The city of Chaco Canyon, in present day New Mexico, was a cosmopolitan trade hub from about 850 CE to 1250CE. Trade was critical – Chaco Canyon sat on in salty, infertile soil. Most of the food had to be imported, and Chaco Canyon became a regional economic center connected to other cities by roads and irrigation systems, some 15 miles long. Their sophistication showed in architecture. They built unique semi-circular stone buildings with hundreds of rooms tucked into its five or six stories. These buildings are called great houses, even though nobody lived in them. They were more like ancient office buildings and shops. The particularly unique thing about these huge complexes is that they didn’t start as small buildings and have add-ons over the years. Archaeologists believe the Great Houses, about 150 of them in all, were planned to be large from the start.
Plains: Earth Lodge Clusters in On-a-Slant Village
Earth lodges provided solid permanent housing for people of the Eastern Plains. These lodges clustered together to create thriving agricultural communities along waterways. The rive gave them a chance to not only provide for their own needs, but trade, too. The farms produced a surplus for trade, and from 900 CE on, eastern Plains farming communities engaged in long-distance trade. One community, the Mandan nation’s On-a-Slant Village housed seventy-five to eighty tightly-placed earth lodges clustered around a central plaza. On-a-Slant village was built along a river bluff, which gave them the defensive advantage of being able to watch the river for attackers. Additionally, the city had a high wall around its perimeter to protect them from an overland attack. The defenses and trading allowed On-a-Slant Village to reach a population of about 1,000 people. It flourished for about 200 years until the 1780s, when smallpox ravaged its population.
In 1600 CE, the Plains Hidatsa people settled a river bluff area near the Knife River in what is now North Dakota. The population of 820 to 1200 people clustered in 120 earth lodges together to form a village of about 820 to 1,200 people. The earth lodges in the community could hold 20 to 30 people, making each lodge a small community within itself. Big Hidatsa Village had suburbs, the Lower Hidatsa Village (Awatixa Xi’e), and Awatixa. Hidatsa Village and its suburbs were agricultural trade centers, but are best known for diplomacy. They facilitated trade between traders coming from the Minnesota region to the nations in the west, they were the home of one of the most well-known guides in history. Sakakawea lived in one of the Hidatsa villages prior to her work with the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Plains Region: Chicago wasn’t the first grand city in Illinois!
Near East St, Louis, Illinois, visitors can climb the central staircase on a giant, grass-covered earthen mound. What looks like a big hill with stairs is actually the physical remains of a city. Between 1000 and 1350 CE, the city of Cahokia was home to an estimated 10,000 to 20,000, and if its suburbs are included, 40,000 to 50,000 people. Cahokia was a farming community that specialized in maize production, but also served as a trade and government center, and a scientific community. The city had everything a city needed, including natural and man-made water systems and roads. The ever-important central plaza held festivals and ceremonies that make city life exciting. In their off time, Cahokians could head to a play area and enjoy a game of Chunkey, where they would aim spears at disc-shaped, rolling stones. Looming over the city like a watchful friend was Monks Mound.
The National Park Service calls Monks Mound, built around 900 CE, the “largest indigenous structure north of Mexico.” The mound’s base was 291 by 236 meters (954.7 by 774.3 feet). This means the base is larger than the Great Pyramid of Khufu in Egypt. But unlike its minimalist, smooth-sided Egyptian relative, it had four terraces as it climbed toward the sky. Monks Mound was an organic earthen mound, unlike their stone-built Egyptian cousins. Each tier was slightly smaller than the one beneath it. It was the original Community Center; it was a foundational platform for public buildings, burial mounds. Some of the terraces had gardens. Despite the name, there were no monks living on the mound in Cahokia’s heyday. The name refers to the Trappist monks who lived near it in the 1800s. Remarkably, Monks Mound was the tallest man-made structure in the United States until 1867.
Scotland has Stonehenge, Cahokia has Woodhenge. Woodhenge was, historically, an observatory for watching the sun, moon, and star cycles, built on land once used for houses in the early Emergent Mississippian era. There were five observatories at Cahokia. Wood posts, made of sacred red cedar reached toward the sky. The resulting shadows provided scientific data the people needed for their studies and to properly time religious ceremonies and agricultural cycles. The five observatories were probably built at different times because each Woodhenge had a larger diameter and twelve more posts than the one it overlapped. Woodhenge 1 had twenty-four posts. The last Woodhenge, Woodhenge 5 had 72 posts. Archaeologists believe Woodhenge 1 was built in 900 CE, was in use for much of Cahokia’s history, then just stopped being used around 1100 CE. Woodhenge likely returned to its original residential use, based on archaeology at the site.
Nobody knows why Cahokia was abandoned in the mid to late 1300s, but historians think it might be a combination of things like disease, warfare, conflict, trouble with the watershed and depleted wood resources. Faith in leadership plummeted. There would have been fights over the (increasingly scarce) good land, and warfare between communities. Cahokia built wooden palisades for protection against these new threats. The city’s’ population moved on, joining other Native American communities and evolved into groups like the Osage, leaving the bustling urban center a mere memory. Seventy mounds remain out of the known original 120, but the most formidable by far was Monks Mound. The city wasn’t suddenly, catastrophically abandoned. That is pretty rare in city evolution. Historians believe it followed a pattern of urban decline, where little things, and time, reduce a city’s purpose and usefulness.
Native American Architecture is a Modern Inspiration
What makes Native American architecture amazing is its template for modern designers. The buildings were sustainable, but also very sturdy, waterproof, and kept cool (or warm) using natural, not mechanized means. These ideas are consistent for every region, from the Arctic to Southwest, from small, migratory bands to the urban centers like Cahokia and Chaco Canyon. The design was often compact rather than clearing great swaths of land for housing and made use of the materials nearby for construction. True, some of these materials are less sustainable that others, particularly the loss of ancient redwoods in California, but that was an exception. Native American architecture is complex, with a huge variety in styles, details, decorative details, and spiritual meaning. Archaeologists are continuously finding new information about Native American buildings. But more important, architectural traditions live on with the Native American people. These traditions are passed down through generations.