By 1250 AD, in the quiet cornfields of southern Wisconsin, a fortified frontier town of several hundred people was suddenly abandoned. The town they left behind became an enduring mystery — strange pyramid mounds, huge brick walls and chilling evidence of cannibalism. Today this quiet windswept place is known as Aztalan. Nobody knows what happened to them.
Aztalan was settled a millennium ago by the Mississippians, a lost civilization of Native American mound builders. These prehistoric people once dominated the American Midwest and southeast, with Aztalan being their northernmost outpost. Aztalan was unusually far away from other Mississippians, all alone in a land that belonged to tribes of the Woodland Culture. While some of the Woodland Culture Indians were friends, others were likely enemies. Even if we don’t know exactly what happened to Aztalan, I wanted to learn about the educated guesses.
Far-flung outpost of the Mississippians
My friends Ben, Chris and I went to Aztalan to find out more. When we first arrived at Aztalan State Park, located between Madison and Milwaukee, I saw two grass-covered pyramid mounds rising up over a prairie. Near the mounds were sun-bleached timber posts. They were recreations of part of the stockade walls that once encircled the town.
In the late 1830s when the first white settlers saw the burned, overgrown ruins of Aztalan they were astonished to see an ancient citadel in the wilderness. Even today, it’s a striking sight. The settlers thought the ruins resembled those in Mexico and figured that this was the legendary homeland of the Aztecs. That idea has since been debunked. Researchers discovered that Aztalan was colonized by emigrants from Cahokia, a sprawling metropolis near modern-day St. Louis and the heart of the Mississippian civilization. One of the tantalizing mysteries about Aztalan is that when it disappeared, it presaged the fall of Cahokia and the general decline of the Mississippians. The two events seem related.
We stopped by the “Friends of Aztalan” visitor center trailer at the southwest end of the park where we were lucky enough to meet Dr. Bob Birmingham, an archeologist, university professor and go-to expert on Aztalan. He said that there hasn’t been nearly enough excavations done at Aztalan and that it was a shame because the Mississippians were a civilization every bit an equal to that of the ancient Celts or ancient Sumerians. “If this had been somewhere else in the world such as in England, they’d have the whole place dug up by now,” he said. Dr. Birmingham believes that Aztalan is important because as he put it, “it’s the history of the land.”
Pyramid mounds of Aztalan
From the few excavations that were done, archeologists learned that Aztalan was no utopia. It was a hierarchical society ruled by nobles and priests. It wasn’t just a town but also a well-planned fortress. Aztalan was protected by tall stockade walls on all sides, with gates along the Crawfish River and 32 watchtowers at regular intervals. The timber walls were reinforced by thick clay that hardened into what resembled red brick. Walls also subdivided the town inside, forming a residential district, a grand plaza and areas that were apparently for the elite people only.
The Aztalanites built three large terraced mounds, of which two remain today, where they put their most important buildings such as the ruling chief’s house, a mortuary, and a temple that burned a sacred fire. Beyond the great walls were farm fields and numerous smaller mounds, most of which are gone today, being the victims of white farmers’ steel plows. Among those mounds that did survive is the “Princess Mound,” just north of the park by the Aztalan History Museum, where the skeleton of a young 20-something woman was found buried with nearly 2,000 seashell beads.
Cannibalism and complicated relationships
One of the most gruesome and debatable discoveries about Aztalan is their possible cannibalism. Many charred and broken human bones have been found in Aztalan’s trash and fire pits, just like they had been discarded leftovers. Some of these bones had even been snapped in half as if to extract the marrow. Dr. Birmingham thinks that while they probably practiced some ritual cannibalism of enemy captives, most of these picked-over bones were actually from “protracted mortuary rituals” that involved cremations and reburials.
Aztalan traded extensively, getting for themselves copper ornaments, conch shells, and flint from across North America. A number of Woodland Culture Indians lived among the townsfolk, and were probably friends and family. At the same time Aztalan built defensive walls so strong that they could still be seen in the early 19th century. One of their enemies may have been the Oneota tribe. One reason archeologists think this is because no Oneota artifacts have been found at Aztalan in spite of how close they lived to each other.
I wish I could’ve seen Aztalan in its prime. There’s so many unanswered questions. What happened to these people who settled so faraway from their fellow Mississippians, warred with some of their neighbors (and perhaps even ate some of them), and built huge walls and mounds? It’s easy for a visitor like me to wonder at a thousand years later. The people of Aztalan left nothing but their earthworks, garbage and bones. That’s why archeologists like Dr. Birmingham have to get on their hands and knees to sift diligently in the dirt for clues. More often than not, they uncover more mysteries.
Aztalan State Park
N6200 Hwy Q, Lake Mills, WI
parking day pass for out-of-state visitors is $10