Ancient Americas: Uncovering the First Civilizations!
Have you ever wondered what the Americas were like centuries upon centuries ago? Who were the first inhibitors? What were their civilizations like? Did they have hobbies, or play sports? How did they pass the time so successfully without social media?! 😉 The mysterious history of our ancient world has been explored for centuries and only partially uncovered. There is still plenty unknown about our ancient history, but what archeologists have deciphered from findings and remains is nothing less than fascinating! From Caracol; one of the first metropolises of the great Maya Empire located in Central America- to Cahokia, once located near present day St. Louis; and the sacred city and manmade wonder of Machu Picchu; let’s take a closer look at some of the incredible hidden history of the ancient Americas that have been discovered and concluded by archeologists.
Let’s begin today’s journey of the ancient Americas in the wondrous sacred city of Machu Picchu. Despite Spanish conquistadors invading lands during the 16th century, and absolutely wiping out traces of Inca history and religious practices; there was one city that remained hidden and untouched. What they were unable to find- they were thankfully unable to destroy. This incredible sacred citadel, is known as Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu is located around 50 miles northwest of Cuzco, Peru; specifically in the Cordillera de Vilcabamba of the Andes Mountains. This land is believed to have once been a royal estate or sacred religious site for Inca leaders. For hundreds of years, the citadel remained a secret, known to only peasants living amongst the area, and local Peruvians.
The Height of an Empire
The Inca Empire successfully reigned over Peru and western South America in the 15th and 16th centuries. Throughout its height, civilization included corn farmers who also raised llamas, priests leading the worship of nature gods, and workers who built stone buildings and roads throughout the empire. (Daniels; p.92) The 5 mile region was comprised of over an impressive 150 buildings! These structures ranged from simple baths and houses to grand temples and sanctuaries. Particularly notable, is the Temple of the Sun. This stunning ancient temple includes windows custom cut to catch the rays of the summer solstice! (Daniels; p.95) Pretty incredible, right?! Additionally, the Intihuatana, (otherwise known as the Hitching Post of the Sun) is an impressive 6-foot-tall sundial; one of the few untouched sacred stones remaining of Inca history. (Daniels; p.95)
Rediscovering Ancient Lands
Considering Spanish conquistadors never actually made it to Machu Picchu, its abandonment is believed to be due, possibly to the outbreak of the smallpox epidemic. This ancient citadel was considered re-discovered in 1911; when Peruvian guide, Melchor Arteaga led Yale professor, Hiram Bingham up its sacred path. (Daniels; p.92) The purpose of this ancient land is one that is still debated among scholars and archeologists today. For example, some archeologists believe Machu Picchu was built as the religious destination for the Inca emperor Pachacuti. (Daniels; p.95) Other hypotheses include quite the differentiating range of ideas. These include: the region being used as a prison, a trade hub, a station for testing new crops, a women’s retreat or a city devoted to the coronation of kings.
Either way, today Machu Picchu serves as a highly desired destination of hundreds of thousands of people a year! Crowds gather by the masses to see the beautiful sunset over one of the most famous manmade wonders of the world. Furthermore, Machu Picchu has also designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983.
Next on our adventure of uncovering the mysterious history of Ancient Americas, we will travel North from our last destination in South America, and land in Central America. The great Maya Empire once stretched across present-day Mexico south to Nicaragua. Maya structures were comprised of extensive stone settlements, and modern-day tools are still shedding light on the complexity. (Daniels; p. 80) People of the time farmed corn and paid important mind to watch the stars. (Daniels; p.80)
Fast forward to the year 1937. A woodcutter stumbles upon carved erect stone monuments in the forests of modern-day Belize. Turns out, it was quite the discovery to come across! Known by the Spanish name, Caracol, the woodcutter had just so happened to re-discover a pre-historic city; one of the major metropolises of the Great Maya Empire! (Daniels; p. 83) Initially, archeologists surveyed the area throughout 1952-1953. However, it wasn’t until 1985, a team lead by archeologists Diane and Arlen Chase of the University of Central Florida, started excavation of the jungle site on a more extensive scale.
