Aztalan: The Northern Cahokian Outpost

In Pre-Columbian times, a mighty city known as Cahokia served as a center of culture, trade, and agriculture for many indigenous societies in the Midwest. With a population in the tens of thousands, Cahokia controlled central Illinois’s Mississippi River floodplain. 

Cahokian society was not restricted to this region, however. Settlers from Cahokia journeyed north as the city expanded, bringing with them Cahokia’s culture, agriculture, and architecture. One of these groups settled alongside Wisconsin’s Crawfish River around 900 CE and became a major influence on the native populations (known as the Woodland peoples) residing in the area. 

The most prominent indication that this settlement–known as Aztalan–was of Cahokian influence is the city’s layout. The town–which was home to somewhere between 500 and 600 people–was structured around four mounds, not unlike the ones in Cahokia. Three of these platforms were man-made, with the final being a natural knoll. These mounds formed a rectangle surrounding the main part of the city and its plaza. Despite agricultural damage over time, there is evidence that one of these platforms supported a temple, that a mortuary house was built atop another, and that the third man-made mound was beneath the home of a city leader. The final earthen structure likely served as a burial ground. 

Map of Aztalan (Figure by Jake F. Pfaffenroth. January 2018)

The city of Aztalan itself was divided into three sections: a residential area, the central plaza, and a higher ground for elites. Running through the entire city were wooden walls, but the greatest of these were the fortified palisades surrounding the Aztalan on all sides. These fences consisted of wooden posts, which were reinforced with small branches and debris, and covered in a layer of clay. The existence of these fortifications implies that the settlers may not have always had peaceful times in the Wisconsin area, possibly clashing with the aforementioned Woodland peoples. 

Aztalan Mound and Palisade (Photo by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources 2022)

A typical diet in Aztlan was influenced by the Crawfish River, which provided fish, mussels, and turtles. From the surrounding forest, residents were able to hunt deer, birds, and other creatures, and forage for edible plants. Using Cahokian agricultural practices, they were also able to cultivate corn, squash, and beans. 

Aztalan survived for nearly 200 years, and while the circumstances surrounding its abandonment are unknown, anthropologists working in the region are attempting to shed light on the city’s end, specifically toying with the ideas of drought and warfare. 

Today, what was once Aztalan is now a state park of the same name. With efforts to protect specifically the city’s mounds beginning as early as the 1920s, Aztalan State Park opened to the public in 1952, and was subsequently designated a National Landmark in 1964. Covering approximately 172 acres, the park encompasses the remains of the ancient town and its mounds as well as the surrounding area. Furthermore, excavations and restorations have taken place in the park. While two of the mounds have been extensively worked on, 80% of the area still remains to be excavated, so more discoveries are still to come. 



References Cited

Dotson, Keith.    2019    “Ancient America: Aztalan Mound Site in Wisconsin.” Shadows and Light (blog),, accessed November 13, 2022

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources     2022    “History: Aztalan State Park” Electronic document,, accessed November 13, 2022

Wisconsin Historical Society     2022    “Exploring the History of Atzalan: A Middle Mississippian Settlement.” Historical Essay,, accessed November 13, 2022

Wisconsin Historical Society    2022    “Mississippi Culture and Atzalan: The Genesis of Modern Wisconsin.” Historical Essay,, accessed November 13, 2022


Further Readings:

The Milwaukee Public Museum: Middle Mississippians

World History Encyclopedia: Cahokia

The Kachina: Influence and Worship in Pueblo Society

Mistaken by Spanish colonizers as satanic worship, the kachina figure was an integral part of the culture of the Pueblo People. Consisting of indigenous tribes including the Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, and Laguna, the Pueblo People occupied much of the Southwestern United States. They were largely farmers and hunters, leaving behind important archaeological sites such as underground kivas, cliff dwellings, pottery, and kachina dolls. These items played an important role in Pueblo religion and culture.

To the Pueblo People, nature was personified as entities known as the kachina. They represented anything from stars to various animals to even other tribes, and tended to be expressed in three ways: as spiritual beings, as masked dancers, and as dolls. The kachina were credited with first teaching humans–specifically the Hopi–how to make tools, hunt, use medicine, and live off the land. To the Pueblo People, the kachina were rain-bringers who stayed with the tribe for half of the year, serving as spiritual guides and influencing the harvest. 

Actual ritual worship of the kachina heavily depended on men. Men were the only ones allowed to don kachina masks and dance in the kivas. Kachina masks were thought of as containing a kachina’s spiritual essence, and therefore allowed said kachina to temporarily inhabit the body of the dancer. Through dance, specific spirits would be able to hear the prayers of the people, and men would be able to communicate with the entities themselves. 


Figure 1– Ho-ote Kachina Dance (Kabotie 2008)


The second prominent way in which the Pueblo People honored the kachina was with dolls. Originating with the Hopi tribe, sacred kachina dolls were carved from cottonwood roots, which were then painted using natural minerals. These figures were given to young Hopi girls during ceremonies, then hung on walls or used in other ways to decorate and watch over a home. The dolls were often passed down through families, generation after generation. As men were the only ones allowed to participate in kachina ceremonies in underground kivas, kachina dolls served as a way to keep the kachina spirits relevant to the rest of the Pueblo People. 


Figure 2– Kachina Doll (Brooklyn Museum, 1903)


Evidence of kachina art began to appear in the archaeological record as early as 1150 AD, with discoveries in the Puerco Ruins. Definitive representations of kachina in Hopi pottery began appearing in the 1300s, and extended into the 1400s. Similarly, by 1325, there were rock art depictions of kachina masks and dancers. As mentioned earlier, we also see Spanish interaction with the kachina. Colonists’ accounts record seeing “satanic paraphernalia” on display in the homes of Pueblo People–likely these were kachina dolls. Into the mid 1800s and beyond, kachina dolls were sold in the marketplace, and became accessible to non-Pueblo People. Following this, there began to be photo documentation of the kachina dolls and more archaeological research into their history. 

Appearing as dolls and in ritual regalia and practices, the kachina held an enormous role in Pueblo society and were an outlet for the agricultural society to pray for good harvests, rains, and natural conditions.




Blake Weiner, James. Kachina Cult. World History Encyclopedia, January 16, 2019, 

The Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Kachina. August 30, 2021, 

The Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Pueblo Indians. May 15, 2020, 

Pueblo Native Americans: Their History, Culture, and Traditions. Native Hope, April 19, 2021, 

Weiser-Alexander, Kathy. Kachinas of the Puebloans. Legends of America, November 2021, 



Further Readings: 

Richard H. Wilshusen, Ancestral Puebloans of the Four Corners Region, Colorado Encyclopedia, September 09, 2020,

Weiser, Kathy. Kachina Types and Ceremonies. Legends of America, November 2019,