Screencap via Wichita Eagle.

A Wichita State University professor is confident he’s found an enormous Native American settlement reportedly encountered by the Spaniards 400 years ago but often viewed with skepticism by historians since.

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The Wichita Eagle reports on Donald Blakeslee’s claim that he has found the city of Etzanoa in south-central Kansas, near Arkansas City. Soldiers who marched with conquistador Juan de Onate in 1601 wrote of an amazing city made of beehive-shaped homes, he explained: “They counted 2,000 houses that could hold 10 people each. They said it would take two or three days to walk through it all.” The locals—the Wichita tribe—evacuated at the Spaniards’ approach, according to accounts; then the Spaniards turned around and found themselves under attack by the city’s enemies:

Onate turned his men south — and came face to face with hundreds of warriors, firing arrows and charging at Onate’s small Spanish troop.

The attackers were Escanxaques, a tribe enemy to the Wichita. They had come to attack Etzanoa — and now attacked the Spanish.

Sixty of the 70 Spaniards were wounded. Their four cannons saved them, clusters of iron bullets fired from cannon-like shotgun blasts, whistling into trees and boulders. The Escanxaques, stunned, regrouped in a rock-lined ravine, but then charged repeatedly uphill to attack before finally backing off.

French explorers in the 1700s only met migratory tribes, though, and historians have questioned how a city would’ve fed everybody and where they went, suggesting that maybe the Spaniards exaggerated. But Blakeslee and a local high schooler, Adam Ziegler, have found cannonballs which—on top of all the artifacts locals have found over the years—leads Blakeslee to believe they’ve found Etzanoa. He says the site would be comparable to Cahokia, the enormous site in Illinois that’s on the UNESCO World Heritage List. 

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WSU’s announcement explained:

The discovery began with new translations of old Spanish documents by the Cibola Project at the University of California, Berkley. Members of the team made photocopies of the original documents, re-transcribed them from the Old Spanish and then retranslated them. Earlier historians and archaeologists who had used the documents dealt with misleading errors in transcription and translation, which is why many archaeological discoveries in the area were misinterpreted.

“It has been a lot of fun to rewrite the record so thoroughly. By joining the historical written record to the archaeology, we ended up rewriting both fields,” says Blakeslee. “Rather than a cluster of 30 little villages, there was a single town of 20,000 people.”

The find has Arkansas City excited about the prospect of potentially developing an important historic site that would draw substantial numbers of visitors. That, in turn, has the city’s descendants somewhat concerned:

Modern-day Wichitas number about 3,000, based now in Anadarko, Okla., said Gary McAdams, who has held several leadership positions with the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes.

The Wichita are intrigued — and concerned — by what might come next, McAdams said. Blakeslee has consulted with them for years, telling what he’s found, inviting them to visit sites at Arkansas City and at the 160-foot-long serpent symbol still visible in the pasture grass in Rice County. Wichitas have helped on some of his digs.

“We would have some concern about how they go about developing their thinking about Etzanoa as a tourist center,” McAdams said. “We are supportive of any respectful endeavor they want to pursue there — but would want to provide our input.”

Seems like a reasonable request.