Richard Thornton | May 9, 2017 | 23
Bama’s Stone Bola Balls
To be fair, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina also have stone balls . . . maybe some other states, too. However, it was a comment from a POOF member in northeastern Alabama that set us on the trail to a new understanding of artifacts in Southeastern indigenous town sites that are little known to the public and generally ignored by archaeologists. You will be surprised where the journey ended!
The Irreverent Observations of Bubba Mythbuster
Season Two ~ Episode One
In 2013, the People of One Fire ran an article in response to information provided us by two professors at a major state university in Ohio. They sent me photos of several stone balls with typical vegetation of the Southern Highlands in the background. However, the photos were digitally locked, so they couldn’t be downloaded or copied. The balls varied in size from about 18” to 32” in diameter. Some had Mesoamerican or Central American motifs carved into them.
The couple had been studying rare plants in the rugged headwaters region of the Chattooga River, which runs between South Carolina and Georgia. On both sides of the river, they had seen large stone balls, just sitting out in the national forest. One of the professors was an anthropologist, the other a biologist. Because of all the publicity about “Mayas-In-Georgia thing”, they immediately recognized the significance of these stone balls. This would be electrifying news that would add credibility to the longheld belief of Southeastern Native Americans that they had ancestors, who had come from the south.
When they got back to their motel room in Clayton, GA, the professors called the nearest US Forest Service office. They were immediately stone walled (if you excuse the pun) and treated like nutcases. When they returned to Ohio, they called the regional USFS office, where archaeologists were based. Instead of being respected as peers, they were treated with the “Sounds of Silence.” The USFS archaeologist would not say where the stone balls they retrieved from the Chattahoochee and Sumter National Forests were stored or why the archaeologists in the Southeast were keeping them a secret.
Large stone balls are most closely associated with the indigenous peoples of Central America, but were also made by the southern Mayas and some cultures in northwestern South America. It would seem to be important information for the archaeology profession, if such objects were found in the mountains around the Upper Savannah River Basin. Why were they being kept a secret?
The couple did not want me to publish their names because they might become associated with the Mayas-In-Georgia Thing and that could be detrimental to their career . . . even though they personally agreed with me on the interpretation of the evidence. I never did hear from them again. My questions about the stone balls stayed on the back burner until the autumn of 2015.
A POOF member, who lived near the Coosa River in northeast Alabama, wrote us that hundreds of stone balls had been found in mounds and town sites along the section of the Coosa between Childersburg, AL and Rome, GA. I read some of the archaeological reports for sites that he mentioned.
These balls were different. Whereas those around the Chattooga River varied in size between about 36 inches in diameter and the size of a basketball, the ones in northeast Alabama varied between the size of a baseball and a plum. Also, those in Alabama usually did not have any decorations on them.
Archaeologists had been puzzled by these small balls. Most of the reports had no explanation for the balls and barely mentioned them. Other speculated that they were used in some sort of game . . . maybe a cross between bowling and billiards.
I also heard from some “old time” mountain families. Giant stone balls had been quite common in the Northeast Georgia Mountains. A mountaineer could make more hard cash on one sale of a ball to a collector from “up North” than he made in a year, otherwise. However, when large ATV’s came on the market that were capable of hauling loads up to 800 pounds, artifact poachers began stealing stone balls from the national forests and then selling them to collectors as MAYA ARTIFACTS from Central America. The going rate was at least $5000 a ball . . . for the large ones.
About the same time, Dr. Joseph Kitchens, Director of the Funk Heritage Center at Reinhardt University, contacted me. A man had come to his office with photos of an ornately carved stone ball that he claimed to have found near Clayton, GA. It looked almost three feet in diameter. Perhaps the man was fishing to see if the museum would buy it. After the subject of whether the ball came from federal land came up, the man did not return to the museum.
South American architecture in South Carolina
Later in 2013, I heard from a highly respected archaeologist, recently retired from the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology. He has worked on several archaeological sites near the Georgia Line in the Piedmont Foothills that contained stone walled terraces BEFORE I stumbled upon the Track Rock Terrace Complex. They were not in a national forest.
The South Carolina archaeologist had been ordered not to discuss the stone structures or the artifacts found within them with either the public or at professional conferences. Apparently, the Cherokees would not give South Carolina another penny for archaeological work, if he did. Since he was now retired, he could finally let the word out. However, he did not want his name mentioned, because of fear of being ostracized by his peers. Unlike the Ohio professors, he DID send me photos that I could keep.
