Richard Thornton | Aug 9, 2017 | 5
Five Waves of Maya Immigration into the Southeast
During the late 1960s, the famous archaeologist, Arthur Kelly, identified artifacts from the Lower Chattahoochee River Basin, in particular, from the Woodland/Mississippian Period Mandeville and Attapulgus sites, that he speculated were made in Mesoamerica or copies of Mesoamerican artifacts. However, the Lower Chattahoochee is just one of five regions in the Southeast in which there is architectural, archaeological and linguistic evidence of Maya Commoners.
Chontalpa, Chawak But’o’ob, Palenque, Waka and Chichen Itza are the Maya city sites, where physical evidence is strongest for direct cultural ties with the Creek, Chickasaw, Koasati and Alabama Peoples. The evidence is overwhelming that the true “Mississippian Culture” of the Mississippi River Basin resulted solely from cultural influence by peoples in Northeastern Mexico. What is fascinating, though, is that the chronology of the life spans of these five cities exactly matches the chronology of cultural changes in what we call the Creek Motherland . . . Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.
The cause of this synchronism may be environmental, cultural exchange or a combination of the two. Shared patterns of cultural change do not necessarily mean shared DNA. However, when combined with the architectural, linguistic, genetic, agricultural and ceramic evidence, synchronism is a powerful argument for the immigration of Mesoamerican commoners into Southeastern North America.
The Mayas Then and Now – Part Six
A shared path though time
The cultural connections between all Muskogean tribes and the Olmec Civilization are profound. Indeed, in Part Five of this series, we argued that the Muskogeans are descendants of peoples of Vera Cruz and Tamaualipas States, who participated in that civilization. However, to date there is no obvious evidence of ethnic Mayas settling in North America until after a tsunami devastated the South Atlantic Coast in 539 AD. Anonymous traders (tamahiti) from Teotihuacan, Vera Cruz or Tabasco may have explored coastal regions and rivers of the Southeast, but they have not left a cultural footprint other than the name of a branch of the Creeks that formerly lived in Southeast Georgia and Southwestern Virginia (Tomahitans in Anglicized Algonquin). Nevertheless, there is no architectural evidence of Maya immigration in the Tamahiti lands until around 1200 AD. The Tamahiti Creeks moved back to Georgia from Virginia after the Creek-Cherokee war began in 1716.
The advanced Middle Woodland Cultures of the Southeast and Ohio River Basin clearly have “South American” stamped all over them. Some of the most basic words and traditions of the Creek Indians today are from the Panoan Peoples of Eastern Peru. The Conabo Peoples were making Swift Creek pottery long before it appeared in Georgia. The Conibo still wear clothing with patterns identical to 1600 year old Swift Creek pottery in Georgia. The Creek words for village chief, Sacred Black Drink, beans and sweet potatoes are Panoan. On the other hand, the Hopewell Earthworks in Ohio are virtually identical to those created at the same time and slightly earlier, in the Western Amazon Basin.
The Chiska Indians lived in both Northeastern Peru and Northeastern Tennessee. In both Panoan and Cherokee, chiska (chisqua) means “bird.” Authenticated Moche (Peruvian) ceramic figurines have been found in the Ohio River Floodplains. Also, the Devils Backbone Archaeological Site near Charlestown, Indiana is identical to a Moche Fort.
c. 539 AD – An Apocalypse from the Sky
North Atlantic: Several major volcanic eruptions in Iceland caused a permanent cloud to form over Northwestern Europe and Northeastern North America. It rained for ten years in Ireland. The Hopewell Culture in the Ohio Valley began rapidly declining and all construction of mounds ceased.
Southeast: In 539 AD a large comet or asteroid entered the atmosphere at a location off the Atlantic Coast of Florida then slammed into the Georgia Coast at an obtuse angle. It created a massive tsunami, well over 100 feet high that swept into the interior. The tsunami debris ridge is still over 85 feet high near Darien, GA.
All Swift Creek villages in Southeast Georgia ceases to exist after this calamity. The large town on the Etowah River (Leake Mounds) went into a decline that would result in its complete abandonment. The population of Kolomoki Mounds began declining.
The Swift Creek Culture was replaced by the Napier Culture in the Georgia Piedmont. This culture continued to build mounds, but produced stamped pottery composed of linear geometric forms.
Southern Mesoamerica: A series of massive volcanic eruptions in Mexico and Central America caused a haze to form over the region. Their impact was magnified by the impact event near the coasts of Florida and Georgia. Climatic changes caused agricultural failures. The Maya Civilization went into a 50 year decline in which few buildings were constructed and their was an out-migration of commoners.
Teotihuacan apparently had problems feeding its people. By around 600 AD there was a major uprising of the commoners at Teotihuacan. All the public buildings were burned. After 600 AD, the Itza Mayas of Chiapas were no longer under the dominance of Teotihuacan.
600 AD-800 AD – First Migration by Kekchi Mayas
Southern Mesoamerica: Just as Teotihuacan was rapid declining, many Maya cities began booming. There was an increasing demand for slaves to construct the wide array of public monuments being erected by competing Maya cities and towns. Maya slave raiders ranged wide areas in search of more primitive peoples, who would be shocked and awed by being made slaves in a Maya city. Certainly by this time, Maya miners were hauling attapulgite from Georgia and probably also mining mica in the Georgia Mountains. Georgia had an abundance of attapulgite, mica, gold and copper.
