A Thousand Years of North American Societies

Indigenous cultures were neither uniform across the North American continent nor static over the last thousand years before they met Europeans. These articles highlight the histories of North American societies in the Southwest, Great Plains, and Mississippi River Valley, and the variety of historical sources scholars use to learn about them.
A drawing of people tending crops and preparing food near mud-covered pit houses.

One Ancient Culture Actually Benefited From 'The Worst Year in Human History'

The challenges of 536 CE, including cold temperatures and volcanic fallout, prompted a flourishing of Ancestral Pueblo society.
Biology: tree rings and food crops reveal the ways agricultural Ancestral Pueblo societies responded to climate change and population pressures in the Southwest ca. 400-550 CE.
Scientists carrying a log by using straps around their heads.

1,000 Years Ago, Ancient Puebloans Built a Mysteriously Vast City. We May Finally Know How.

High up on the Colorado Plateau, in what is today the state of New Mexico, sit the remains of what was once a city of epic proportions.
Reenactment: to hypothesize about how Ancestral Puebloans built and maintained the massive buildings of Chaco Canyon from ca. 800-1100 CE, scientists tried using the materials and technologies known to be available in the Southwest at that time.
Window in the Sun Temple at Mesa Verde.

Is Colorado Home to an Ancient Astronomical Observatory? The Question Is Testing Archaeological Limits.

Did Ancestral Puebloans watch the skies from Mesa Verde's Sun Temple? Solving its mysteries requires overcoming archaeology’s troubled past.
Astronomy: can observing the movements of the sun and moon today and measuring alignments with the architecture of Mesa Verde help us understand the calculations the Ancestral Pueblo were making in the 1200s?
A vista in Utah.

Walking Into New Worlds

Native traditions and novel discoveries tell the migration story of the ancestors of the Navajo and Apache.
Clothing: oral tradition and craftsmanship style suggest a pair of moccasins from the late 1200s found by the Great Salt Lake were worn by the ancestors of today's Navajo and Apache as they migrated through the area.
Buffalo jump

Native Americans Managed the Prairie for Better Bison Hunts

Hunter-gatherer societies may have a bigger ecological impact than we thought.
Environment: hunting-focused societies on the plains from 1100-1650 did not build cities like their farming counterparts did -- they left their mark on the land by building fires to control the ecology of the region and increase their productivity.

How White Settlers Buried the Truth About the Midwest's Mysterious Mounds

Pioneers and early archeologists preferred to credit distant civilizations, not Native Americans, with building these cities.
Debunking: The Misssissippian city of Cahokia thrived between 900-1350. At its height in 1050, it was larger than London, but it was already long reduced to ruins by the time Europeans saw it. The stories white settlers told, and those they could not imagine, obscured our understanding of Mississippian culture for centuries.
Artists' rendering of Cahokia mounds with buildings and people on them.

Finding North America’s Lost Medieval City

Cahokia was bigger than Paris — then it was completely abandoned. I went there to find out why.
Archaeology: Digging up the soil can help us cut through the myths and learn about Mississippian society, from its urban planning to its religious practices.
Mississippian funerary heads in the collection of Monticello.

“Kicked About”: Native Culture at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Kristine K. Ronan describes her discovery of two Native American statues at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.
Art: While Mississippian artifacts can tell us about pre-contact cultures, where those artifacts ended up can tell us about later Americans' interests and blind spots surrounding American Indian histories.
Artist's rendering of Cahokia

Ancient Poop Reveals What Happened after the Fall of Cahokia

People hunted and raised small farms near the ruins of the ancient city.
Chemistry: While they may have stopped maintaining the centralized city of Cahokia, the people who lived there did not just disappear. Chemical traces of human excrement reveal population patterns in the region through 1500.