First Contact! Where did the first Maya immigrants live in North America?
Map Above: The indigenous towns in the Southeastern United States were obviously much more accessible to the Mesoamerican civilizations. It was far easier to transport people and bulk goods over the ocean than by inland rivers or mountainous land routes. While archaeologists at the much more distant urban centers of Chaco Canyon and Cahokia Mounds are aggressively searching for and finding cultural connections to Mesoamerica, such as cocoa residue in jars, archaeologists in Georgia and Florida; the US Forest Service and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina have expended extensive efforts and funds toward blocking any public knowledge or discussion of the Mesoamerican connections to the Southeast. This is especially odd, since the original settlers of Savannah, Georgia in the 1730s, observed local Creek and Uchee Indians cultivating cacao trees and pineapple plants!
The Apalachicola River Delta in Florida; Lake Okeechobee, Florida; the Florida Keys; Bottle Creek Mounds north of Mobile Bay, Alabama; the confluence of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers in Georgia; what is now Downtown Savannah and Tybee Island, GA are all candidates for where Mesoamericans first lived in North America. Each location has compelling reasons for being labeled the first location for first contact. It could well be that distinct bands of Mesoamericans journeyed to all these locations.
Unfortunately, without a time machine or any interest among the current crop of Southeastern archaeologists, the only course of action now is to identify promising places to dig and then sending invitations to archaeologists in other parts of the United States or Latin America to join Muskogean researchers from the Southeast in their quest.
It was never a theory. It was never a “bunch of crap” as a former president of the Georgia Council of Professional Archaeologists publicly stated in 2012. It was not “something pulled out of thin air” as repeatedly stated by South African archaeologist, Johannes Loubser, in his “Maya-myth Busting in the Mountains” lectures during 2012 and 2013. There is substantial physical, linguistic and genetic evidence of Mesoamerican cultural influence among the Muskogean peoples, despite what has repeatedly been stated in nationally published articles by USFS archaeologist, James Wettstaed. Wettstaed is a recent transplant from the Northwest, who has exclusively collaborated with the North Carolina Cherokees, when interpreting Georgia Creek sites. He was primarily known for studies of American Elk migration patterns prior to moving to Georgia.
In an earlier POOF article, we learned that a century ago, the Seminoles in southern Florida openly described themselves as being Mayas. Many Eastern Creeks and Seminoles grew up being told that they were part Maya. Most Eastern Creeks and Seminoles carry at least some Mesoamerican and/or Peruvian and/or Arawak DNA test markers. Most of the words in Creek languages that are associated with architecture, agriculture, trade and government are Mesoamerican or Panoan (Peru) words . . . including the Creek words for boat.* All major branches of the Creek Confederacy, except the Uchee, have migration legends that describe journeys by foot or water from lands to the south of the United States. The Uchee say that they came across the Atlantic and landed at the mouth of the Savannah River.
*The Creek word for a boat is perro. An Eastern Peruvian word for a boat is piro. Ase is the Creek and Panoan word for “Sacred Black Drink”. Chiki (house), taube (salt), Iche (corn), talako (bean), mako (leader), hene ahau (sibling of Great Sun) and chilam (write) mean the same in Eastern Creek and Itza Maya.
The Migration Legend of the Itsate (Hitchiti) people states that their ancestors arrived by boat from lands to the south and settled first near a great lake in southern Florida. They then lived for awhile in a “land of reeds,” but ultimately established roots at where Downtown Savannah is located. In an earlier article, it was learned that a century ago, the Seminole People of Southern Florida openly described themselves as “Mayas who immigrated to North America to escape famine.”
The Miccosukee Migration Legend said that their ancestors originated in southern Mexico then walked along the edge of the Gulf of Mexico until they reached what is now Georgia. The languages of the Miccosukee and certain branches of the Mayas are so close that they understand the gist of what each other is saying. The Kashita Migration Legend said that their ancestors originated at the foot of the Orizaba Volcano in western Vera Cruz and then walked around the edge of the Gulf of Mexico to the Southeastern United States.
Between 1948 and 1968, the nationally respected archaeologist, Arthur Kelly, found artifacts along the Lower Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers, which did not seem to “fit” into local artistic traditions. In early 1969, he made a public announcement in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he had found artifacts that he believed were either made in Mesoamerica or were copies of artifacts made in Mesoamerica. He was immediately attacked on all sides by many of his professional peers. He spent the rest of his life as professional pariah in the Southeast.
In October 2012, the laboratory of the University of Minnesota Department of Earth Sciences found a 100% match between attapulgite from a mine in the State of Georgia and Maya blue stucco from a temple in Palenque, Chiapas that was furnished by the INAH. It was announced on an internationally broadcast prime time program on the History Channel, the evening of December 21, 2012 . . . the beginning of the new Maya calendar. The discovery has been completely ignored by all professional anthropological journals in hope that no one will find out. Need we say more.
