Ancient Native American Cities

In Peru and Mexico, there are large cities built hundreds of years ago by Pre-European settlers. Why did the American Indians not build cities? I can understand the plains Indians, having to move around after their food, but what about the tribes in the east?

I think the answer is that they didn’t need to build them. While it may seem logical to us that civilization would lead to large cities, there are many cultures where city building never happened… and not just nomadic peoples.

I think there has to be a strong reason to make that kind of investment and my guess if you need an empire of some kind to organize it.

I’ll wait to hear what real experts say…

Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico.


There are two civilizations that could be considered to have “cities”.

The “Anasazi” as Yeticus Rex posted, with perhaps 100,000 population over several large pueblos, and the Mississippian culture as Fear Itself posted.

They did, sort of.

The moundbuilders lived along the missisippi river and built ‘mounds’, or earthen pyramids.
They leveled the ground in town plazas and had a heirarchical caste culture.

Witness also the pueblo indians of the Southwest, especially in Mesa Verde.
We have people gathering together in villages, located in caves on cliff faces, and several villages connected by trails, in what could be considered a city.

Not many North American cities survived to the times when Europeans explored North America in any detail, msotly due to the spread of disease brought across the Atlantic. Disease spread much faster in populations living in compact areas, like in a city.

No cite for this, but I read in a scientific magazine in the 90’s that archeologists believe that the anasazi suffered badly from a decades-long drought sometime between 1100 & 1500, and thus weakened, were killed by Uto-aztecan raiding tribes who came up from the south, and evidence exists to suggest that they were canabalized by the raiders.

So by the time the Spanish and French got farther inland, you have dead cities that are, in the southeast and Mississippi valley, overgrown by the forest, or in the desert southwest, simply avoided by the later tribes.

[Edit] And I see that I was beaten to the punch on both the moundbuilders and the anasazi[/edit]

In addition to the already mentioned Mississippian culture, European explorers also wrote about seeing Cherokee cities.

One theory I’ve heard is that the epidemic diseases brought by Europeans got to North America (from Mexico) before most European explorers did. Possibly more Native Americans had cities before the epidemics, but the epidemics would tend to be harder on city dwellers than on less-dense populations (this was true of other historical epidemics as well, such as the Black Death in Europe). European cities managed to bounce back after the Black Death, but the Americas were hit much harder by European epidemic diseases than Europe was by the Black Death.

I had always been under the impression that agriculture = settled families = settled communities = cities, and that Native Americans (other than those mentioned above) simply didn’t need to cultivate crops or didn’t bother.

Maybe you should re-read the story of the First Thanksgiving. Plains Indians may have been nomadic, but many many other tribes were agricultural.

Seems like these cities are a bit primitive compared to the Incan and Aztec cities. The Pueblos are an impressive sight, but I don’t think they compare to the Mesoamerican cities. Was there just not a need for such cities? Or were the peoples lacking the skill to build such a city?

Likely there wasn’t the population pressure. Those two civilizations built up to a peak population then both mysteriously declined. No doubt that if the Europeans hadn’t come around there would have been new civilizations after the population built back up.

Chaco Canyon

They just didn’t build them out of rocks.

What do you mean by “primitive”? There were cities all alonge the Mississipi valley and most of the river valleys of the midwest numbeirng in their tens of thousands. We have no idea how advanaced they were because they left no evidence and were all abandonded due to disease and the impacts of the horse well before any European saw them.

So what exactly do you mean primitive? For all we know these cities may have been much more advanced than the Incan and Indian cities.

And what sort of city do you think they needed to build, and what was the source of this percieved need?

This is going to be based on my knowledge of the northeastern tribes, but I think its basically true for most of the U.S. east of the plains:

Although the Indians weren’t nomadic per se, they did live in different places different times of the year. There was typically a settled village, often the site of significant agriculture. But, large portions of the settlement would often pack up and move to a different location in order to harvest a specific food, leaving behind a skeleton crew to tend the crops. In New England, for example, tribes would move to the coast in the summer time in order to harvest oysters, cod, and the like. Then they would move back to their inland village in the fall in order to harvest their crops.

Also, in the US, European diseases reached native populations far ahead of substantial European contact with the Indians. Thus, by the time large numbers of Europeans reached any specific geographical area, the tribes there had been horrifically decimated by disease. For example, European ships were interacting with, and infecting, the tribes of New England for over 100 years prior to the Pilgrim’s arrival in 1619-20. Incidentally, this played a role (although I’m not claiming it was the sole cause)in the Europeans having such an abject opinion of the level of civilization of the native Indians. Imagine coming to Europe after the Black Death, only it was 2 or 3 times as bad. That’s in essence what Europeans encountered in the present U.S. and that continued cultural memory goes a long way toward explaining why we don’t think of them as having any towns or cities.