Urban Indians – Great Cities of Native America – Happy American Indian Heritage Month

It’s not that surprising, given our Hollywood history of Native Americans, that the media feel it necessary to coin a term like “Urban Indians.” Since Native Americans exist in popular culture as stewards of nature who spend their lives camping under the stars and measuring times in “moons,” the fact that millions of Native Americans live in cities doesn’t jibe with our media-reinforced notions of race as it corresponds to population density. Thus “urban” is shorthand for black and “suburban” means white. Any exceptions would be similarly worth qualifying, like “suburban blacks” or “country Asians” (e.g. Henry Cho).

So anyway, Natives have a long history of being “urban.” Before being decimated by disease, warfare, slavery and famine, Natives were responsible for creating some of the biggest, most-populated cities of their day. Here are some of my favorite Native American urban centers…


ruins of Caral Caral reconstructed


Caral was inhabited between roughly 2600 BC and 2000 BC and covered 66 hectares. It’s one of the oldest towns in the Americas in what’s today Peru) and was home to more than 3,000 members of what is now known as the Norte Chico Civilization.

Fortress of Kuelap Kuelap Circular House


Kuelap was a fortress town built by the Chachapoyas, “People of the Clouds,” originally to stop the expansion of the Inca Empire and later used to fight the Spaniards. It was built on the edge of a mountain in the 9th century CE (in what’s now Peru) and included more than 400 homes, palaces and temples protected by a 70-foot-wall.

Walls of Chan Chan Ruins of Chan Chan

Chan Chan

Chan Chan was built by the Chimú in what’s today Peru. Chan Chan covered 20 km² and was built around 850. At its height it was home to around 30,000 people. Chan Chan was the capital of their Chimor Kingdom which lasted roughly from 900 CE until 1470, when they were conquered by the imperialistic Inca.



The city of Guayabo was inhabited from roughly 1500 BCE to 1400 CE and had at its peak a population of around 10,000. Though it covered 218 hectares, only a small portion has thus far been excavated. It’s located in what’s today Costa Rica.

Qosqo walls Machu Picchu

Incan Cities

The Inca had many cities spread throughout their massive empire (which they referred to as Tawantinsuyu, or “The Four Provinces.”), the largest in the Americas until the European conquest (covering parts of modern Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador. The capital, Qosqo (Cusco), was founded around 1100 CE by the Killke Culture. In 1438 they embarked on a brutal conquest of their neighbors. Machu Picchu was built around 1450 and is the best known emblem of the Inca civilization. The beginning of the end came with the arrival of the Spaniards in 1538.

Laguna de los Cerros

Olmec Cities 

The Olmec were one of the earliest Native civilizations to develop in Mesoamerica (in what’s now Mexico). La Venta was constructed around 1600 BCE. The little-excavated Laguna de los Cerros was constructed between 1400 and 1200. Tres Zapotes was built before 1000. San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán was the largest city in the region from 1200 to 900.


The Aztecs – Tenōchtitlān

The Aztec city of Tenōchtitlān (not to be confused with that of the Olmecs) was later the capital of the Aztec empire (in what’s now Mexico). At its peak, Tenōchtitlān was home to as many as 350,000 people living within 13.5 km², making it as large as Constantinople, Paris or Venice at the same time.

El Mirador

Mayan Cities

The Mayans were an especially “urban indian.” Their civilization peaked in urban terms between 250 CE and 900. They built numerous cities, including Tikal, Palenque, Copán and Calakmul, Dos Pilas, Uaxactun, Altun Ha, Bonampak, Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Edzná, Coba and Naachtun (in what today are Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. Though people often talk about their disappearance, they still make up large numbers of the indigenous populations of people in the Yucatán Peninsula, Chiapas, Belize, Tabasco and Guatemala.


Mississippian Cities

Between 1200 CE to 1400 CE., the Mississippians built cites at Angel Mounds, Cahokia, Emerald Mount, Etowah, Great Village of the Natchez, Kincaid, Moundville, Ocmulgee, Parkin and Spiro Mound in what’s today the USA. At its peak, the 9 km²  Cahokia was home to roughly 40,000 people, making it larger than London was at the time.

Mesa Verde

Puebloan Cities

The Puebloan peoples’ numbers peaked between 900CE and 1130. The multi-story remains of their towns are in evidence at Acoma, Chaco, Hovenweep, Mesa Verde, Bandelier and others (in what’s today the USA). Teyuna was founded as early as 800. Between 1250 to 1577, Puye was home to a population of 1,500. The well-known Taos Pueblo is thought to have been built between 1000 and 1450 and is still inhabited.



Tiwanaku was inhabited as early as 1500 BCE. It was originally an agricultural village, but, between
300 BCE and 300 CE became a religious and cosmological pilgrimage site.
The 6.5 km² city is believed to have supported an urban population of around 30,000 people whose nation (in what’s today Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru) was ultimately absorbed or destroyed by the Incas.

Tōllān or Tula


The Toltec‘s capital, Tōllān, in Nahuatl means “among the reeds,” and is believed to refer to the high density of the city at its peak. It was built around 980 CE and within 12 km² supported some 30,000 until its destruction between 1168 or 1179. The Toltec empire was located within what’s today Mexico.

Why no Hollywood movies?

One thing these ancient “urban indians” have in common is that their urban periods mostly ended by the time of the Spanish conquest. As Hollywood has shown us again and again, a movie about Natives requires a white hero… Only Apocalyptico comes to mind as breaking with that tradition, although Mel couldn’t resist tacking on the arrival of the Spaniards, which in fact came presumably at least 600 years after the events of the film. How cool would it be to see a movie about pre-conquest Native American society? Young aspiring filmmakers out there, how about giving us something new?

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

Art Prints

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