First, we will have a little geography lesson.
Am Ixchel: Am Ixchel means “Place of the Goddess Ixchel” in the dialect of Maya spoken by the Chontal Mayas in Tabasco State, Mexico. The Chontal Maya were the premier mariners of the Americas. Unlike most other branches of the Mayas, the Mayas in Tabasco considered Ixchel to be their most important deity. Shrines to her were marked by crescent shaped mounds or piles of sea shells. Of course, crescent mounds are quite common along the Florida Gulf Coast and near Lake Okeechobee.
At the time that the Spanish began exploring Mesoamerica and North America, there were three towns and surrounding provinces on the periphery of the Gulf of Mexico named Am Ixchel (Amichel in Spanish). They were on the northern tip of Yucatan, Tampico Bay in Tamaulipas State, Mexico and the region between Mobile Bay, Alabama and the Apalachicola Delta in Florida. The province of the Chakata People corresponded to the Province of Am Ixchel. See POOF’s recent article on THE CHAKATA.
The three towns, named Am Ixchel formed an equilateral triangle, with the vector between Mobile Bay and the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula being aligned to true North-South. The vector between Tampico Bay and Mobile Bay, when extended intersects a vector between the ancient Ladds Mountain Observatory in Cartersville, GA and the mouth of the Apalachicola River. The point of this intersection is the location of the large town of Patauli (Singer-Moye Mounds).
The Am Ixchel at the northern tip of Yucatan was immediately due south of the mouth of Mobile Bay. It would have been quite simple for Chontal Maya navigators to maintain a true north course and therefore, not necessary to follow the shore line along Florida
Usumacinta River Delta: The Usumacinta River was the primary trade corridor for many Maya provinces. The serpentine channel of the Usumcinta is a mirror image of the Altamaha River in Georgia. The distances between the ocean and the Fall Lines of these rivers are almost exactly the same. At the Fall Line of the Usumacinta was the Maya salt-trading center of Waka, set on a terrace above the river. At the Fall Line of the Ocmulgee River, a major tributary of the Altamaha, was another town named Waka, which was set on a terrace above the river. That is why one of the members of the Creek Confederacy was named the Wakate or Wakake.
The Chontal Mayas lived on the islands in the marshes of the Usumacinta Delta. The region today is called Chontalpa, which means “Place of the Chontal.” Over time, they became the most skilled mariners in Mesoamerica and came to dominate its regional trade. There was little difference in appearance between a Chontal Maya town and a Muskogean town. Both peoples built pyramidal earthen mounds. Their houses were identical. The Chontal Mayas were illiterate and considered barbarians by Classic Period Maya elite.
Candidates for the first Chontal Maya trading centers and Itza Maya colonies
(1) Calusa Bay – Lake Okeechobee: The famous Creek mikko, Tamachichi, had a pure Itza Maya name that means “Trade Dog”. He told Georgia’s colonial leader, James Edward Oglethorpe, that his ancestors sailed across the ocean from the south and first settled on a large lake in Florida. This was probably the Calusahatchee River Basin, just south of Lake Okechobee. Beginning around 450 BC, an advanced culture began developing in this region that is is the oldest definite location where corn was grown in North America. Between 900 AD and 1150 AD, the population was very dense with dozens of towns connected by canals and earthen causeways.
Tamachichi’s ancestors then moved northward and lived in a swampy land with many reeds. This may be the headwaters region of the St. Johns River, which contains many lakes and marshes. An advanced culture of mound builders once lived there during the period from 900 AD to about 1150 AD. Invaders (Arawaks?) arrived in Florida and so his ancestors paddled northward and settled where Savannah is today. Tamachichi pointed to a mound on Yamacraw Bluff in Savannah and stated that his ancestors were buried there.
(2) Florida Keys: The Florida Keys would have been the first landfall north of Cuba. There are mounds on several of the keys. Some have been excavated. However, there has never been a specific effort to identify Chontal Maya type artifacts. They are not terribly different from the artifacts found on the Lower Chattahoochee River during the Woodland and Early Mississippian Periods (200 AD – 1200 AD).
(3) Mobile Bay – Bottle Creek Mounds: Mobile Bay is a logical place for Maya traders to have established a base. Right now, the only known site that resembles a Chontal Maya trading base is Bottle Creek Mounds on a side channel of the Mobile River, just north of Mobile Bay. However, it has been radiocarbon dated to between 1250 AD and 1550 AD. That’s way too late for Classic Period Maya exploration activities. The Chontal Maya bases in Tamaulipas State, Mexico (also called Am Ixchel) were abandoned around 1250, when the region was devastated by Chichimec barbarians. If there was a Classic Period Maya colony (0 AD – 900 AD) it must have been somewhere else . . . perhaps on the bay itself.
