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Famous Mexican archaeologist saw much more than a Maya connection

Famous Mexican archaeologist saw much more than a Maya connection


Dr. Román Piña-Chan recognized the eclectic nature of Creek and Chickasaw cultural heritage. He theorized that the first Mesoamerican settlers in the Southeast were mostly illiterate male commoners, because their “elite” pottery was generally different from the elite pottery of Mesoamerica, while their domestic architecture was identical.  While the art and architecture of Etowah Mounds in Georgia (a mother town of the Creeks) is obviously derived from the Itza Mayas,  the art and architecture of Moundville in Alabama (in the last Chickasaw homeland) is obviously derived from the Toltecs. However, a distinct Chickasaw culture first appeared in Northeast Georgia around 600-800 AD. He also saw evidence of human sacrifice at Moundville!

In Part Three of our video series on Teotihuacan and Cerro Gordo, there is a scene, which would have great implications for events in the 21st century.  Dr. Piña-Chan and his graduate assistant/translator, Alejandra, had just given me a VIP tour of all six levels of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia.  The public only sees one level!  As was customary in Latin America at the initiation of advisory relationships between professors and postgraduate students, I had given him two books on the Indians of the Lower Southeastern United States then departed the building.  However, while waiting at the bus stop at the edge of the museum’s entrance plaza, I heard my name being shouted. Alejandra, who looked like the famous Mexican actress Salma Hayik, was racing toward me.  (I am not worthy!  I am not worthy!)  After successfully stopping me from getting on the bus,  Alejandra told me that Dr. Piña-Chan had found the books very interesting and wanted to know if I had time to have lunch with him so he could ask me some questions. OMG!  I was to have lunch in the inner sanctum of a world famous archaeologist. It would be the first of several brown bag lunches that I had with Dr. Piña-Chan and some Mexican anthropology students.

First, let’s make it clear.  I could not answer any of Dr. Piña-Chan’s questions.  At that time, I didn’t know diddlysquat about my own indigenous cultural heritage.  I would not know much until 1996, when I began living in walking distance of Etowah Mounds.  However, during the 23 years since then, I have been trying to answer those questions . . . often getting totally unexpected answers.

Initially,  Dr. Piña-Chan invited Alexandra and me to sit opposite him at his big oak office desk.  He could converse in English, but if he didn’t know a particular word, Alexandra would translate.  She also had to help me in translating the menu from the museum restaurant.  LOL  I was learning basic Spanish.   I was in awe.  On sections of walls, not covered with books were shelves displaying some of the most famous artifacts of the Americas . . . those exquisite pieces that you see on book covers.

We started chatting before Dr. Piña-Chan’s secretary brought us our lunches. The famous archaeologist initially apologized that he knew very little about the Indios of the Estados Unidos and was surprised to see that the Indios in the Sur-Este had lived in large towns with large pyramids.  Mexican archaeologists label both stone pyramids and earthen mounds as “pyramids.”   He said that what little was said in his textbooks in school led Mexicans to believe that all Indios in the United States were migratory hunters of buffalo and lived in teepees.

This ceramic statue was excavated in 1885 by Smithsonian archaeologist, John Rogan. Its current location is unknown.

I responded that there was nothing to apologize for.  I was taught in elementary school that all Mexicans were named Lupe, Maria, Juanita, Pedro, Pepe or Jose’ . . . They all wore sombreros and drove around their adobe village in burro carts.  Alejandra, who had an undergraduate degree from a university in Texas, laughed so hard that she almost choked on her Coca-Cola . . . then blurted, “It’s true!

The famous Etowah marble statues

The first thing that Dr. Piña-Chan wanted to ask me about was the two famous marble statues in the Etowah Mounds Museum . . . “Ricardo, why did your Indios make marble statues of Maya slaves?”   I didn’t know.

Today, I could tell Dr. Piña-Chan that dozens, if not hundreds of stone and ceramic statues with Mesoamerican features were found in the Etowah Valley in and around the mounds during the 1800s and early 1900s by amateur collectors and later, archaeologists.  Many were stolen from homes in that area, when the Ist Ohio Infantry Regiment was camped near Etowah Mounds during the Battle of Atlanta . . . waiting to be mustered out of service at the end of a three year commitment.  Later, while its former general,  Banks P. Thurston, was military governor of Nashville, very similar statues and artifacts were described by Thurston as “being purchased from soldiers, who found them while excavating the fortifications around Nashville.”   Most of the statues found by archaeologists, employed by the Smithsonian Institute and Peabody Museum are only known today by their drawings or photographs.

