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Did refugees, fleeing Mexico, spark the sudden appearance of towns in the Southeast?

During the past two years, there has been a radical change in thinking among Mexican anthropologists concerning the ethnic identity of the Toltecs. It is now believed that the Toltecs were composed of several related ethnic groups, who spoke languages that are now lost, since they were mostly gone from Mexico, when the Spanish arrived. The refugees forced out of northern and central Mexico were said to be extremely tall.

What the scholars are saying now in Mexico collaborates completely with what we are learning from the previously lost British colonial documents that describe the origins of the Muskogean Peoples. This theory would explain the extreme height of several tribes in the Southeast and the timing of a sudden appearance of towns in many areas of the region.

In a remarkable moment in my life, so many years ago, I was sitting in the office of Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, Director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City. He and archaeologist, Ignacio Bernal, Director of the Institutio Nacional de Antropologia E Historia (INAH) had just given me an orientation tour of the full six floors of the museum as a kick-off for the fellowship.

Bernal had left the tour early, in disgust, when he figured out that I was not from a rich Gringo family that could donate funds to archaeological digs. I had brought along two archaeology books on the Southeast to give to the famous men, but Piňa-Chan received both of them, since Bernal left early.

While thumbing through the books and chatting with me, Dr. Piňa-Chan made two off-the-cuff comments that would have unimaginable implications in the 21st century.  As he looked at the book on Georgia archaeological sites, he glanced at a photo of the famous Etowah marble statues and asked, “Ricardo, why did your Indios in Georgia make marmel statues of Maya slaves?”

Completely fascinated by the book on Southeastern indigenous art, Sun Circles and Human Hands,   Piňa-Chan asked. “I don’t understand. Your pottery is beautiful, but nothing likes the pottery in Mexico. Why does your art and earth pyramids look just like the Toltecs?”  Dr. Piňa-Chan pulled a book off the shelf in his office on Toltec art, and pointed to identical art at Moundville, Alabama and  Tula in Mexico.  Almost all the famous indigenous motifs in northwestern Alabama can also be found in Hidalgo State, Mexico.

Of course, being an ignoramus at the time in my life, I couldn’t answer either question.  It is miracle that I wrote these statements down, because my mind was on an afternoon date with a Mexican seňorita in nearby Chapultepec Park.


Giant stone warriors in the Temple of the Warriors at Tula, which was originally the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. Photo by Richard L. Thornton

The Mexican giants

Throughout the 20th century both Mexican and North American anthropologists presumed that the Toltecs were Nahuatl predecessors of the Aztecs. The word, Toltec, is Nahua and can be translated as “scholars, craftsmen, town people, civilized people, etc.”  Essentially, they were saying that the Aztec Civilization was an outgrowth of the Toltec Civilization. They made this assumption because the architecture of the early Aztec cities was very similar to that of Toltecs.

When I was in Mexico on the fellowship, little attention was given to skeletons, unless they were in an elaborate tomb. I am not even certain, if the skeletons and fragments of bones were even reburied. They may have been cremated. Very few skeletons were stored at the national museum. Just as in the case of here in the Southeast, the academicians gave little credence to the indigenous histories (i.e. legends and codices) that survived the Spanish onslaught.

Mexican scholars became less and less sure of that presumption in the 1990s, as their work shifted from creating tourist attractions and museum exhibits to developing a broader understanding of their nation’s rich cultural heritage. The ethnic identity of the Toltecs became a big question mark. Evidence was mounting that the Aztecs and Toltecs were contemporaries, at least until around 1150 AD.

Legends are verified by radiocarbon dating and skeletal forensics

There were skeletons from the Toltec Era, being found in the Valley of Mexico, southern Hidalgo, Jalisco, Puebla, extreme western Vera Cruz and eastern Michoacán that were extremely tall – like those often found in “royal burials” in the Southeastern United States.

Recent radiocarbon dating has placed the arrival of Nahuatl Peoples in the Valley of Mexico at around 900 AD. The Aztecs were originally one band of the Nahuatl. That is much earlier that what one will read in most published references. It is also the approximate date that the Toltec capital of Tula was founded.

Tula means “town” in Totonac, Itza Maya and Itsate Creek.  The Muskogee Creek word for town, talwa, is derived from tula.   Tula was also the name of a town in the Mississippi River Basin, that was visited by Hernando de Soto.

According to Aztec legends, when they arrived in central Mexico, it was occupied by Otomi farmers, Chichimec hunter-gatherers and culturally advanced “giants,” whom they later called the Toltecs. The Chichimecs fled northward. The Otomi submitted to be agricultural serfs of the Aztecs.

The various tribes, composed of giants, stood and fought. The giants were really peoples, whose males typically were 6’-3” to 6”-6” tall. Some were seven feet tall. Of course, this is exactly the height range of Muskogean men, encountered by Hernando de Soto in present day Georgia in 1540. The Spanish chroniclers stated that these indios gigantes averaged a foot taller than the Spanish.

The Tekesta, mentioned in the POOF article, “Original members of Creek Confederacy were enemies of the Muskogees,” were one of those super-tall bands in Aztec legends. One by one, the tribes of giants in Central Mexico were either exterminated or driven northward.

