ARKANSAS CITY, Kan. (KAKE) - Most school kids can tell you about the Inca, the Mayans, and the Aztecs. But did you know that there was a merchant empire based right here in Kansas? That's the conclusion a Wichita State archeology professor has reached after spending years at a dig near Arkansas City.

“The fact that that can change the way we view the indigenous people in this area is… is mind-blowing,” said Douglas Kressley, a Wichita State graduate student in archeology.

He’s been part of a team headed up by Dr. Donald Blakeslee that’s responsible for the archeological dig of Etzanoa, near Ark City.

From pottery shards to hide scrapers and specialized arrowheads, it's a giant puzzle Blakeslee and his team have been piecing together for years now since they uncovered the site in 2017.

“There are so many things that we can infer from ceramics. We can tell population size, and how many people they’re feeding.  We can discern where the clay is coming from,” explained Robbyn McKellop, the pottery expert on Blakeslee’s team.

The story those puzzle pieces tell is one that is changing how we view the history, of Kansas and of Native Americans in the United States.

“The Forgotten heart of Native Americans,” Blakeslee said.

He says Etzanoa is more than just a random village, Quivira more than just a small town, and Great Bend more than a hunter/gather community along the river.  Together, they were part of what Blakeslee calls an economic empire, producing goods traded from coast to coast – found as far north as North Dakota, as far south as Jalisco, Mexico, and from California to Florida.

“A lot more complex trade systems, perhaps than most people realize?” KAKE’s Pilar Pedraza asked.

“Yeah,” Kressley said.  “And I think that speaks to Quivira being a larger nation than what people have given credit for in the past.”

“It's been forgotten, even here, for the most part,” Blakeslee said.  “And yet it was the most important native community political entity in 1600.”

Blakeslee theorizes Etzanoa flourished at the confluence of the Arkansas and Walnut rivers between about 1450 and 1700 and may have housed 20,000, or more, people.

It wasn’t until another historian, Dr. Susan Vehik at the University of Oklahoma, figured out how to read a long misunderstood map, that Blakeslee’s team finally tracked down the site of the lost indigenous metropolis to Arkansas City.

New translations of old documents by the University of California Berkeley in 2013 added to what Blakeslee’s team dug up, helping them piece together a bigger picture of who the inhabitants were.

“We’ve been able to document that the land area of Quivira was larger than the Republic of Ireland,” he said.  “The archeological evidence says that, yes, there was Etzanoa. But there were other very large towns in Cowley County, Butler County, Sumner County, Rice County, and McPherson County. So, I estimate a nation of maybe 200,000 people in 1600. The largest by land area and population of any native nation in what’s now the United States and, economically, the most important one.”

The advanced nature of that empire is evident, the team says, in the shards of pottery vessels McKellop oversees.

“They used mussel shell,” she said, mixed in with the clay. “Which, when you use mussel shell, it’s very (useful) in thermal shock resistance as well as – basically it’s able to withstand heat for long durations of time. But it also acts to pre-shrink the vessels prior to firing.”

While Blakeslee says those who lived at Etzanoa were farmers, it was the American Bison that actually made them an economic powerhouse.

“All across North America, people were wearing body armor made out of bison rawhide,” he said, adding they also exported the meat - after figuring out how to keep it fresh for years. That’s something Blakeslee and his team learned from the records of Spanish explorers.

“Tracking all of the early Spanish expeditions, it turns out there were constant references to this big level area with sandy soil and huge towns where people were hunting lots of cows and supplying meat and other products,” Blakeslee explained.

Though he believes the Quivira was a rich nation with a trade that stretched across the modern continental United States, it wasn’t trading in the modern, capitalistic sense.  It was a political power built through relationships.

“When we look at the past through archeology, people have a tendency to think, ‘Ok, well, yeah, you’re doing this for economic profit.’ And that’s not what was going on. And, so, the items that we have,” Dr. Blakeslee said, “they weren’t probably trading for it, they were exchanging gifts. They did not have the kind of mentality that we do.”

Now, Blakeslee says, the Quivira nation and the city of Etzanoa are supplying a new view of American and American Indian history, building new relationships.

What does this sea change in thought mean to the descendants of the Quivirans who inhabited Etzanoa? KAKE News has reached out several times to the leadership of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, but has yet to make contact.  We'll follow up with them, once we do.

Meanwhile, there are the doubters, who question whether this economic empire was as large, as expansive, and as rich as Blakeslee theorizes.  He says, that’s normal and he’s working to answer their questions as his research continues.  

When it comes to accepting new theories like his, Blakeslee says there are two mistakes academics can make.

“We are trained to try to avoid false data. That's rule number one,” he explained.  “But there's also a type two error, where you ignore what's true.”

There are a lot of details to this new theory we haven't had time to touch on in this story. We'll definitely be revisiting this theory, Dr. Blakeslee’s work, and the impact it's having in the months to come.  An impact Blakeslee says has already begun to show up in the Arkansas City community.

“That process has already started. We have been working with the school district down in Ark City and they have been doing a fantastic job, starting with the grade schools, incorporating Etzanoa into the curriculum,” Blakeslee said. “Eventually, you know, all of the school books should change.”