Cities may become lost for a variety of reasons, including geographic, economic and social, such as in war.
Prolonged drought seems the most likely explanation for the loss of many cities. Without adequate water supplies for drinking and agriculture, a city’s population would have to abandon their homes for a location with more stable water supplies. This may have been common in the Yucatan, where water was supplied by rain and underground rivers, but had very few above ground rivers.
In more recent times Port Royal, Jamaica sank into the Caribbean Sea after an earthquake. Some cities are lost with few or no clues to guide historians, such as the Colony of Roanoke. In August 1590, John White returned to the former English colony, which had housed 91 men (including White), 17 women (two of them pregnant) and 11 children when he left, to find it completely empty, with no indication of struggle or any visible reason for the mass disappearance.
Many cities have been destroyed by natural disasters and rebuilt, sometimes repeatedly. But in other cases the destruction has been so complete that the sites were abandoned completely.
Less dramatic examples of the destruction of cities by natural forces are those where the coastline has eroded away.
Cities are also often destroyed by wars. This was a common theme in the highland Maya cities, and may also have been the motive in the loss of the coastal cities in Peru.
Some cities which are considered lost are (or may be) places of legend such as Chachapoya or Machu Pichu in Peru, having once been considered legendary, are now known to have existed.
Mexico and Central America
Maya cities (incomplete list)
- Chichen Itza – This ancient place of pilgrimage is still the most visited Maya ruin.
- Copán – In modern Honduras.
- Calakmul – One of two “superpowers” in the classic Maya period.
- Naachtun – Rediscovered in 1922, it remains one of the most remote and least visited Maya sites. Located 44 km (27 miles) south-south-east of Calakmul, and 65 km (40 miles) north of Tikal, it is believed to have had strategic importance to, and been vulnerable to military attacks by, both neighbours. Its ancient name was identified in the mid-1990s as Masuul.
- Palenque — in the Mexican state of Chiapas, known for its beautiful art and architecture
- Tikal — One of two “superpowers” in the classic Maya period.
- Aztlán (possibly known as Aztlantla) – the ancient home of the Aztecs
- Teotihuacan – Pre-Aztec Mexico.
- La Venta – In the present day Mexican state of Tabasco.
- San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán – In the present day Mexican state of Veracruz.
- Izapa – Chief city of the Izapa civilization, whose territory extended from the Gulf Coast across to the Pacific Coast of Chiapas, in present day Mexico, and Guatemala.
- Guayabo – Costa Rica – It is believed that the site was inhabited from 1500 BCE (BC) to 1400 CE (AD), and had at its peak a population of around 10.000 (25,000 per Ferraro/McGuinness).
North America – United States
- The cities of the Ancestral Pueblo (Puebloan or Anasazi) culture, located in the Four Corners region of the Southwest United States – The best known are located at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde.
- Cahokia – Located near present-day St. Louis, Missouri. At its height Cahokia is believed to have had a population of between 40,000 and 80,000 people, making it amongst the largest pre-Columbian cities of the Americas. It is known chiefly for its huge pyramidal mounds of compacted earth.
- Pueblo Grande de Nevada a complex of villages, located near Overton, Nevada
- Lost towns of Glen Canyon region of Southern Utah-Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell Recreation Area Created
North America – Canada
- L’Anse aux Meadows – Viking settlement founded around 1000.