What Was Native American Civilization Like Before Custer?

Most of us have a fairly skewed idea of what Native Americans were really like before settlers destroyed their culture both intentionally and unintentionally. Diseases from the west quite literally decimated Native American societies, which were big and booming, enjoying a level of size and prosperity that most of us probably can’t even imagine they were capable of building in the first place.

Oh, but they did built it.

Before settlers from the west arrived, and long before Custer’s Last Stand, Native American civilization was much different than we ever learned in grade school. Point in fact: have you ever heard of Cahokia, El Pilar, or Tikal? We thought not.

Cahokia Mounds in St. Clair County, Illinois, is considered the site of one of the biggest North American Native American settlements that ever existed. Before its rise to prominence, Cahokia had anywhere from 1,400 to 2,800 residents. But around 1100 AD, the population skyrocketed to anywhere from 10,200 to 15,300 people. But like all modern-day cities, there was a main “metropolitan” area surrounded by “suburbs” and farms with a lot more people.

Many archaeologists believe that there could have been around 40,000 people living there when the city was at its best. It became such an economic center that thousands more would have poured in and out each day. Eventually Cahokia’s population declined and was abandoned within 150 years. 

But Cahokia was dwarfed by the massive Maya city at El Pilar, located along the modern-day Belize-Guatemala border. Historians estimate that there may have been more than 180,000 residents in El Pilar when the city was at its peak around 1000 AD. We’re still learning about what it offered those who thrived there.

The ruins at El Pilar were discovered in 1983 by Dr. Anabel Ford, who said, “We need to be honest about the Maya and make sure people witness something with a level of veracity. I believe you can both show people something and have it be real. Besides, we have plenty of exposed temples already.”

And then there’s Tikal, another ancient Maya city located in the Guatemalan rainforests, where 100,000 people may have lived. Now, Tikal is a reminder of the superiority of Maya superiority: Tikal had an enormous amount of influence over other cities in almost every way. They interacted politically, but they could also assert control through their strong economy and powerful military machine.

Tikal fell into decline by the 4th century CE, giving newer civilizations a chance to prosper as well — which, of course, now we know they did.