The photos of the South Carolina terrace complexes indicated that they were identical in construction to those in northeast Georgia, but not as large as Track Rock or the ones in Metro Atlanta. Almost as an afterthought, he sent me photos of the foundations of houses associated with the terrace complexes. They were round!
Say what? Round houses and temples with stone foundations were not a known tradition of anybody associated with the Southeastern mound building cultures. They are a tradition in Northwestern South America. I had photographed circular clusters of stones at Track Rock Gap, but the walls had been knocked over and so it would be difficult to prove that they were house or temple ruins without further archaeological work.
South American architecture in the Upper Savannah River Basin seemed so implausible at the time, that I did not heavily publicize the photos. I was not sure what it all meant, and therefore thought it prudent to also put them on the back burner until all these things made more sense.
Another explanation for small balls
You can take a professor out of the classroom, but you can’t take the classroom out of a good professor. In the autumn of 2015, retired College of Charleston professor, Gene Waddell, was in Argentina, studying the indigenous peoples of Tierra del Fuego.
In our almost daily trading of emails, the conversation somehow drifted to the indios gigantes (giant Indians) of the Pampas in Argentina. The Spanish also called the ancestors of the Creek Indians, indios gigantes. The proto-Creek men averaged over a foot taller than the Spanish. Some reached seven feet all. Somehow that led briefly to a discussion of bolas. They are the stones attached to leather thongs, which southern South American Indians used as most effective weapons for hunting and war.
Bola is merely the Spanish word for “ball.” Boledero is a hunter using a bola. In Argentina, the weapon is also called bolas, which is the plural.
I had never really thought much about bola balls, but always assumed that holes were drilled in metal balls in which leather cords were fastened. I also assumed that bolas were only used on the plains of Argentina.
Au contraire . . . bola balls are stone. They were wrapped in leather pouches and the leather cords were woven into the pouches. The bola was a favorite weapon for hunting alpaca, deer and large birds. They are also very effective in catching humans, if the hunter did not want to seriously injure his quarry.
There was another surprise. Bolas were used throughout western South America in areas where there was not heavy undergrowth. They were useless in the jungle, but very effective in the mountains or in cleared fields. Andean hunters used bolas extensively.
Furthermore, most of the bola stones were not perfectly round. They were just “sort of round” river cobbles. It was not necessary, since the stones were wrapped in leather. The perfectly round bolo stones were prestige items passed down as heirlooms . . . the equivalent to a silver plated Winchester repeating rifle.
There was a sudden realization that the stone bola balls found by South American archaeologists are identical to the stone balls found in the mounds along the Upper Coosa River. The reason that the perfectly round balls were buried with bodies of prominent men was that they were “prestige” weapons that the great hunters and warriors would use in the hereafter. The “sort of” round cobbles that archaeologists have found inside house ruins, by the thousands, in certain areas of the Southeast, were the “working weapons” of the common folks.
The presence of a traditional South American weapon in towns along the Coosa River, would explain two other mysteries that Southeastern academicians didn’t realize were mysteries. Coosa is the Anglicization of Kusa /Kusha/Kausha . . . Panoan Language Family (Peru-Amazon Headwaters) words that mean “strong, brave . . . or implicitly, elite.” The Panoan-speaking provinces in the South Carolina Low Country collectively called themselves Kusabo . . . meaning “Strong . . . place of.”
The late 20th century books about the De Soto Expedition consistently describe “the Spaniards passing through the Creek towns along the Coosa River.” That is because none of those experts on the Creeks knew anything about the Creek languages. NONE of the town names mentioned by the De Soto Chronicles downstream from Rome, GA (beginning of the Coosa River) can be translated with a Muskogee or Hitchiti dictionary. Several, however, were simultaneously South American town names in the Coastal Plain of Georgia that were recorded by the French at Fort Caroline.
The truth is that there were very few Muskogee-speaking Creeks in Alabama until the 1720s. The Creek Confederacy only controlled territory along the eastern edge of Alabama until the end of the French & Indian War in 1763. That is when about 5,000 other Muskogeans left Alabama with the French.
A picture is developing that shows a broad swath of South Carolina, southeastern Georgia , plus central and northeastern Alabama being occupied by peoples of South American or Central American ancestry until just before British colonists arrived in Charleston. That is a very different picture of the past.
And now you know.
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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.
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