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De Soto Expedition documented earth-sheltered houses in several locations

De Soto Expedition documented earth-sheltered houses in several locations


A People Of One Fire reader from Oklahoma (who wished to remain anonymous) asked me to explain why NO museum in the United States or archaeology book portrays its indigenous peoples of the Southeast living in “earth lodges,” yet I seem to be convinced that at least some of the Plains Indians, who built earth lodges, originated in the Southeast.  Because of the town, where this person I lives, I suspect that he is either Kanza or Osage, but this was not stated in the letter.

Migration Legends

First, readers should understand that the Mandan and Arikara have always said that the originated on the Gulf Coastal Plain of the Southeastern United States.  Wikipedia states that they originated in Ohio, but there is no evidence of it.  Some anonymous professor wrote the Wikipedia article, stating that they originated in Ohio, who didn’t know any better.  Academicians, who have actually worked with the Mandans say otherwise.  This speculation was made long ago by Midwestern academicians, who believed that the oldest American mounds and pottery were in Ohio and that the founders of Cahokia came from the Hopewell Culture in Ohio.

The Kanza (Kaw), Quapaw, Osage and Paunee tribal websites state that they originated in the Ohio Valley then migrated to Cahokia then migrated out west.  However, they say this because all academicians told whoever created their websites that this was their heritage.  Actually, the real migration legends of the Kanza, Osage and Paunee only say that they came from east of the Mississippi River, while the Quapaw Migration Legend states that they originated on the coast of South Carolina.

Archaeological discoveries

Professional archaeologists, using modern methods, have discovered earth-sheltered houses at Kolomoki Mounds in Southwest Georgia, on the Ocmulgee River in Middle Georgia and on the Coosa River in Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama.  The reader is correct, though. Although these archaeological sites were thoroughly described by archaeologists in their published reports . . . a published book in the case of Kolomoki Mounds . . . I have never noticed a mention of Southeastern earth-sheltered houses in books on the Native Americans of the United States or in online reference articles.   Apparently, the information about these structures has not spread to other parts of the nation.

Sixteenth Century Spanish explorers

Luis Hernandez de Biedma was the King’s Agent on the De Soto Expedition and one of the few survivors.  His account of the expedition is the only one for which an original copy exists.  Interestingly enough, De Biedma specifically stated that the town of Chiaha was on an island in the Rio Esperitu Santo . . . the Little Tennessee River . . . while all contemporary anthropologists make sure that you only read in references that Chiaha was on an island in the French Broad River. (It wasn’t.) 

When the De Soto expedition left the territory of the Florida Apalachee in the spring of 1540,  these Spaniards entered the territory, which shows a continuous cultural evolution to becoming Creek Indians . . . or at least we thought they were Muskogeans.  De Biedma wrote:  “There was a change in the habitations, which were now in the earth, like caves.”   These people living in earth-sheltered houses probably were not ethnic Muskogeans, but their descendants probably became members of the Creek Confederacy.  We don’t know that for sure, however.  These people, encountered by De Soto, may have been ancestors of the Mandan, Arikara, Kanza or Osage.

In late 1560 the Tristan de Luna Colony in present day Pensacola dispatched a large party to obtain food from the Province of Kusa in Northwest Georgia.  A friar, who accompanied that expedition, Domingo de la Anunciacion reported that “the houses of the Indians of Coça (Kusa~Coosa) were “all covered with earth, and they sow whatever they like over them.”  

The Cherokee:  During the late 1600s, the ancestors of the Cherokees lived in the mountains of southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and the western tip of Virginia.  They were then called the Tionantateca-gi by Algonquian speakers.  This word suggests that they were originally Chichimecs from Mexico, since the core suffix in Nahuatl.   Guillaume De L’Isle’s 1701 Map of La Louisiane et La Florida states in French, “who live in caves in order to get relief from great heat.”   The Creeks are about the only Southeastern tribe that does not use a name for the Cherokee, which means “cave dwellers.”

The Chiska of Northeastern Tennessee:  The De Soto Expedition mentioned the Chiska, but did not provide many cultural details.  However, Juan de la Bandera, was the highly educated notary for the two Juan Pardo Expeditions through the Southern Appalachians between 1567 and 1568.  He wrote about a battle between the Spanish under Sergeant Moyano and the Chiska Indians.  De la Bandera stated that the Spanish “…drove the Indians into underground houses from which they made sorties to skirmish with the Spanish. After killing a great number of them, the Spaniards won entrance to the houses and set fire to them.”

Tennessee archaeologists will occasionally stumble upon Chiska houses during road construction projects. They were not actually earth berm houses, but rather man-made caves in the sides of mountains and hills.  Undoubtedly, what Guillaume de L’Isle called caves, were also man-made caves.  

17th century Spanish explorers:  In an earlier article, I mentioned that even Wikipedia lists Coça as an alternative name for the Kanza (Kaw or Kansa) People.   Spanish explorers, who encountered the Kanza on the Great Plains called them the Coça.   It is pretty obvious that the Coça visited by Hernando de Soto in 1540 were the same people as the  Coça living on the great plains a century later.  Their houses and villages on the Great Plains were identical to their houses and villages in the Coosa Valley.



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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.




    You present the idea that some of the plains Indians originated in the southeast. I would argue that they moved there to be in contact with the southeastern tribes that were their trading partners, or due to escaping warfare, or escaping environmental problems on the plains. Earth lodges would not seem to be the natural form of housing that would be developed in the southeast, due to higher ground moisture in the area. Too many nice trees lying around that would be a more convenient building material.

    I would take the position that the plains Indians developed the earth lodge architecture in the plains where it makes the most sense in dealing with the plains environment. Then later, they moved to the southeast and lived among the woodland Indians. But being protective and conservative about their culture, the plains Indians continued to build their accustomed earth lodges.