Dr. Piña-Chan stated that the Indian houses in Georgia and Mexico were identical.  All of the styles of pyramids in the Southeastern United State, except the oval ones, could be found in Mexico.  In particular, the plans of Olmec towns were very similar to the plans of Creek Indian towns in Georgia.  Both cultures had plazas surrounded with low earthen banks.  There was no doubt of an architectural connection between the two regions.  He pulled his book on the Olmec Culture off the shelf and showed me how similar the mounds in Moundville, AL and Ocmulgee, GA were to Olmec  mounds and Toltec pyramids.  I agreed with him.

Today, I would have had to qualify my agreement with Dr. Piña-Chan.  In recent years, I have discovered that late-20th century archaeologists concealed the presence of large round houses at Ocmulgee during its first century and in the fourth phase of Etowah’s occupation, where the Apalache elite lived. These are identical to the houses of northern and eastern Peru.  We now know that there was a major immigration of Panoan and Southern Arawak peoples into the Southeast, several hundred years before Mesoamericans arrived.

There are many shared symbols among the Olmecs, Mayas and Creeks.

Dr. Piña-Chan noted many similarities between the copper and shell art at Etowah Mounds and the Post-Classic Mayas in such locations as Chichen Itza.  A dancing priestess at Etowah was wearing the hair ornamentation of a priestess of the Maya god, Kukulkan.  The crown of “Eagleman” at Etowah was wearing the crown of the Itza Maya sun god.  He stated that the copper art at Etowah Mounds was superior to any copper artifacts found in Mexico.   He was curious as to why there were no gold artifacts found in the Southeastern United States.  “Is there no gold in Georgia?” I told him that I did not know why there were no gold artifacts, but that Etowah was located adjacent to a very important gold-mining region.  The dome of the Georgia State Capital was even plated with Georgia gold. 

Today, I would have to add that several early French and English explorers observed a vigorous trade in gold foil and chains coming out of the Georgia Mountains and that several gold figurines have been found in Florida.  Several 18th century Anglo-American traders and explorers even noted that some branches of the Creeks maintained their tribal histories on gold foil.  However, all of this information is kept out of the anthropological references that most people see.

While thumbing through the books, Dr. Piña-Chan noted that most of the pottery in the Southeast was very different than most of what is found in Mexico.  He saw some painted pottery from Moundville that looked like the pottery of less advanced civilization in Northeastern Mexico.  When looking at photos and drawings of Swift Creek and other types of stamped pottery in the Southeast, he remarked, “This is curious.  Your pottery looks like the pottery of a land faraway, but that couldn’t be possible.”  It was then that he stated a very interesting assessment of migration between Maya civilization and the Southeast.  Since men built the architecture and laid out the towns, but women made most utilitarian pottery,  he theorized that the initial immigration from Maya lands was by illiterate male commoners or middle class traders, who married local women.

I now know what he meant by “a land faraway.”   Swift Creek pottery is identical to the stamped pottery made a little earlier and contemporaneously with the Conibo People of eastern Peru.  Many of the most culturally important traditions and words of the Creek People, such as “the Sacred Black Drink,” came directly from the Conibo.   HOWEVER, Peruvian stamped pottery was directly derived from the stamped pottery of the Lapita Culture of Southeast Asia and Polynesia (1600 BC-500 BC).  The Lapita Culture lasted exactly the same time period as the Olmec Civilization.  The famous Olmec stone heads look exactly like the Polynesians of Tonga and Samoa.  However, other Olmec statuary looks like Mesoamericans. 

ALSO . . .  most of the Maya and Teotihuacano commoner pottery was shell-tempered Plain Redware.  It is “boring” and so is not shown in museums.  Much of the Mississippian Period pottery at such sites as Ocmulgee, Etowah Mounds and Track Rock Gap is Plain Redware. It is “boring” and so gets little attention at museums in the Southeastern United States.

Pyramid B – The most famous structure at Tula – the capital of the Toltecs

We then came to some of the pages in the latter half of the fascinating book, Sun Circles and Human Hands, by Alabaman Mary Fundaburk Foreman.  Dr. Piña-Chan kept on uttering, “¡Increíble! ¡Increíble! ”  He asked Alejandra and I to pull our chairs around to his side of his desk, while he got up to pull HIS book on the Toltecs from a bookshelf.  He placed his book on the Toltecs next to Sun Circles and Human Hands.

The Creek Indians and their ancestors carved ceramic, wooden and stone cylindrical seals to use for the application of dyes for tattoos and to also dye complex patterns on clothing.  This is a technology straight from Mesoamerica.  Dr. Piña-Chan showed us page after page of decorative motifs used on cylindrical seals found in the Chattahoochee, Alabama and Black Warrior Rivers in Georgia and Alabama, which were identical to those motifs used in eastern Mexico.  He then pointed out in his book that EVERY symbol seen on a decorative frieze around one of the pyramids at Tula could be found in the art of Moundville, Alabama.

