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Climate and Culture Change in North America: AD 900 – 1600

Climate and Culture Change in North America: AD 900 – 1600
by William C. Foster

Finally, there is a Native American anthropology book with a regional perspective that spans from the Pacific to the Atlantic. It is also readable. The book is structured in a rational, chronological progression throughout. After breezing through the first few pages, the reader is convinced that the author was an architect or regional planner, who went back to college and got a PhD in Anthropology, but never forgot his ability to organize information rationally or to communicate with people.

The big surprise comes when you read the author’s bio. Foster is probably the most respected regional historian in Texas, but his academic background is not even a PhD in History. He is a licensed attorney, who became tired of being an attorney, and somehow became a history sleuth of the highest caliber.

What William Foster did was put together a multidisciplinary Superbowl team, composed of botanists, climatologists, geographers and archaeologists from around the United States. He then did what should have been done a long time ago. He first created a linear description of the changing climatic conditions in the southern half of North America between 900 AD and 1600 AD. He then obtained the pertinent archaeological information in each century from numerous town sites in the transcontinental region. From that emerged clear explanations why these towns appeared, blossomed and died.

I purchased the book to be a tool for understanding why the stone terrace complexes in the Southern Highlands were constructed simultaneously near conventional towns with pyramidal mounds and river bottomland cornfields. Foster’s information will take us a long way in answering that question.

Another OMG moment

Archaeological site 9FU14

Dr. Arthur Kelly at Archaeological site 9FU14

The introduction describes the climate in North America between 15,000 BC and 900 AD in far less detail than in subsequent periods. However, Foster mentioned a very important climatic period between 300 BC and 400 AD. It was the time of the Macedonian Empire, the Etruscan Empire, the Carthaginian Empire and the Roman Empire. In North America, it was a period much warmer and wetter than now, while southern Florida and many of the Caribbean Islands were humid deserts. Foster dwelt on the impact of this benign climate on Europe and the Hopewell Culture, because none of his consulting archaeologists were aware of what transpired in northwestern Georgia during that period. For me, though, those two dates were a Rosetta Stone that answered a riddle I have carried my entire adult life.

Many moons ago, my faculty adviser, Architect Ike Saporta, tipped me off that his friend, Dr. Arthur Kelly needed a drug-free architecture student to prepare a precise plan of a very old town site on the Chattahoochee River. Saporta was also president of the Atlanta Archaeological Society back when it included most of the archaeologists in the Atlanta Area. This was still the era when architects and art historians worked closely with archaeologists. The property owner, Great Southwest Corporation, who also owned Six Flags over Georgia, had complained to Kelly about the conspicuous consumption of illegal drugs by Georgia State anthropology students working on the site. Well, in addition, none of them knew how to draw with a Rapidograph ink pen on mylar.

I became involved with Archeological Site 9FU14 at the tail end of the excavation and in a very ancillary role. However, it was a remarkable experience because Kelly had discovered the oldest known permanent agricultural village in the United States. It contained a relative modest pyramidal mound with a ramp. The radiocarbon dates for charcoal at the village came back as 300 BC to 500 AD. According to the orthodoxy of the time, that was absolutely impossible, because every respectable archaeologist knew that there were no mounds, no agriculture or permanent villages below the Mason-Dixon Line until after Cahokia had reached its zenith around 1100 AD.

Dr. Kelly was already a pariah to his professional colleagues because he had discovered artifacts along the Lower Chattahoochee River near Attapulgus, GA1 that looked Meso-American to him. He broke the Sacred Prime Directive of his profession by discussing them in an interview with John Pennington at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Kelly postulated that the bowls, figurines and cylindrical seals were either fabricated in Meso-America or made by someone locally, who had seen Meso-American artifacts. Later on I saw very similar Chontal Maya artifacts in the state museums of Tabasco and Tamaulipas. The Classic Mayas considered the Itza and Chontal Mayas to be illiterate barbarians. The “Mayas in Georgia thing is a bunch of crap” archaeologists in Georgia don’t seem too aware of stark variations in Maya cultural sophistication.

Dr. Kelly was convinced that the staple crop of permanent agricultural villages in the lower Southeast during the Woodland Period was the indigenous sweet potato. That would explain why all those villages were built near seasonal wetlands. Four varieties were still growing feral along that part of the Chattahoochee River and they were quite edible, but not as sweet as supermarket sweet potatoes. The sweet potato theory made him the laughing stock of his profession, BUT one of the oldest Creek clans IS the Sweet Potato Clan. Juan Pardo visited a village in South Carolina named Aho that specialized in growing sweet potatoes. Aho is the Creek word for sweet potato.

However, when Dr. Kelly announced through John Pennington the radiocarbon dates from 9FU14, his colleagues had a hissy fit. The news story about the village being the oldest permanent American Indian village north of Mexico went all over the country. They were jealous of his public exposure and furious that he had made a public announcement without going through the ritual of “peer review.”

Plans began immediately to frame Kelly and then sack him from being the department head. An academic lynch mob showed up one weekend while a girl friend and I were taking measurements and Dr. Kelly was not there. She was an art student of Creek heritage. The profs and students laughed their way across the site. I think because Barbara and I had black hair and tan skin, they assumed that we were primitive savages, who were incapable of understanding their lofty thoughts. We were able to stand behind the group and eavesdrop on their conversations.

The next week the lynch mob provided the Atlanta Journal-Constitution with a statement in which they represented themselves as being spokesmen for the entire archaeology profession. They announced that 9FU14 was merely a satellite village of the great Cherokee town of Etowah Mounds and therefore could not possibly date before 1200 AD. Of all the horse manure I heard that previous weekend, archaeologist Roy Dickens comments took the cake. Would you believe that he actually thought that the Cherokees built all the mounds in Alabama and Georgia and that the Creeks were invaders, who pushed the peaceful Cherokees aside just as Georgia was being colonized in 1733?

Two weeks later, a stone hoe was stolen from the University of Georgia Laboratory of Archaeology. It was then planted in the mound at 9FU14. Things were done to make it look like that Dr. Kelly was the culprit. Kelly was exonerated from the theft, but then pressured into resigning as department head.

Several of those archaeologists and archaeology students involved with Dr. Kelly’s framing and sacking, although much older and dumber now, were also involved with the ex-cathedra pronouncements in 2012 about Track Rock Gap and the Mayas in Georgia thing. That is why I am not the least bit impressed by their current efforts at ostracism. I know what they have done and said in the past. Savages have eyes and ears.

After all these years, Dr. Kelly’s radiocarbon dates for 9FU14 finally make a whole lot of sense. We can thank a Texas lawyer, turned historian, for vindicating a very fine archaeologist’s career.

Later on, Ike Saporta and Arthur Kelly were instrumental in my being awarded the fellowship to study Mesoamerican architecture & planning in Mexico. The Mexican Consul in Atlanta was a Georgia Tech architecture graduate. He made sure that I received VIP treatment from the Museo Nacional de Antropologia. Neither those three fine gentlemen nor I ever dreamed that the seeds planted then would sprout in the 21st century. Life IS like a box of chocolates.

The nutritional value of horse manure, however, does not improve with age.


  1. Yes, that’s the same Attapulgus, GA where the History Channel obtained attapulgite that matched 100% with Maya Blue stucco obtained from the Maya city of Palenque. 

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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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