I'm especially interested in the areas outside the Andes, but a general overview of known sites of urbanisation in the continent in that era would be great.

Edit for clarification: Various articles and books talk about population in aggregate: "x million Incas, y million Aztecs". I'm more curious about what specific cities and urbanised regions we know of - and especially the ones usually neglected in pop culture. Everyone knows about Machu Picchu. Fewer people know about the Muisca Confederation. And the Marajoara culture is all but unknown to the non-scientist. What other well-developed, well-populated regions existed around the turn of the 1500s that few are aware of; and how do they compare to the rest of the continent?

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    Welcome to History:SE. Could you edit your question to clarify what you've looked into already, complete with links and references, and context if applicable? In particular, please let us know what you find missing or unclear about the Wikipedia entry on the topic. This allows those who might want to answer to do so without needing to redo the work you've already done. You might find it helpful to review the site tour and Help Centre and, in particular, How to Ask.
    – MCW
    Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 9:31
  • @MarkC.Wallace see my previous question here, and Denis de Bernardy's final comment in particular. The article you linked is, as is Charles Mann's book 1491, mostly about the total population of various (rather large) regions and in particular how they decreased post-colonisation due to disease etc. I'm asking where these lived, before plague killed them all. Aside from the Incas, which are very present in public knowledge, where could you find cities?
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 15:09
  • Please edit that into the question.
    – MCW
    Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 15:23
  • @MarkC.Wallace Is it okay now?
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 15:26
  • You mention both cities and regions; Are you seeking information on metropoles or on societies? Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 15:38

1 Answer 1


According to the "Pre-Colombian era" article on Wikipedia, there were 4 major cultural groups that developed permenant settlements of significance in South America: the Muisca, Valdivia, Quechua and Aymara. The Valdivian settlement ( in what is now coastal Ecuador) declined centuries before the Spanish arrived. The main Quecha group in 1500 were the Inca, and they were coming to dominate their Aymara neighbors at the time.

Wikipedia's extensive list of historical urban community sizes is also of interest here. It shows that around 1500, the Aztec and Inca empires had the only "urban" population centers anywhere in the Americas. In Mexico there were the Aztec cities of Tenochtitlan (pop. ~80k) and Texcoco (pop. ~60k). In South America there was the Inca's Cusco (pop. ~45k). If you look much further back in time (c. 800 CE), Mayan Copán in Central America was on a similar scale (pop. 63,000). The Muisca, etc. never had settlements on anything near that scale as far as I can tell. The Pre-Colombian peak of Valdivia seems to have been less than 2k people.

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    Interesting... how could it be that there were 2 million people in the Muisca Confederation, in an area the size of Wales, but not one city holding 2% of their people?
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented Nov 2, 2019 at 9:17
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    "Musica architecture" mentions: "The exact number of houses in the villages remains unclear and requires more archaeological work. De Quesada described villages of 10 up to 100 houses. The Late Muisca Period, commonly defined as 1200-1537, is characterised by denser population and larger communities, especially in Suba and Cota with more dispersed housing in the vicinity."
    – Brian Z
    Commented Nov 2, 2019 at 14:52
  • With villages of up to 100 households, you would have at the very least 4000 villages. Distributing those randomly over the 25000 km^2, the expected distance between two neighbouring villages is in the order of 2 kilometres... That's very low. Especially since the majority of those would be distributed along rivers and the like, what you get is a single semi-coherent urbanised area, much like the Egyptian towns along the Nile.
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented Nov 2, 2019 at 15:59

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