Jared Diamond writes in one of his bestseller books that native North Americans had cities before the colonist times but by the time European settlers arrived diseases killed most of the population and thus the cities they had disappeared or became empty. I think it was in Guns, Germs, and Steel and he must have used some source from it. If I remember correctly it might have been a tent city but still resembling a city as they had high density. Is it true? Thanks!

  • 1
    You could look up the "mound builders" culture of the South East. You can make up your own mind if their largest settlements qualify as "cities" or not, but they were certainly substantial towns with a specialized ruling class. Commented Jun 19, 2013 at 21:13
  • Another oddball or borderline case would be the Chumash culture from the neighborhood of modern day Santa Barbabra and Goleta, CA. They supported population densities similar to large European cites of the time though they didn't have the level of civic infrastructure or (it seems) task specialization that you usually associate with a "city". Commented Jun 19, 2013 at 21:21
  • There are well-known ruins of ancient native american cities in Mexico, which is part of North America. Chichen Itza and Palenque are probably the most famous, but there are many others.
    – Flimzy
    Commented Jun 20, 2013 at 2:12
  • I once read a book called 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles Mann and it was really eye-opening regarding the extent of culture/cities. Commented Jun 21, 2013 at 8:56
  • @dmckee do you have references for those?
    – user5582
    Commented Jun 26, 2013 at 13:48

3 Answers 3


I think that Guns Germs and Steel is a good credible source, at least for the facts presented, like the presence of cities, historical timelines etc.

But besides this, here are some examples for Native American cities/pueblas in North America:

  • Cahokia

    Cahokia was the largest and most influential urban settlement in the Mississippian culture which developed advanced societies across much of what is now the Southeastern United States, beginning more than 500 years before European contact. Cahokia's population at its peak in the 1200s was among the largest cities in the world, and its ancient population would not be surpassed by any city in the United States until the late 18th century. Today, Cahokia Mounds is considered the largest and most complex archaeological site north of the great Pre-Columbian cities in Mexico.

  • Mesa Verde
  • Puye Cliff Dwellings
  • Taos Pueblo
  • Acoma Pueblo
Wikipedia has a page with a list, that includes some more, and some explanations.

In his following book, Collapse, Jared Diamond dedicates the 4th chapter to the Anasazi people, and their settlements in Mesa Verde and Chaco

Between AD 900 and 1150, Chaco Canyon was a major center of culture for the Ancient Pueblo Peoples. Chacoans quarried sandstone blocks and hauled timber from great distances, assembling fifteen major complexes which remained the largest buildings in North America until the 19th century. Evidence of archaeoastronomy at Chaco has been proposed, with the "Sun Dagger" petroglyph at Fajada Butte a popular example. Many Chacoan buildings may have been aligned to capture the solar and lunar cycles, requiring generations of astronomical observations and centuries of skillfully coordinated construction

  • 1491, by Charles Mann, also extensively covers the pre-Columbian settlements.
    – John C
    Commented Jun 19, 2013 at 22:05
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    It's probably relevant to pull this quote into the answer: Cahokia's population at its peak in the 1200s was as large as, or larger than, any European city of that time, and its ancient population would not be surpassed by any city in the United States until about the year 1800. Commented Jun 24, 2013 at 19:20
  • Wikipedia reckons, "Archaeologists estimate the city's population at between 6,000 and 40,000 at its peak". This is less than the typical 13th century population of Constantinople (the go-to candidate for greatest city of Europe for around 1000 years), but that city did have some low points during the century. The population of Paris was also significantly higher than 40k through the high middle ages, maybe excepting the odd plague. Wikipedia now says "among the largest in the world", not "as large or larger than any in Europe". Not a big deal, relevant point is that it's easily city-sized. Commented Jul 15, 2014 at 10:27
  • @SteveJessop, All the quotes are from Wikipedia, which is sourced to various other sources which are not Diamond's books. I'll not source an answer to a question about the reliability of a certain source to the source itself. You are correct to say that there were European cities that had more than 40K inhabitants in that time, but they weren't many. Also, the question isn't about the comparative size of the cities but whether they existed, if the text in the source changed, feel free to edit the answer, that is why the edit option exists.
    – SIMEL
    Commented Jul 15, 2014 at 10:29
  • related : history.stackexchange.com/questions/47521/…
    – Evargalo
    Commented Aug 13, 2018 at 8:35

Don't forget the Aztecs and Tenochtitlan

The most common estimates put the population at over 200,000 people. One of the few comprehensive academic surveys of Mesoamerican city and town sizes arrived at a population of 212,500 living on 13.5 km2 (5.2 sq mi),although some popular sources put the number as high as 350,000.

  • 2
    As we all know, Mexico is part of North America. Some scholars will estimate that Tenochtitlan was the largest city in the world when the Spanish arrived there ... certainly it was larger than Rome was at that time.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Aug 12, 2018 at 19:29

Here is some data from Canada (emphasis mine), quoting from Prehistory - The Canadian Encyclopedia:

The first crop to appear was maize, which began to be cultivated in southern Ontario about 1500 years ago and was a major supplement to a hunting and gathering economy. The early maize farmers occupied relatively permanent villages of multifamily wood and bark houses, often fortified with palisades as protection from the warfare that appears to have intensified with the introduction of agriculture. By 1350 AD beans and SQUASH were added to local agriculture, providing a nutritionally balanced diet that led to a decrease in the importance of hunting and gathering of wild foods (see PALYNOLOGY; PLANTS, NATIVE USES). At the time of European contact this agricultural lifestyle was characteristic of the Iroquoian peoples who occupied the region from southwestern Ontario to the middle St Lawrence Valley. It is the only region of Canada in which prehistoric agriculture was established as the local economic base, and was the area of greatest aboriginal population density.

The late prehistoric Iroquoians lived in villages composed of large multifamily LONGHOUSES, with some of the larger communities containing more than 2000 people. Wide-ranging social, trade and political connections spanned their area of occupation, as a complement to the warfare which occupied much of their attention. These patterns intensified with the appearance of Europeans and European trade goods during the 17th century, and eventually led to the destruction of the Canadian Iroquoians during the mid-17th century at the hands of their IROQUOIS neighbours to the south of Lake Ontario.

A size of 2000 might count as a city -- for example most of the cities in England were about that size of population, in the 14th century.

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