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Ancient Native Americans Once Thrived in Bustling Urban Centers

November 25, 2019 in History

By Patrick J. Kiger

One settlement in modern-day Illinois hosted a population of around 20,000, while another featured multiple-story buildings.

Long before the arrival of European explorers, soldiers and settlers in North America, the portion of the continent north of Mexico was inhabited by as many as 18 million native people. And contrary to the popular perception of American Indians living a nomadic existence, many of the continent’s aboriginal inhabitants lived in thriving urban centers.

One settlement, Cahokia in modern-day Illinois, had a population of 20,000 at its peak around 1250 A.D. Around that same period in time, New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon was the center of a sophisticated culture that erected what were the most massive buildings on the continent, until the rise of skyscrapers built from steel girders in the late 1800s.

Those urban centers were part of what historians Lisa Krissoff Boehm and Steven Hunt Corey have described as “a landscape rich with its own history—a land shaped by diverse peoples living in varying patterns of settlement.”

Cahokia Sprawled Over Five Square Miles

Long before the arrival or European settlers, many of America’s native inhabitants lived in thriving urban centers. Cahokia in modern-day Illinois, at its peak around 1250 A.D. had a population of 20,000—close in size to medieval London.

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Like cities in other parts of the world, Cahokia, which sprawled over an area of about five square miles, developed in a highly desirable spot. The settlement was situated along a flood plain that provided fertile soil for agriculture, with nearby hickory forests to provide wood and other raw materials as well as wildlife to hunt, according to Lori Belknap, site manager for the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.

Cahokia also had convenient access to the nearby Mississippi River, which its residents—a people known as the Mississippian culture—navigated in large dugout canoes. “It likely was a trading center,” Belknap says.

Like a modern city with suburbs, Cahokia’s outer edge was a residential area, consisting of houses made from sapling frames lined with clay walls and covered by prairie grass roofs. Further inside was a log palisade wall and guard towers, which protected a central area filled with 120 earthen mounds. Some served as bases for what probably were important community buildings, while other cone-shaped mounds functioned as burial sites. Still others apparently were markers that delineated the city’s …read more


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