Ancient Americas

Back before they were called the Americas, North and South America played host to great civilizations: from the Pueblo cultures to the Mayas and Aztecs to the Incas. These cultures thrived during different periods from 2600 BC until the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century. These cultures overcame the challenges of nature with an ease that still sometimes eludes us, and created scientific systems that we don’t fully understand today.

Collinsville, IL, USA
This 2,200-acre historic site was formerly the city of Cahokia. It’s the largest archaeological site related to the Mississippian culture and one of the largest earthen constructions in the Americas north of Mexico. Cahokia was inhabited from 700-1200 C.E., and the mounds we see now were built as monuments to the dead and cover a 6-mile area, situated here on the Mississippi River floodplain in west central Illinois. The area is open for hiking and climbing and exploring the remaining artifacts from when it was a thriving city. The interpretive center for this site is excellent and really helps put the whole culture of Mississippians in perspective. Wear comfortable shoes and plan to spend a few hours to see the interpretive center and do a walking tour of the area. The Cahokia Mounds are about a 4-hour drive from Chicago, with free admission, and it’s a must-see site for anyone interested in the history of the Americas or in archaeology. This site is also a great visit for anyone who just enjoys being outside.
Mesa Verde, CO, USA
For anyone who believes that truly historic architecture doesn’t exist in the states, Mesa Verde National Park will make you think again. Still standing in the park are cliff dwellings built in 600 CE by the ancestral Pueblo people who once lived in the area. A transformative day trip, Mesa Verde is nearly two hours from Telluride but well worth the drive to see its 5,000 archeological sites, from Cliff Palace (a ranger will guide you on the hike up, which involves climbing ten-foot ladders) to Balcony House (which you’ll enter via a 12-foot tunnel).
1100 W Ruins Dr, Coolidge, AZ 85128, USA
Don’t go looking for Casa Grande, the national monument of pre-Columbian ruins, in Casa Grande, the sprawling exurb of a town about halfway between Phoenix and Tucson. You have to drive about 20 miles away to the small town of Coolidge to find the site. This may not be the most scenic stretch of desert, it must be said, but the destination is worth the detour. The Hohokam culture built this complex of dwellings and irrigation canals—one of many—late in their tenure here. Erected in the 1300s, this particular site was abandoned by the mid-1400s—the end of perhaps a thousand years of irrigated agriculture in the Sonoran Desert. The network of villages and canals continue to fascinate archaeologists and urban planners. The “big house” (Casa Grande was named by the first Spanish explorers in the area) stands about four stories tall. In the 1930s, the current shelter was built to protect it from further erosion. (Look carefully: you might catch a glimpse of the resident horned owls.) The timbers needed for construction came from the mountains about 50 miles away; at the time there were no pack animals, and thus no wheeled vehicles in this desert—makes you think... The surrounding ballgame-courts show influence from Mesoamerica. Desert civilization in North America is often thought of as a recent phenomenon—take the 20th-century explosions of Las Vegas, Phoenix, etc. Dig deeper, and get off the interstate. The past is not remote, and this is an easy day trip from Tucson.
Acceso a la Piramide del Sol por puerta 4
While it’s not in Mexico City proper, the sacred pre-Hispanic city of Teotihuacan is close enough–about 30 miles– for an easy day trip if you’re interested in architecture, archaeology, and indigenous history. The site’s primary structures, the Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, have been designated by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites, and it is possible to explore the pyramids–and even climb them–either independently or with a guide. After ascending nearly 250 steps on the Pyramid of the Sun, you’ll have a greater appreciation for these ancient structures and the civilization responsible for having built them. In addition to the pyramids, an on-site museum documents the history of the so-called “City of the Gods,” and displays archaeological finds, including pottery, bones, and other important objects.
Carretera Merida-Campeche Km. 78, 97890 Uxmal, Yuc., Mexico
Overshadowed by its larger and more well-known cousins, Palenque and Chichén-Itzá, Uxmal (“Oosh-mahl”) is the ruins of an ancient Maya city located near present-day Campeche. In its heyday, Uxmal was one of the largest cities of the Yucatan peninsula with a population of about 25,000 Maya. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Ancient Maya architecture in this part of Mexico is referred to as Puuc architecture, and Uxmal is a prime example of this style. Though there are some Puuc structures in Chichén-Itzá, Uxmal is unique in all of Mexico. Puuc design is most notable for buildings with a plain lower façade and a richly decorated upper façade. Carvings most commonly found include serpents and latticework. Uxmal is dedicated to the Maya rain god, Chaac, and you can see his image everywhere. On the day we were here, it was blisteringly hot and humid; I could’ve used some rain! When I first laid eyes on the four buildings that make up the complex known as the Nunnery Quadrangle, I thought they were the most elegant Maya ruins I had ever seen. The clean lines of the buildings give them a modernity that is surprising considering Uxmal was built more than 1,000 years ago! The carvings on the upper facades are just spectacular and give the entire structure a very delicate feel. Uxmal is located close to Chichén-Itzá, so if you go to Chichén, consider going a bit further to visit Uxmal. You won’t regret it!
Carretera Federal 180 Km. 120
A brilliant work of architecture and astronomy, the Pyramid of Kukulkán at Chichén Itzá is so precisely engineered that on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, the sun casts shadows that slither like snakes and seem to descend the structure’s stairways. Said to represent the plumed-serpent deity Kukulkán, the shadows return to earth twice yearly to drink from sacred sinkholes known as cenotes. Today the phenomenon attracts thousands to the already crowded archaeological site, but almost-identical light-play can be seen the day before, alongside a mere fraction of the visitors.
I think this is the most mysterious place I have ever been. It is just crazy that no one truly knows who built these or why. Having been to Peru, I could definitely see the Inca influence on the base under the Moai. But I have also been to Polynesia, and you cannot deny the Polynesian features. We had an excellent guide whose family has been on the island for generations. She really made sure we had all the facts, but left it up to us to try to figure out the rest.
The Nazca Lines are massive geometric and zoomorphic designs laid out in the middle of the coastal desert of the Ica region. These 2500 year old sand etchings are so big that you can only see them from the air. Their origin is a mystery. Archaeologists have been unable to agree about why the Nazca people built these lines, how they were able to construct recognizable shapes without an aerial viewpoint, and how the lines have survived to this day. Many theories have been put forth, from UFOs to the idea that the local culture used these designs as a celestial calendar. The true story notwithstanding, it is definitely worth hiring a small airplane to see the Nazca Lines from on high.
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