Aztalan, new tree trunks have been emplaced where
archaeologists found evidence of the original
stockade and watch towers.
MILLS, Wis. — Westbound from Milwaukee, the scenery on
I-94 gradually shifts from subdivision and strip malls to
rolling Wisconsin prairie blanketed in cornfields. At Exit
259, about two-thirds of the way to Madison, some make a
seven-minute detour to Aztalan State Park, a tranquil rest
stop on the banks of the Crawfish River. It’s a chance
to see an unusual archaeological site, an outpost of a
long-lost Indian civilization. Toward twilight, you can
sit atop a grass-covered, 900-year ceremonial mound and
take in the pastoral vistas.
perhaps sitting or at one of the park’s picnic tables,
wonder: Were they really cannibals?
1836, a territorial settler came across the series of
earthen mounds on the west bank of the river that clearly
were not the work of nature. Surveyors and scientists
followed and determined the rises were the work of a
vanished pre-Columbian culture. As the city-building
Aztecs of Mexico believed they were originated in a land
to the north, the mounds in Jefferson County were given an
Aztec-inspired name: Aztalan.
federal government wasn’t interested in acquiring the
ruins; the surface was plowed for farming and several
mounds were leveled. Two of the three large flat-topped
ceremonial platform mounds — the tallest is 16 feet —
remain fully intact; of the 40-some smaller
"marker" mounds, nine are still present.
first formal scientific excavation of Aztalan, in 1919,
determined the perimeter of the stockade and its watch
towers; underground within the enclosure were found house
sites, tools, pottery shards and more. The fire pits and
refuse piles also were found to contain butchered and
charred human bones and heads: It was clear that people
had eaten people here.
the Woodland tribes of southern Wisconsin had no formal
cities — and no oral history mentioning Aztalan —
thickened the air of mystery at the site.
and sometimes-rival archaeological theory continue to this
day. This summer, the History Channel sent a crew to do an
Aztalan show. On a more serious note, there were two
scientific digs this summer.
park is just 172 acres; the ancient town occupies about 17
of them in an oak-ringed swale between the highway and the
the year, busloads of school children climb the
lawn-topped mounds and walk around parts of the partly
reconstructed stockade. There’s no interpretive ranger
here, just a grounds crew. Friends of Aztalan volunteers
give tours and raise funds for the site, but on your own
you’ll have to make do with reading signs that sketch
some of the story here.
grounds are mowed, to point up the size of major mounds.
Smaller mounds outside town stockade are close to the
parking area and highway.
find grills at the picnic tables there.
know Aztalan as intimately as Robert Birmingham, who
retired as official state archaeologist and is now a
professor of anthropology at University of
Wisconsin-Waukesha, near Milwaukee. His "Aztalan:
Mysteries of an Ancient Indian Town" was published in
2006 by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.
his take: "Aztalan was the northern outpost of a
great civilization comparable to other great early
civilizations in the world. We call them the
Mississippians; they rose after AD 1000 and had, at its
center, the first city in what is now the United States
— that’s Cahokia, in present-day Illinois. It was a
very large city and had a society that was very complex.
It was similar to Mayan cities in Mexico. They built large
earthen mounds as platforms for important buildings. The
major mound at Cahokia, where the ruler probably lived, is
100 feet high and greater in volume than the Great Pyramid
of Egypt, though built of earth."
said this farming society developed and expanded
throughout much of Eastern North America. The Crawfish
feeds into the Rock River, a tributary of the Mississippi;
water transportation was the common way of getting around.
The Aztalan outpost lasted perhaps 100 to 150 years.
the year 1200, the Mississippian civilization collapsed in
the Upper Midwest, for reasons still undetermined. One
current theory points to worldwide climate change around
1200, when there was a century of drought.
"Obviously, that made it harder to grow enough food
for large populations," Birmingham said. "People
disease has also been brought up. When you get 20,000
people living together in poor sanitary conditions, it’s
ripe for epidemic. Things like tuberculosis have been
found among the Mississippians."
warfare could have been a factor on the Crawfish River, he
said. "The Mississippian culture was aggressive and
expanding. Aztalan is one of most heavily fortified sites
in the archaeological record of Eastern North
thoughts about cannibalism there are much more nuanced.
remains at the site — those found in 1919 and those
found since — "have been analyzed and don’t fit
the pattern of cannibalism ... at least for food," he
others, Birmingham explained, is an ancient and worldwide
consequence of intense warfare: "The taking of trophy
heads, cutting up the bones of your enemies and eating
them ritually — taking the power of your enemies — is
well-documented in many cultures.
Wisconsin, the Ho-Chunks themselves recite a story in
which they greeted some Illinois people who were potential
enemies by killing them, putting them in a pot, then
boiling and eating them. It was not for food, but to show
Mississippians at Aztalan, he thinks, got along with some
Woodland tribes, but others would’ve thought these
intruders from the south would’ve been trespassing on
local land. Hence the stockade; hence warfare.
Ho-Chunks, also known as Winnebago, are still in
Wisconsin; they own six casinos. Yet there is no mention
of the Aztalan people in any of their passed-down stories.
believes this dearth of oral history may be due to so many
Native Americans — 80 percent, he says — dying of
disease introduced by Europeans: "It’s like burning
down the library."
thousands who visit Aztalan every year include Americans
and foreigners interested in pre-Columbian culture. Among
them are descendants of Wisconsin’s Woodland tribes:
"They take pride in knowing that Native people were
he said, also draws new-age Druids who may have read
florid Aztalan articles that abound on the Internet.
any event, Birmingham said, the site is archaeologically
impressive. Cahokia, near East St. Louis, Ill, is also a
state-operated historical site. But though that town once
covered six square miles, "there are subdivisions and
businesses on part of the site. You can even see the St.
Louis arch from there! That makes it difficult to get your
head around the past. But you can stand in the middle of
Aztalan and not see modern intrusions."
as day comes to a close, when visitors are few, the clouds
are streaked with red and an autumn mist begins to roll up
from the oaks along the river.
a picnic table. It’s suppertime.