Between 1000 AD and 1250 AD, the indigenous peoples, living on the eastern side of Mexico were subject to incessant attacks by Chichimec barbarians in the north and Nahuatl armies in the east-central regions. Some large provinces of the Huastecs and Totonacs held out by maintaining fierce resistance or becoming tributary states of the Aztecs.

The smaller tribes were forced to migrate. They had two choices, follow the Gulf Coast northward by land or by sea.  Just at the same time that new cultures and towns were appearing everywhere in the Mississippian River Basin and Southeast, there were a whole lot of people trying to get the heck out of Mexico.

By the time, that the Spanish occupied Mexico in the 1500s, very few bands of indios gigantes survived. They were mainly in Jalisco and Hidalgo states. Virtually all of those survivors died in an apocalyptic plague that swept the Mexican highlands in 1585. The languages and dialects of the giants have been lost, except for a few words.   Could their language have been Proto-Muskogean?  Possibly,  one can see Muskogean grammar in some of the surviving place names of northeastern Mexico.

Tula and the Legend of Quetzalcoatl

A particularly advanced band of giants moved from the Valley of Mexico and founded Tula at the site of an existing small town. Later on, they came to be known as the Toltecs among Aztec historians.

Around 895 AD, the king of Tula had a son that he named, Cē Ācatl Topiltzin , which mean Our Lord – One Reed – Feathered Serpent . His alternate name was Quetzalcoatl – Quetzal (bird) –Snake  Quetzalcoatl was destined to be a priest-scholar and so was educated at Tepotzlan, essentially what would be called a “university town” today. Even today, Tepotzlan has a dramatic setting at the foot of where the lava flow of Pocatepetl volcano stopped. I spent two weeks there one unforgettable Christmas.

Quetzalcoatl returned to Tula after his father was assassinated to promote learning and the arts, but also to implement stark changes in religious beliefs. Worship was focused on the sun goddess and human sacrifice was banned. The city prospered under his enlightened leadership, but the military class and priests of the old religion hated him.

There was a coup d’états in 947 AD. Quetzalcoatl and his followers were banished. One version of the legend has him traveling to the Blood River at Tlapallan, where he committed suicide by burning himself. In the Creek Migration Legend, the protagonists migrated up and down the Blood River.

In a more common version, Quetzalcoatl’s band temporarily settled on the Blood River then relocated to Coatzacoalcos, which is located on the Gulf of Mexico at its narrowest point. It was the most important port of the Chontal Maya merchants. Here, Quetzalcoatl attracted followers among the western branches of the Mayas, in particular, the Itzas. They called him by his Maya name of Kukulkan, which has the same meaning as Quetzalcoatl.

It is not clear if Quetzalcoatl was forced out of Coatzacoalcos, or if he just wanted his own city. In the second version of the legend, the priest-king now named Kukulkan, led an army of Itza Maya followers northward and conquered the town of Chichen, renaming it Chichen Itza. The Chontal Maya port for Chichen Itza was due south of Mobile Bay, Alabama. The northern tip of Yucatan, the Gulf Coast between the Mobile and Chattahoochee Rivers, and the coastal plain of Tamaulipas, Mexico were all once known as Am Ixchel . . .Place of the Goddess Ixchel in Itza.

Yucatan-seacraft2As of 2012, we now know that the Itza Mayas of Chiapas had been going to what are now Florida, Georgia and Alabama for centuries in order to obtain raw materials. Their capital city was Palenque. When a massive volcanic eruption destroyed Palenque around 800 AD, the surviving Itzas were launched on a diaspora in which perhaps over a hundred thousand people disappeared.

In another version of the legend . . . As an elderly man, Kukulkan became dissatisfied with Chichen Itza. He and his followers embarked onto the Gulf of Mexico in large canoes and were never seen again. As stated before, they would have known the existence of Cuba and a large continent beyond.

On Boulder Six of the Track Rock petroglyphs are four Itza Maya glyphs that mean Mako Hene Ahau Kukulcan. Translated into English, those words mean:

Great Sun (King) Lord Quetzalcoatl.

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.




    At each publication you make I learn so much. Connections in my own mind are made which are amazing. I can’t imagine how it must feel being you and actually developing the connections then telling those of us who will listen.

    I feel like I am on a frontier of learning that many folks won’t understand for years or those who will just ignore the evidence you bring to us. Because of you I am able to enlighten people with whom I am in contact but more than that I am able to back up the things you have told us with evidence and proofs. Makes me feel good to know I am a small part of setting the record right or at the least more correct.

    Thanks for all your work, time and effort. I believe it is making a difference.


    • Jay,

      Such comments as yours mean a lot to me. They are antidotes for the poisoned words I receive from other sources. You wouldn’t believe the nasty email I received this morning from an administrator at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in North Carolina. She was actually sending it to 12 people around the nation, but did not know that one of those email addresses was mine!


      s a direct descendant of Southeastern Indigenous people who strives to keep any knowledge alive, this is very informative. It seems to correspond with my DNA. I am still looking for that report in my files. Thanks once again.

      • Thank you! The People of One Fire is bringing to the table issues that the archaeologists won’t talk about.


    I sent you my DNA report.


    • No I have NOT seen that article! Thanks for telling me.


        Glad if it helps to add a piece to the truth 🙂


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