Why Doesn’t North America Have Ancient Cities?

In Italy there’s Rome, where you can see ruins which are thousands of years old. China has even older cities, and in the Middle East we can find remnants of the very first civilizations — the oldest known might be Göbekli Tepe, although it probably doesn’t count as a “city”. But we don’t seem to have ancient cities in North America — why not?

Well, it depends on what you mean

First of all, what’s a “city” (how many people need to have lived there?) What’s “ancient” (how old does it have to be?) and maybe most importantly for this question, what do we mean by “have” — are ancient ruins enough, or does it have to be a city where people still live?

And there are other factors

Part of the problem is building materials. If you build a massive pyramid out of stone, it’s going to be around thousands of years later. If you build stuff out of wood, it’s much more likely to be destroyed over time and leave little or no trace. So, the visible presence of cities is going to depend on whether local cultures used stone and metal or other things — and that partly depends on geology; you’re not going to build your house out of stone if there’s no good stone nearby. This may help to explain why we don’t think of America as a place to find ancient cities. But …

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Still, we really do have ancient cities — like in Central America

Our most famous ancient city is probably Mexico City itself. Today it has a population of almost 9 million people (definitely big enough to be a “city”) and is the capital of Mexico (definitely part of the North American continent). In the center of the city, you can still view what remains of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco, the Aztec cities which existed there before the Spanish conquest. They go back to about 1325 CE, or about 900 years ago. Is that old enough to be “ancient” though? Well, we can get a lot older than that … the city of Cholula is still inhabited today, and has been since 200-500 BCE … that’s well over 2000 years. You can even see a Great Pyramid there — covered in so much earth and greenery that it looks like a hill. In modern-day Guatemala, the ancient city of Flores might be even older than Cholula, and remains a beautiful place to visit and live.

What about the United States?

The most well-known ancient cities in the US are probably in the Southwestern states of Arizona and New Mexico, because they were built out of stone. The cities of Acoma Pueblo and Oraibi are older than Tenochtitlan, and people still live there today. The Cahokia Mounds Historic Site in Illinois allows tourists to view and learn about the city there, which existed 1,000 years before contact with Europe — and was, in its prime, larger and busier than London was. Other, less famous or less visible Native American settlements are known to have existed in many places around modern-day America and Canada.

What about European cities?

Well, the obvious answer for why we don’t have older European cities is that Europeans were stuck on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean until Vikings discovered Newfoundland. The earliest continuously-occupied European city would be Santo Domingo, dating back to 1496 CE in what is now the Dominican Republic.