A cup for consuming human stew at Moundville?

A typical artifact, found at Moundville then caught the eye of Dr. Piña-Chan.  He then blurted, “¡Increíble!” again.  It was a cylindrical cup with a skull and crossbones on it.  Many of POOF’s readers probably remember seeing the cup in the Moundville Museum.  However, NO Southeastern archaeologist has ever discerned its true significance. 

Dr. Piña-Chan feverishly flipped through his book on the Toltecs until he came to a page with photographs of several cylindrical cups on it.  Everyone of the cups had a skull and crossbones on it.  Some had motifs on them, virtually identical to the famous cup at Moundville.  The famous archaeologists explained that such cups were used in religious ceremonies in which priests would disperse to the masses pozole (stew) made from the flesh of human victims mixed with hominy corn and vegetables.  The ritual had a macabre similarity to Christian Communion!   You go figure!

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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.



    Richard, I had my DNA tested last year and have since utilized the tools in Genesis GEDmatch. I have Creek ancestry and it has been most interesting that with the tools, I’ve found matches that have enabled me to basically trace my NA ancestors from the Bering Straight into the Arctic, down through the Pacific NW, down through California, into Mexico and the lower Americas. It seems to me this would only be the case if this is the trial of my Creek ancestry, because all my other ancestors are east of the Mississippi or from the UK and Europe. I have DNA matches to indigenous descendants in Chile and Puerto Rico who I actually contacted after seeing our matches, when I have no known ancestors that could account for that other than ancient Creek ancestry. Learning what I have, I even reluctantly call them Creek since that is the label white immigrants attached to them and certainly not what they called themselves when they first arrived in the southeastern US. I’ve also used the tools to discover I match Mayan, Montana Clovis, Kinnewick, and samples in the database from Navajo, Apache and other groups west of the Mississippi that I have no ancestry from. My conclusion has become that at a very ancient DNA comparison, all NAs share ancient common ancestry and are all related, making the NA saying “All my relations” ring more true than ever. Sometimes components of my NA DNA is labeled Central America, Arctic, Beringian, Amerindian, Americas, and sometimes Native Ameican. There is Siberian and Asian in the ancient DNA as well. What I”m finding is most people with NA ancestry are finding these same labels to components of their DNA. But, back to the Creek and Mayan connection, I do not have a single ancestor that has ever been discovered to have come from west of the Mississippi…except my Creek ancestors who brought the Mayan, Central American, and other related DNA components into my mix. It has been exciting for me to have my DNA breakdown validate archaeology!

    • That is very interesting Debbie. Keep in mind that being “Creek” means that your ancestors were members of a confederacy of about 24-28 different ethnic groups. Many of the branches of the Creeks came from Mexico, but from different areas of Mexico. So, for example, if your ancestors were Kolimo-ke, your ancestors came from Colima State, Mexico and you would have Pima DNA in addition to the others that you listed. Our family is from the Savannah River Basin, so we have lots of Itza Maya, Uchee, Sami (Scandinavia), Panoan (Peru) and Polynesian – but no evidence of any western tribes like the Pima.


    I visited Moundville about a year ago and saw a bowl with a human effigy molded on it. The bowl had a head facing up on one end, legs on the other and arms on each side. Your comment about “human stew” fits perfectly.
    (I sent a picture of it. )


    Richard, Dr. Piña-Chan connected the dots to the South East for the Toltecs cities but where did he think the 1500-1200 BC “Olmecs” came from? The Lapita Culture seems to be a match for the pre Olmecs from the Pacific area along with the same type of feathered Pacific headwear. The Honduras / Olmecs colossal stone heads works are a connection to some people of south America as well as a colossal stone head has been found in Patagonia Argentina.

    • Mark, I don’t recall him discussing that question. Even at that time, though, the Mexican archaeologists realized that the people of the “Olmec Civilization” were of several ethnic groups. You can see it in their statuary. The Aztecs said that the same tall people, who founded Tepoztlan, Cholula and Teotihuacan, founded the Olmec Civilization.


        Richard, You have connected the dots of the migration of the Supersized people from South America all the way to the state of Alabama with those “round casting stones” of Patagonia. Most university experts are confused about the easiest way to make it to this landmass…using the routes of the Whales hunters to Antarctica..and using that landmass bridge to South America. I guess some could have settled in with the “supersized plus 25% brain people” (beam me up scotty!!!) in different locations of the Americas.


    Love this very interesting post Richard although I have great difficulty keeping up with the different tribes.. The comment from Debby Lapeyrouse about her DNA ancestry I found wonderful, she must be very proud.

    • In addition, evidently she has French ancestry . . . a veritable United Nations.


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