(4) Apalachicola River Delta: It was proved by the University of Minnesota’s Department of Earth Science in 2012 that for many centuries attapulgite was mined in the Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin of Southwest Georgia. The confluence of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers becomes the Apalachicola River. Thus, for certain, Maya sea craft entered the Apalachicola Delta of Florida. This region is very similar in appearance to the Chontalpa on the other side of the Gulf of Mexico. Chontal Mayas would have felt right at home there. It is quite likely that they established at least one village near the mouth of the river. Below is shown likely locations for Chontal villages.
(5) Lower Chattahoochee and Flint River Basins: Between 1948 and 1968 the famous Georgia archaeologist, Arthur R. Kelly, found several artifacts in this region, which seemed “out of place.” They were small bowls, jars, figurines and cylindrical clay seals that were not similar to artifacts he had found in Georgia and Alabama throughout his career. They were most concentrated along the Flint River, northwest of the town of Attapulgus, GA.
In 1969, John S. Pennington of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote an article about Kelly’s discoveries and his theory that these artifacts came from Mesoamerica or were copies of Mesoamerican artifacts. Kelly’s colleagues in the Georgia Council of Professional Archaeologists had a flying fit.
A stone hoe was mysteriously stolen from the boxes of artifacts from the Mandeville Site at the University of Georgia’s Laboratory of Archaeology . . . then on a Sunday afternoon in June of 1969, inserted in a mound near Six Flags Over Georgia in Metro Atlanta. Kelly was charged with stealing the hoe, but later cleared. Nevertheless, he was sacked from his faculty position and spent the rest of his life as a pariah. The two student assistants at the archaeology lab at that time are now members of the Georgia Council of Professional Archaeologists.
No one else was ever charged with the crime. Strangely, the same Georgia archaeologists, who were outraged about Arthur Kelly’s theory that Mesoamericans had visited the Southeast and the supposedly lax security measures at the UGA Laboratory of Archaeology, suddenly wanted the whole matter hushed up after they had ruined Kelly’s reputation on the local evening news. Atlanta TV stations never followed with news reports, which stated that Arthur Kelly had been cleared of any criminal activities.
Ironically, it was attapulgite from a mine located between the Flint River and Attapulgus, Georgia which was found in the Maya Blue stucco on a temple in Palenque, Chiapas. That attapulgite would have been paddled up the Usumacinta River. Also, near the mouth of the Flint River are the ruins of an oval stone building that was identical to structures built by the Mayas along the Usumacinta River.
(6) Tybee Island, Georgia: Tamachichi’s Migration Legend stated that his ancestors eventually settled where Savannah is todoy, but there is historical and linguistic evidence of a possible early presence of Chontal Mayas on Tybee Island at the mouth of the Savannah River. Tybee is the Anglicization of the Itza Maya and Itsate Creek (Hitchiti) word for salt, taube. When Savannah was settled in 1733, the colonists observed Native American buildings and mounds on Tybee Island, associated with the large scale manufacture of salt from sea water.
The Savannah River is the shortest and straightest route between the ocean and the Southern Appalachians. The region between the Lower Savannah River and the Ogeechee River was the original homeland of the Uchee (Yuchi) People. Perhaps their proximity to the mountains is what propelled them to be heavily involved with regional trade. The Usumacinto River was the primary trade artery to the ocean for many of the most famous Maya cities. They included Waka in Guatemala, plus Palenque, Bonampak, Tonina, Piedras Negras, Pomona, Yaxchilan, Amparo, Anayte, Chiapas, Chinikha and Chinkultic in what is now Mexico.
Furthermore, the presence of a brine processing facility on an island named with the Itza word for sale is highly significant. The backbone of the wealth made by Chontal and Itza traders in Mesoamerica was the salt trade. Because of hurricanes, “regular” Mayas did not like to live near the coast. They were usually afraid of the ocean and did not venture very far from the ocean shore. As a result, vast quantities of salt were transported inland by the Chontal Mayas to meet the needs of exploding urban populations. The salt was traded for such valuable commodities as jade, cacoa beans, quetzal fevers, gold, jaguar skins and copal resin. By the end of the Classic Maya Era in 800 AD, the wealth of the Chontal merchants rivaled that of the kings.
Beginning when Palenque was incinerated by the El Chichon Volcano around 800 AD, one Maya city after another collapsed. The last Maya “Long Calendar Date” was carved around 900 AD. Endemic warfare interfered with trade. The Chontal Mayas began looking for other markets. This is probably when they made a concerted effort to establish markets in northeastern Mexico, Cuba and southeastern North America. It is no accident that a market town was established on a terrace overlooking the Ocmulgee River in Macon at the exact moment in time when Maya civilization was “toast.” It is probably no accident either that at the same time, the population and sophistication of the towns along the Caloosahatchee River in southern Florida exploded. A century later, there was a rash of new towns and mountainside terrace complexes in Georgia and Alabama, shortly after the Itzas in Chichen Itza were attacked and subordinated by another ethnic group.
Unless one asks questions . . . one will never get any answers.
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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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