When did man first arrive in North America? We know through artifacts, cliff paintings and even written word that many indigenous peoples have walked these lands for centuries before European explorers and settlers began to gaze westward. But you might be surprised to find that even though all the countries in modern day North America can lay a claim to an impressive number of early human settlements, it’s really our neighbors to the south that monopolize the title for the oldest ones. It’s important to note that when discussing this topic, experts and archeologists include Central American countries in this list.
Mexico, 1500 BCE
Tlapacoya is considered the oldest settlement in North America, although there isn’t a true consensus on just how old this archeological find could really be. While much of the pottery and artifacts found in the region date back as far as 1500 BCE, some archeologists have found human remains and artifacts that dated to over 24,000 BCE.
However, whether these remains are related to those of the Olmec, who lived in this region between 1500 to 300 BCE, is still a mystery. Most archeologists date Tlapacoya as a BCE settlement that began around 1500. But you’ll also find lists placing Tlapacoya at the top and with a date of 7500 BCE — even though that date isn’t substantiated with any evidence. More research and artifact dating is necessary to confirm if the older date is accurate.
Tepoztlán, San Jose Mogote, Chalcatzingo, Calixtlahuaca
Mexico, 1500 BCE
Why have we grouped these four settlements together? Tepoztlán, San Jose Mogote, Chalcatzingo, and Calixtlahuaca are listed concurrently because they are all in Mexico and, through artifacts, date back to 1500 BCE. Tepoztlán is said to be the birthplace of the myth that gave rise to the Mesoamerican god Quetzalcoatl. Unlike many of the other settlements on this list, Tepoztlán is still an active town that’s home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site and thriving tourism industry.
San Jose Mogote was an important settlement for the Zapotec people during the Pre-Columbian era (before European influence). The settlement is viewed as the oldest permanent community in the Oaxaca Valley and one of the best examples of an agrarian community. The grounds demonstrate irrigation techniques, hieroglyphic writing, temples, defensive structures, and terracing.
Chalcatzingo is best known for its Olmec style of architecture and ornamentation. However, it was also important because it was a critical junction for trade routes between Guerrero, the Valley of Mexico, and the Gulf Lowlands. Calixtlahuaca served as a very important settlement during its time. The town was located in the fertile Toluca Valley and was best known as a strong corn production region. While it was once home to the Matlatzincas, it eventually became an Aztec stronghold.
Guatemala, 1500 BCE
Mexico might be a major focus for pre-Columbian activity, but it’s not the only country that holds archeological importance. Kaminaljuyu is a major find for discovering how the Mayans once lived. While it’s not the most impressive or popular site for tourists, archeologists rank it as one of the most significant.
Sadly, much of the original settlement was demolished or built over by modern real estate developers. Worse still, many of the original structures were built with adobe, a material that doesn’t always hold up against the elements. So today, Kaminaljuyu is mostly a few mounds of raised earth in a protected park in Guatemala City.
Mexico, 1400 BCE
We’re back to Mexico with Teopantecuanitlan, an early settlement that is best remembered by archeologists because of its complex social structures given the date it was founded. The settlement is important because it demonstrates how influential the Olmec culture was outside of its region in present-day Veracruz.
Teopantecuanitlan is classified as a Mezcala culture, yet archeologists found numerous Olmec-style artifacts mixed in with the Mezcala ones. The prevailing theory is that the Teopantecuanitlan community in present-day Guerrero participated in trade that brought them into proximity with the Olmec, who primarily resided on the opposite side of Mexico.
Guatemala, 1400 BCE
If your focus is the Mayans, Nakbe might be the place you need to visit. While Kaminaljuyu is technically older, Nakbe is better preserved and one of the largest early Mayan settlements. This settlement offers one of the clearest views into Mayan social hierarchy, with skulls found that included early forms of dentistry such as incisors inlaid with jade and even the common practice of head binding. Only the wealthy or better-off members of society would participate in these activities. The site is also an architectural gem, including common cultural designs like causeways, pyramids and limestone quarries to support construction.
It’s important to note that this article is a snapshot of the complex Mesoamerican history represented in the eight significant North American settlements listed. Each settlement could be covered in its own article, but our goal was to give you a quick overview of their significance within Mesoamerican pre-Columbian history and their associated cultures. So, we hope we sparked your curiosity! And you might wonder why the United States didn’t make the cut. It turns out that the earliest official settlement found in the U.S. is significantly younger than those we listed and is Cahokia in Illinois from 650 CE.