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Bottle Creek . . . a Chontal Maya port on Alabama’s Mobile River

The Peopling of the Southeast . . . a new series on POOF

Three locations on the periphery of the Gulf of Mexico were given the name, Am Ixchel, by Chontal Maya mariners.  Am Ixchel means “Place of the Goddess Ixchel”  in the Tabasco dialect of Itza Maya.

The locations were (1) the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, (2) the coast line between Mobile Bay and the mouth of the  Apalachicola River, and (3) the coast line of Tamaulipas State near Tampico Bay.   Mobile Bay is due north of the main seaport for the famous Post Classic Maya City of Chichen Itza.   The three Am Ixchels formed a perfect equilateral triangle.

MesoamericanTrade

Beginning around 750 AD,  as volcanic eruptions, droughts, chronic war and famines made the Maya heartland a less and less desirable place to do business,   Chontal Maya merchants began expanding their trading activities to regions on the periphery of Mesoamerica.  They probably first became familiar with these regions when there was a massive demand for slaves by the booming Maya city states between 600 AD an 800 AD.  We also now know that the Itza capital of Palenque was sending cargo boats northward to what is now the Chattahoochee Basin of Georgia and Alabama to obtain raw materials such as the main ingredient of Maya blue,   gold, mica, greenstone and copper.

Chontal Maya merchants wore unusual hats that had raccoon tails. Apparently,  this was an easily recognizable uniform that gave them immunity from the armies of individual city states.  A stone figurine of a Chontal Maya merchant was excavated from a mound in Spiro, Oklahoma on the Arkansas River.  However, Gringo archaeologists apparently are not aware that this is what they found.  One can compare the figurine with a ceramic statue excavated at Jaina to see that yes, indeed, Chontal Maya merchants did penetrate the interior of North America.

Spiro-merchant-composite

The Chontal Mayas developed protected ports for their sea craft that strongly resembled those built by the Vikings on the periphery of Europe.   In fact, Chontal sailboats were similar in size and construction to Viking longboats, except that they had lower gunwales and woven cane sails.

Most  Chontal ports were on islands in rivers or tidal marshes, located somewhat inland from the coast. These were locations that were protected from hurricane tidal surges. A classic site for a Chontal Maya trading center would be Irene Island in Savannah, GA, Of course, because of the recent discovery of lost colonial documents, we now know that both Apalache and Itsate Creek traditions held that they entered North America at Savannah.

Two major exceptions to the typical pattern of Chontal settlement were Jaina Island on the west coast of Yucatan and Cozumel Island on the east coast of Yucatan.  Perhaps the size of these island or ocean currents gave them protection from hurricanes.

Another trademark of a Chontal trade colonies was that the actual port facilities were in natural or man-made bays behind the towns.  Both at Waka in Guatemala and Ocmulgee in Georgia,  inland ports were created by dredging out swamps created by the river’s abandonment of a horseshoe bend.  Even today, visitors can see the Willow Creek Swamp at Ocmulgee, which was its port of entry.

On the Alabama coast, traders chose a side channel of the Mobile River, known as Bottle Creek to establish a base.  A natural pond, adjacent to Bottle Creek, provided a ideal location to dock sea craft, plus cargo canoes for riverine trade.

Bottle Creek Mounds

The trading town that is now known as Bottle Creek Mounds was established around 1250 AD in the swamps also the eastern side of the Mobile River. The watery landscape of the Mobile  River Basin is virtually identical to that of Chotalpa on the coast of Tabasco State, Mexico. The site plan of Bottle Creek is virtually identical to the ports that the Chontal Mayas established along the coasts Mesoamerica.

Around 1250 AD,  Chichimec barbarians invaded the Coastal Plain of Tamaulipas. The indigenous people of this state in northeastern Mexico shared many cultural traits with the Muskogeans, including building of clay stuccoed, earthen mounds and similarities in language.  The “si, se, le, li and tli” suffixes in Muskogean grammar comes Tamaulipas.  Along the coast of Tamaulipas were Chontal Maya trading colonies that were also forced out by the invasion.

Major construction activities began at Bottle Creek about the same time that Tamaulipas was evacuated.  However, it is quite likely that there was a trading post and market plaza on the island long before then.  Alternatively, the main trading town may have originally been on Mobile Bay itself, but was found to be too vulnerable to either hurricanes or pirates.  Yes, the Mesoamerican world had pirates.

Mobile is the Anglicization of the Tamaule word, Mapile, which means “Trade People.”  Tamaule means the same thing. 

Site plan of Bottle Creek Mounds

Site plan of Bottle Creek Mounds

The main body of Tamaule eventually established themselves on the Altamaha River in SE Georgia. (Place of the Tamau Lord) It was about this time that many towns in the Lower Southeast dropped the Maya calendar, which begins on the Winter Solstice, and adopted the Tamaule calendar, which begins on the Summer Solstice.

Both in the Southeast and among the Taumaule’s who fled southward to Tabasco, the Green Corn Festival is still celebrated around ,the Summer Solstice. Today, the Tamaule in Tabasco, now known by their Itza name of Tamulte,  are the only indigenous people in Mexico, who eat corn on the cob and celebrate the Green Corn Festival. They also do the Stomp Dance. There are many Tamauli words in Hitchiti, Miccosukee and Mvskoke.

At least eighteen medium and small sized platform mounds have been identified at Bottle Creek Mounds.  There are also ceremonial plazas and pools.  The archaeological zone is being studied by the Anthropology Department of the University of South Alabama.

Apparently,  direct trade between Mesoamerica and  the Gulf Coast of North America collapsed after the Chichimec Invasion and the rise of Aztec Empire. There is little evidence of direct contacts after 1300 AD, when the Kaushete refugees arrived in northwest Georgia and the Lima bean appeared in the Southeast.

Virtual reality images of Bottle Creek Mounds

Mapile1Mapile2Mapile5Mapile3

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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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