    I know you are swimming upstream in dealing with badly conducted archaeology so the picture is not clear as to the timing and geographic distribution of these earth lodges. My wild idea would be to track the location and timing of where these earth lodges occurred. I am betting that over time the descendants of the plains Indians adopted the more environmentally appropriate woodland architecture and the earth lodges were no longer made. Knowing this timing and distribution would be useful in dating when the plains Indians moved into the area.

    Just my crackpot idea for the day.

    • Keep in mind that the appearance of earth berm houses in Georgia coincides with the arrival of the Little Ice Age and that such houses would definitely be cooler in Southwest Georgia during the summer.

      The main evidence is that the keyhole pit houses at Kolomoki predate anything in the Midwest or Great Plains by several hundred years, while the earth berm houses in Georgia predate those on the Great Plains by about 200 years. None of the earth lodge tribes on the plains arrived there until the 1700s. The Great Plains had few inhabitants until horses became available. The Lakota and Cheyenne also beginning moving onto the plains in the early 1700s.

      Well . . . all of the earth lodge tribes say they came from the east side of the Mississippi. The name of the Kaw or Kanza People is “People of the South Wind,” while the Quapaw specifically state that they migrated west from the South Carolina Coast.


        Very interesting on the known timing. I thus may be wrong in my surmise.

        I have dug holes in the southeast. Some of them were pretty wet and sloppy. Not the best conditions for living underground. But the soil conditions way back when could have been very different than today and locales may have been specially selected where the soil conditions were favorable..

        I also I liked your comment about the Cherokees being called the people who live in caves. I knew that already, but the potential connection to earth lodges is curious. I can see that the same word could be used for a natural cave and a human made structure that sure looks like a cave. Some linguistic investigations seems in order.


    Can you point to a single hillside house that has been documented archaeologically in east tenn? Just never heard of them, and would think they would be easy to spot, like a series of large inward depressions caused by sloughing after they give way. Should be easy to spot

    • None specific. I just recall casual mentions by Tennessee archaeologists of stumbling upon Chiska cave houses and remarks about how rare they are to find. I have never researched the subject specifically, but saw these comments while looking for other subjects. Many of the Chiska were killes in the 1680s by Spanish-speaking men from the south, so their villages have had about 350 years to be concealed.


    I find that older materials can povide much insight. This is a very interesting article I found onthe site online “”The Cave Dwelings of the Old and New World” by J. Walter Fewkes. This was the Presidental address delivered before the Anthropological Society of Washington on April 12,1910. Mentions the cave and in ground dwellers in the West Indies (Cuba and Hayti). This ties into the Southeastern United States and migration and travel between such.

    • That is interesting. So the earth berm lodges could well have come from Cuba and Haiti. I will look the article up. Thank you!


    Richard, Thanks again for your articles!! You have noticed many Itza/Issa and Peruvian word connections indicating migrations from Peru and Central America to the South. The (Key hole) house types of Chichen Itza (200-1000 AD) and (Kolomoki, 200-550 AD) are a clear connection between the Yucatan and SW Georgia. That type of house was built by a people “before” the Itza people (800-900’s) migrated and inhabited the Chichen Itza city and also later Georgia. Most likely these same people were connected to the Teotihuacan trade empire (100 BC–550 AD) that could have founded both the first Chichen Itza city and Kolomoki (200-550). Based on house types built they do not appear to be the Paracussis, Apalachi, Yuchi (Tokah) or Kanza (Kaw) peoples who all built circular type houses. Perhaps the name the 15th century Spaniards passed on for SW Georgia “Acapa-chequi” is a clue for the same people that built the “Akapa-na pyramid of Bolivia / Peru….The Tiahuanaco/ Wari people. The Georgia temple mounds (200-900 AD) you discovered align with the most Western part of Cuba and Costa Rica….perhaps used as ancient navigational points….and trade cities.


    Richard, when I inquired as to what type of houses the Maya constructed, they build their houses on small Earth platforms and not in the ground like a “Key hole” type house:
    “Ancient Mayan family lots were comprised of the family home, a well, latrine, chicken coup, garden and a laundry room, or batea. As the Mayans had no nails, homes were constructed in a rounded rectangular shape. Structures of the home were tied together using liana, a tropical vine. Homes were traditionally one large room, though some homes separated the kitchen and chicken coop into a separate hut. Hammocks were hung in the homes as resting areas. The houses contained no windows and one door, which faced east. Women cooked on grills set over rocks.”
    Perhaps you can give some of your insight as to which Native people built the Key hole homes and what the term “Akapa” means in ancient Peruvian? Thank You for your Great articles!!!

    • There were over a hundred tribes that the Spanish grouped together and called Maya. I never saw any pithouses in Mesoamerica. They were common in the Sonora and Chihuahua Deserts, near the current boundary between Mexico and the United States. I strongly suspect that pithouses and earth-bermed houses were a product of indigenous adaptation to climatic conditions.

      What part of Peru does the word Akapa occur? There were several dozen languages in Peru at the time of the Spanish Conquest.

        • Yes, that could be Aymara . . . but also, Bolivia has dozens of languages. I will look around in the Spanish-Indigenous language dictionaries. There is not much available in English-South American Indigenous dictionaries. Thanks


            Richard, As I suspected the Ancient people of the area called “Akapana” built pit houses back to 3200 BC. So it’s likely That some of the peoples of the Andes mountains, as you have stated… migrated their way to the South, perhaps some related to the Tiahuanaco/ Wari people. The Itza people migration (800-900’s AD) was preceded it would seem to Kolomoki (200-550) SW Georgia by people that built pit houses at Chichen Itza. From Peru to Costa Rica to the Yucatan then Georgia would seem to be their migration path. Thanks for your articles:


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