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The ancient ruins of North America you (probably) never knew existed

Words: Josh Rakic
Photo: Wikimedia

Explore these five forgotten ancient cities in the USA 

Americans travel the world over to explore ancient ruins from Rome to Greece, London to Mexico and beyond, most never knowing that mainland USA is home to some of history’s greatest archeological finds.

Yep, regardless of what your history teacher taught you, Christopher Columbus was way late to the American party. Because as far back as the 3500 BC - likely longer - Native Americans weren’t just living in America, but had bustling cities, trade and advanced agriculture to boot. So much so that even after Columbus’s arrival, early European settler accounts cite being relegated to swamp and marsh locations as the locals had long claimed the richest lands.

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By the 16th and 17th centuries however, many Indians had fallen victim to foreign disease, therefore making it seem as if the people had disappeared entirely and abandoned their cities - though some were abanonded due to drought decades earlier. Said cities were effectively forgotten by the history books, but remains from five of the most populous stand to this day. And are open for visitors to explore.

Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
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© Flickr/Chris M Morris

Some of the most stunning ruins in North America and the widest sprawling, Chaco Canyon was a major hub between the 10th and 12th centuries, housing thousands of Ancient Pueblo Peoples in 15 major complexes built from sandstone and timber. Up until the 19th Century they were considered some of the largest buildings in the country. Archaeologists suggest the structures were built to align with solar and lunar cycles, putting the Chacoans’ astronomical knowledge and building skill on par with other ancient civilizations around the world. Drought is considered the cause of death of the city.

Grand Plaza of Cahokia, Illinois

It’s considered the greatest city of ancient Northern America, which was home to more than 10,000 people in AD 1250 - on par with some of the ancient world’s biggest cities at the time, and some suggest bigger than London. The Cahokians remained much of a mystery for hundreds of years because they mysteriously vanished in the late 1300s. But with a grand plaza and a number of ceremonial structures built atop pyramid-type structures, the remnants of the ancient city of Cahokia are obvious to this day - even if there is a highway built right through the middle of it… It was deemed a World Heritage Site in 1982, but gets just 250,000 tourists a year compared to an average of 1.5 million in other cities across the world from the same period.

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Mesa Verde, Colorado
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© Flickr/Daveynin

Of all of North America’s ancient ruins, the Mesa Verde Cliff Palace is the most popular among tourists, drawing 550,000 guests per year to the Puebloan ruins. It’s the largest cliff dwelling in North America, built from sandstone, mortar and wooden beams. And because of its protection from the elements has stood the test of time since being abandoned in the 1300s. Historians believe such locations were utilized by the Ancient Puebloans because of the ability to be protected from intruders and the elements. And again, major drought and lack of food is said to have led to its abandonment.

poverty point, louisiana

© YouTube/Louisiana Travel

By far the oldest of any ancient site on mainland USA - or the world for that matter - dating back as far as 3700 BC, the Monumental Earthworks of Poverty Point are made up of five mounds, six elevated concentric ridges and a central plaza. They are said to have been home to hunter-gatherers in the lower Mississippi Valley. Pre-dating even the Egyptian Pyramids, Poverty Point and nearby Watsons Brake (not discovered until 1981) remain one of the biggest achievements in American ancient history, pointing to an emerging society far more advanced than first thought.

Taos Pueblo, New Mexico

The best preserved of all the ancient ruins on this list, the Taos Pueblo ancient settlement remains active to this day and counts as one of the longest continuously inhabited communities in the world - dating back to its construction in the 13th Century. Complete with five storey adobe structures, underground ceremonial chambers, and countless ruins of former pueblos, churches and cemeteries, Taos Pueblo is ancient history come to life.

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