Flourishing Ancient Civilization
Mayan glyphs amongst other evidence discovered across the location lead archeologists to believe Caracol flourished during the 6th century AD. At its peak holding at least 100,000 inhabitants. (Daniels; p. 83) It is believed people inhabited the land as early as 600 B.C., but the greatest power wasn’t obtained until the middle Classic period, replacing Tikal as major regional power around AD 562.
Excavations of Caracol have led to the discovery of pyramids, royal tombs, monuments, altars, and even a ball court! “Like many other Maya cities, Caracol enjoyed a stone ball court, where players vied to keep a solid rubber ball in the area.” (Daniels; p. 83) If only there were trading cards uncovered that shined a light on the Lebron or Michael Jordans of the ancient Americas and their stone-ball-stats!
Equally intriguing is the notion that women, though rarely pictured in monuments, held high ranks in a hierarchical society. (Daniels; p.83) Furthermore, women were honored with burials in elite tombs discovered throughout the city. (Daniels; p.83)
In the end, archeologists were led to believe an increasingly stratified society with the elite hoarding a majority of the goods, led to the final demise of Caracol. Eventually, at the end of the ninth century, the palace burned, potentially due to social unrest, or possible outside attackers. (Daniels; p.84)
Image by National Geographic
Last but certainly not least, we land in North America! Introducing, Cahokia! Located amongst the fertile confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois Rivers inhabitants during the 600s A.D. thrived off the rich lands. Specifically, near what is now modern-day St Louis, farmers grew fields of sunflower, squash, and corn. (Daniels; p.87) By the year 1000 the population grew into a metropolis, now known as Cahokia. It was established as the largest city north of Mexico; inhabiting between 10,000-20,000 people. (Daniels; p. 87) Now known as the first city in North America, at its peak, Cahokia was larger than many European cities at the time- including London. In total the city was stretched across six square miles (16 square kilometers) and encompassed at least 120 mounds.
Speaking of large, Cahokia’s largest building, known as “Monks Mound” is a structure in which’s base occupies 14 acres of land; Furthermore, making it even larger than the base of Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Khufu! (Daniels; p. 87) Talk about incredible!
Ancient American Sports & More
In addition, similar to the inhabitants of Caracol, the Cahokians also happened to enjoy their ball games. For example, the people of Cahokia played a game known as “chunkey”! Playing the game involved players throwing spears at moving disks. (Daniels; p. 87) Wonder who played the half time shows?! 😉
Also interestingly enough; foreshadowing the well-known present-day Dunkin’ slogan; “America runs on Dunkin”; Cahokian culture also included the popularity of a caffeine-loaded drink. One can only wonder what coffee in Ancient American times could taste like… (:
Unfortunately, on the not so friendly end of the spectrum- like many others at the time, the Cahokia cultures also might have included human sacrifice. Dozens of bodies, both male and female, were found at Mound 72. (Daniels; p. 87)
By the year 1400, the city had become abandoned, following its major decline after a great flood. Following the Cahokian’s departure, tribes of the Illinois Confederation began to move into the area. (Daniels; p. 90) Meanwhile today, a majority of the city lies buried under 19th- and 20th-century developments, including a highway and the modern-day city of St. Louis. What is left of the ancient city of Cahokia is now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In brief, to think about the amount of information that has been uncovered by archeologists over the centuries is incredible. But to sit back and realize, what is probably only still to be found, in inspirational, wild, and mind-blowing all in one delicious bite I’m dying to taste! In the meantime, incredible uncovered sacred cities such as Machu Picchu, Caracol, and Cahokia have left more than enough behind to leave the mind pondering the mysterious times of these ancient civilizations, and the imagination wondering what we’re bound to uncover next!
- Daniels, Patricia. “Lost Cities: Treasures of the Ancient World Revealed.” National Geographic (2021)
- history.com “Machu Picchu”
- britannica.com “Machu Picchu ancient city, Peru”
- britannica.com “Caracol archaeological site, Belize”
- livescience.com “Cahokia: North America’s First City”
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