The question

At the time of the European invasions after 1492, the most technologically advanced cultures in the Americas had progressed to about the same stage as the Bronze Age in the old world. However, among other significant differences, the cities in Pre-Columbian American cultures generally lacked city walls while city walls were the defining feature of Old World cities at this technological stage. Why is this?

The states

The relevant Pre-Columbian American cultures are Inca, Maya, Muisca, Mound-builder, Aztec and related cultures that each possessed (many or almost all of:) writing, large-scale empires, extensive agriculture, street and waterway infrastructure, trade networks, bronze, wide range melee and projectile weapons, huge cities, large scale military campaigns and public works.

Comparable cultures in the old world would have been the old and middle kingdom in Egypt, the late Sumerian, Akkadian, early Babylonian empires in Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley civilization in India, the Minoan and Mykenean civilizations in Greece, the Hittites in Anatolia, as well as China up to the Zhou dynasty.

The walls

All (?) the mentioned Old World cultures relied heavily on city walls as defensive features. This is reflected in the histories and myths of the time. Pre-Columbian America lacks this feature in spite of ample conflict including conquest and sacking of cities. What little seems to have been written about this (see Gat 2002, especially p.9 and following) hypothesizes that city walls only develop slowly over time and would not be expected to be present in the early Bronze age. They are, so the article, mainly found in later stages, around well-planned highly populated late urban centres. In the light of the facts that some pre-Columbian cultures had an urban history of more than 1000 years (in the area) and were both well-planned and highly populated (Tenochtitlan being among the largest cities on earth at the time), this does not appear entirely convincing.

It seems that in many Pre-Columbian conflicts, the last stand of the defending side did not take place around the city (on the city wall) but on the city's pyramid-temples (providing high ground and naturally defendable positions). See this account of the conquest of Tlatelolco by the Tenochca's (freely available here); the defeated king/tlatoani Moquihuix took his last stand on the Templo Mayor (the great pyramid) and died falling from it. Pyramid-temples were present in many pre-Columbian cultures (including Aztec, Maya, Muisca, Chimu, Mound-builder etc. etc.)


Are there other explanations? Did the two disconnected societies just develop along different paths with pyramid-temples being present in Pre-Columbian American bronze age cultures but not in Old World pronze age? Did the presence or horses and mounted warfare in the Old World play a part (it seems difficult to efficiently make use of superior mobility against extensively fortified positions)?

Has this problem been considered by historians? Is there a debate about this? Is there more evidence or other crucial facts? Where can I read about this?

  • 2
    Present day US Cities are wholly lacking in City Walls actually. Medieval Europe had Castles...usually along rivers to collect tolls as Rivers were the primary means of transportation for European Civilisations. Overland roadways did not come into regular use in Europe until the 1800's and the Railroad. This actually was not true of "pre Columbian" American Civilization which had used roads for centuries as travel...and still do actually. This fact impressed "advanced" Western Europeans very much when they arrived in the New World... a world they dominated via Seapower for Centuries. – Doctor Zhivago Oct 28 '16 at 18:12
  • I suspect that walls arise only if the inhabitants of the town perceive defense against siege as more valuable to easy access to agricultural fields. I further suspect that that value statement is linked to the risk of specialized skills & production - to the best of my knowledge that was rare in the Americas. – Mark C. Wallace Oct 28 '16 at 18:49
  • The Plague had a major impact on Western Civilization causing some Cities and even small towns to wall themselves off from the World in some cases for Centuries...in particular in Germany. There were interactions with the Countryside but until the 1800's in Western Europe these interactions were in fact and in many ways still are "at arms length" (Europe being an overwhelmingly urban society.) An interesting dichotomy is the development of Canada versus the United States...both very similar prima facie...yet if you want to see Walls in the Americas just visit Canada and there they are. – Doctor Zhivago Oct 28 '16 at 19:29
  • 2
    @user14394: "Overland roadways did not come into regular use in Europe..."? I think you're forgetting the Romans and their vast road system, some parts of which can still be seen today. There are even older roads, such as the Ridgeway in Britain. – jamesqf Oct 29 '16 at 5:22
  • 1
    @jamesqf Most of the roads in France, Spain and the British Isles existed before the Romans. The Romans paved the main ones to aid the march of their armies and administration and added a couple of others. France in particular was full of roads, had its own distance measurement called the league and heavily used wheeled vehicles all before Caesar invaded. – Daniel Jan 1 at 20:17

The implication of the question is that Meso-American cultures didn't employ any architectural defenses ("walls"). I don't think that's true at all.

Below is a pictoral recreation of Cahokia. That city was probably far too large and spread out to totally wall up, but you can clearly see there was a wall around the central districts. The text with the picture refers to it as a "palisade" (iow: wooden wall)

enter image description here

Artists conception of the Mississippian culture Cahokia Mounds Site in Illinois. The illustration shows the large Monks Mound at the center of the site with the Grand Plaza to it's south. This central precinct is encircled by a palisade. Three other plazas surround Monks Mound to the west, north and east. To the west of the western plaza is the Woodhenge circle of cedar posts.

DeSoto himself reported natives in what is now the USA Southeast lived in fortified cities in the 1500's.

Now I've personally visited some Maya ruins, and I can vouch that they didn't have any ruined walls around them that I noticed. However, that would have been largely superfluous as the ruins in question were on a towering hill surrounded by jungle. If that particular site had felt like building a wooden palisade as well, the wood certainly would have been available.

Either way, searching for the research on the subject, it does appear that the Maya fortified some of their cities, and there are at least a couple of researchers who are happy to discuss Mayan fortifications at length. As near as I can tell, the same is true for the Inca.

  • Another one with stocades: Aztalan – axsvl77 Jan 1 at 13:10
  • Charles C. Mann did not think the Cahokia palisade was for defence at all. He wrote in 1491 that "anyone could pass through its dozen or so wide gates." – Aaron Brick Jan 1 at 16:42

I believe many did.
Hopewell (mound builders) : This Hopewell mound in Newark Ohio looks an awe-full lot like a circular wall with a gate in the upper left hand corner.
Hopewell mound

regarding the Inca, these look like defensive walls to me. inca ruins

  • 3
    More often than not these are burial grounds of religious not military significance. Certainly on its face Mexico City appeared to be an impregnable fortress though. The Conquistadors just walked right in remarkably. This was a City some estimated to be in excess of 300,000 at that time...ranking it among the largest in the World. It may be that the Aztecs saw a "Civilization" that could help their impressive Empire grow even larger...which when looking at the numbers (300 vs 300,000) seems more than reasonable. For reasons that remain inexplicable this was not the plan for the Spanish though. – Doctor Zhivago Oct 29 '16 at 3:05

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