The Aztecs, Mayas and Incas might have been the most renowned pre-Columbian builders, but various Native American societies weren’t far behind when it came to designing and erecting impressive structures.
The recent declaration of the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks in Ohio as the nation’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site is a reminder that the ancient residents of what is now the United States were skilled architects and engineers.
Native American construction feats range from one of the oldest urban sites in the western hemisphere and a U.S. version of the Nazca Lines to the largest pyramid north of Mexico City and a structure that’s been continuously inhabited for more than 500 years.
Here are some of the most astounding structures created by the nation’s Native Americans:
Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks (Ohio)
“They are exceptional amongst ancient earthworks worldwide, not only in their enormous scale and wide geographic distribution, but also in their geometric precision,” exclaimed UNESCO when it enshrined this Ohio landmark as the nation’s 25th World Heritage Site in September.
Erected between 1,600 and 2,000 years ago by the Hopewell people — at a time when the Roman Empire was flourishing in Europe — the eight huge, grass-covered enclosures were used for religious rituals, funerals, communal feasts and other special events.
Located an hour’s drive south of Columbus, Hopewell Culture National Historic Park offers hiking trails and a visitor center museum with a 19-minute film about the site.
Cahokia Mounds (Illinois)
Soaring around 100 feet (30 meters) above the plains of west-central Illinois, Monks Mound is the largest pyramid north of Mexico’s central valley and the largest ancient earthen structure in the western hemisphere.
The colossal pyramid was the focal point of a sprawling Native American city that may have supported as many as 40,000 people during in the 11th century C.E. when it was a major trading hub near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
Cahokia features an excellent site museum and interpretive trails around smaller mounds. But the apex of any visit is climbing Monks Mound for a panoramic view of nearby St. Louis and the Gateway Arch.
Poverty Point (Louisiana)
Around the same time that Tutankhamun was the “Boy King” of Egypt and prehistoric Britons were putting the finishing touches on Stonehenge, ancient Native Americans were constructing a complex of earthen mounds and ridges on the Mississippi River flood plain of northern Louisiana.
Not much is known about the people who created Poverty Point, but artifacts uncovered on the site strongly indicate it was likely used for spiritual rites and trading activities, and that it had a permanent
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This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Kelsey Frampton, a 21-year-old business student from Fresno, California, who's studying in Barcelona. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
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