It will come as no great surprise to regular readers of Skeptophilia that I have a bit of an obsession with considering what the world was like in the past. Both the historical past and the prehistoric, extremely distant past -- thus my fascination with both archaeology and paleontology.
It's easy to fall into the error of looking around and not realizing how extensively things have changed. And not just on geological time scales; after all, by now it's pretty much common knowledge (young-Earth creationists excepted) that if you go back far enough, even the continents have shifted their positions dramatically. But as I found out from an article sent to me by my friend, the wonderful author Gil Miller, there's a place in Kansas where what is now an expanse of widely-separated small towns interspersed with miles of corn and wheat fields was once a thriving metropolis of the Wichita people.
And not that long ago, either.
The Wichita -- in their own language, the Kitikiti'sh -- are a tribe of the central United States related to the Caddo (who live farther south) and the Pawnee (who live farther north). The languages they speak belong to a language family called Caddoan that is an isolate group, related to no other known languages (or, more accurately, any relationship it might have is undetermined). All the languages in the family are critically endangered. The Wichita language itself is effectively extinct; the last native speaker, Doris Jean Lamar-McLemore, died in 2016.
This makes the recent discovery even more staggering (and sad) -- an earthwork fifty meters across that is called a "council circle" (although its actual function is uncertain), part of a network of six such earthworks along an eight-kilometer stretch of the Little Arkansas and Smoky Hill Rivers in central Kansas. The archaeologists studying the site, part of a team from Dartmouth College, believe that at its height, only four hundred years ago, it may have been part of a thriving group of settlements housing over twenty thousand people, meaning it rivals Cahokia as the largest settlement of First Peoples in what is now the United States.
The site has been called Etzanoa -- the name for it given by a man captured there by the Spanish in the seventeenth century -- but what that name meant, and its etymology in the languages spoken at the time, are both unknown.
Because, of course, the apparent prosperity of the inhabitants was not to last. They were living on land valuable to White settlers for cattle ranching and growing commercial crops, and the Wichita were forced off their land, relocated more than once, and finally ended up on a reservation in Oklahoma, most of them in or near the town of Anadarko. Like many other Indigenous people, they also fell prey in huge numbers to infectious disease. As of the last census, there were just under three thousand people who belong to the Wichita tribe.
The current research made use of drones and remote telemetry to locate the site, which was under ranch land and (amazingly) had sustained little damage. Excavation there is ongoing, and has turned up not only Native items but ones from the Spanish and other European settlers, including -- of course -- bullets.
It's astonishing how fast things have changed -- and in this case, there's a deep sense of tragedy. A whole thriving society, with their own language and traditions and culture, erased because of greed, entitlement, racism, and the abuse of power. All we have is the remnants to study, a ghostly trace of a network of cities that once dominated the Great Plains. It's a poor trade for all the lives and knowledge lost, but at least it's something.