 4,000 years ago in some cases. Here are seven of the most impressive Pre-Columbian cities in the Americas.
Cahokia is the name given to the largest archaeological site north of Mesoamerica, located alongside the Mississippi River in southern Illinois. Founded around 600 CE, Cahokia was the largest and most important of the Mississippian Culture, a wide net of indigenous peoples that covered much of the Southern and Central United States. The Mississippians were known for building earthwork mounds; Cahokia had around 120 mounds, of which about 80 remain at the site. These mounds were created by moving 55 million cubic feet of earth by hand, over the course of a few decades.
Cahokia was highly planned with plazas, courtyards, a copper workshop, and thousands of houses. The higher end of population estimates put Cahokia’s peak at 40,000 residents, more than contemporaneous London and the largest city in the United State until Philadelphia in the 1780s. Cahokia declined and was abandoned long before Columbus’s arrival, with flooding, overhunting, and deforestation the most likely causes.
Chichen Itza was a Mayan city located in the Yucatan Peninsula, most known for its astounding step pyramid, known as “El Castillo”, which served as a temple to the god Kukulkan. Chichen Itza was a major economic hub and capital for the Yucatan, which was more populated during Mayan rule than modern times. The city was densely populated over nearly two square miles with paved roads connecting large, brightly painted buildings in red, green, purple, and blue.
The site boasts a wide range of architectural styles suggesting a conflagration of different peoples and cultures, and includes an enormous ball court, an observatory, a steam bath, and several temples and carved platforms. The city was able to survive the droughts and overpopulation that decimated its northern Mayan neighbors, likely due to its de-emphasis of its ruler in order to promote a more trade-dependent economy.
Tenochtitlan, located in modern day Mexico City, was a large altepetl, or city-state, of the Mexica people, rulers of the Aztec Empire. It was built on an island in Lake Texcoco, which was later drained by Spanish conquistadors. The city was woven with canals and bridges that could be removed for defense, and all sections could be reached on foot or via canoe.
Most famous were the city’s floating gardens, artificial islands that houses plants and trees. Among the city’s public buildings were temples, ball courts, and the illustrious palace which had two zoos, a botanical garden, and an aquarium. Citizens were subject to a social class system more complex than any other Mesoamerican city, which incorporated both social and familial ties. The city fell in 1521 after conquest by the Spanish and the actions of Moctezuma II.
Teotihuacan was a massive city roughly 40 miles from the eventual site of Tenochtitlan, established around 100 BCE. Although there is much debate and mystery surrounding the ethnicity of its inhabitants, and whether it was independent or the seat of an empire, its size and influence on Mesoamerica is apparent.
It was a religious and industrial hub, particularly known for obsidian crafting and jewelry. Population estimates at its peak range from 125,000-250,000, making it the most populated pre-Columbian city in history and at least the sixth biggest city in the world at its peak. The city featured giant step pyramids along its “Avenue of the Dead”, large obsidian laboratories, and intricate murals which are well-preserved. The ruins of the city impressed the later Aztecs, who claimed descendancy from the Teotihuacanos and gave the city the name we use today.
Cusco, also known as Cuzco, Qosqo, or Qusqu, was the capital of the Inca (or Inka) Empire after they took the city over from the Killke people. Cusco’s original stone architecture baffles archaeologists, who have yet to determine how the stones were quarried and carried into the site. Stone buildings were built without mortar and many remain standing; some even withstand earthquakes better than modern Peruvian buildings.
Cusco contained Coricancha, the Temple of the Sun coated in sheets of gold, and Saqsaywaman, an immense fortress, although these were mostly destroyed and dismantled by the Spanish. The world-famous ruins of Machu Pichu are accessible by foot or train from Cusco. The modern city houses over 400,000 and embraces its Quechua roots.
Caral, located near the shore in contemporary Peru, is the most ancient city in the Americas, inhabited roughly 4,000 years ago. Caral was built by the Norte Chico peoples, who are known for their large earthworks and ability to develop agriculture despite the improbable, arid conditions of their homeland. Caral housed over 3,000 people at its peak and shows no signs of war or violence. Besides the large temples, a large geoglyph of a human face was discovered nearby, along with dozens of musical instruments and evidence of feasts. Caral and the Norte Chico people as a whole were likely the base influence for all subsequent Andean peoples.
Featured photo of Chichen Itza: Wikimedia Commons