There was even more demand for mica than there was for attapulgite. It was used in murals, to fortify lime stucco and in cosmetics. The Maya Homeland had almost no mica and very little attapulgite. Their nearest significant source of mica were mines at the base of the Popocatépetl Volcano, 800 miles away near present day Mexico City. Transportation of bulk mineral from inland, mountainous locations, lacking river transportation, was extremely difficult and costly because such commodities were carried on the backs of slaves.
Virtually all archaeologists and laymen in the Southeastern United States seem to be completely unaware that Maya Commoners built earthen mounds, no different in form than those in the Southeast. If they used stone building materials, they were stacked field stones, identical to the stone structures in Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina.
Southeast: During this period, newcomers sculpted from a hill overlooking the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River, one of the largest and least known mounds in the Southeast . . . the Kenimer Mound. It is illustrated at the top of this article. All but one of the five sided mounds in the United States are in Georgia or immediately adjacent to the Georgia State Line. The only other location where five sided mounds are found is a region in the Belize, Guatemalan and Chiapas Highlands. They are associated with the city state of Caracol in western Belize and southeastern Guatemala, plus the Itza Mayas around Lake Atitlan, Guatemala and formerly in eastern Chiapas. Most of the five sided mounds in the Maya Highlands are sculpted from hills and associated with agricultural terrace complexes, which are identical to those recently discovered in North Georgia. The Kekchi and Itza Mayas are believed to be the descendants of the people, who built these five-side mounds and terrace complexes. Many Creek descendants in Northeast Georgia strongly resemble the Kekchi Mayas.
The Swift Creek Culture was replaced by the Napier Culture in the Georgia Piedmont and Blue Ridge Mountain Foothills. This culture continued to build mounds, but produced stamped pottery composed of linear geometric forms. Their style of pottery was identical to that produced by the Shipibo People of Eastern Peru. The boundaries of the Napier Culture correspond exactly to the boundaries of the Apalache Province of Bemarin in the mid-1600s and the Creek province of Koweta in the early 1700s.
c. 800 AD-850 AD – Second Migration by Chiapas Mayas
Southern Mesoamerica: The last calendar date in Palenque is 799 AD. Around 800 AD, there was a massive eruption of the El Chichon Caldera Volcano in Chiapas, plus several other major eruptions to the south in Central America. Palenque was incinerated and much of Chiapas was unsuitable for agriculture for several decades. Somewhere around a half million Itza Mayas disappeared from the Chiapas Highlands. Many Itza migrated to either northwestern Yucatan or the Coastal Plain of Tamaulipas. They captured the minor city of Chichen, renamed it Chichen Itza and began developing it into a powerful city state. In Tamaulipal, many epi-Maya coastal towns developed, which mixed the cultural traditions and languages of the Highland Mayas, Tabasco Mayas and Huastecs . . . who themselves had left the Maya Homeland about 1,500 years earlier. These epi-Maya coastal ports were in an ideal location to be the stepping stones between Mesoamerica and the Mississippi River Basin.
Almost immediately after the diaspora from Chiapas, city states in the Maya Lowlands sandwiched between these volcanoes began collapsing due to the unavailability of Itza produce, drought and chronic warfare. However, city states in Northern Yucatan continued to prosper. The entire “Maya Civilization” did not die as most TV documentaries tell you.
Southeast: The Woodstock Culture suddenly appeared in North Georgia. The immigrants built rectangular, post-ditch houses in fortified villages. They were the first people in the Creek Motherland to cultivate corn, beans and squash on a large scale. The “Woodstock People” did not build large mounds. There is something very interesting about the Woodstock villages in North Georgia that has been completely missed by the anthropology profession. All Woodstock Culture villages are located in the Georgia Gold Belt. There must be a reason. The Woodstock villages are in a region that is not the best for corn cultivation, but is rich in several valuable minerals.
The Woodstock Culture villages are located along the white water sections of the Chattahoochee, Etowah and Coosawattee River Basins. Therefore, they probably entered North America via the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee River and the Mobile-Alabama-Coosa River Systems.
About twenty years ago, the Woodstock Culture was renamed the Woodstock Phase, so people wouldn’t think that its participants came from somewhere else. However, when an entirely different architecture and way of life appears in a region, there is no other explanation. Some Mesoamerican men probably married indigenous women, thus insuring similarities in the pottery, but everything else is entirely different.
There was an explosion of population in the southern tip of Florida around Lake Okeechobee during this period. It resulted in many towns developing that had the sophisticated layouts and infrastructure of Maya towns, but did not rely completely on agriculture as food sources.
c. 850 – 900 AD – Third Migration from eastern Yucatan and Guatemala
Southern Mesoamerica: The aboriginal Maya ethnic groups of eastern Yucatan and northeastern Guatemala disappeared during this period. Mexican and Guatemalan archaeologists have always wondered where they went. Their literate 5% elite were probably murdered by angry mobs or enemy elite from other cities, but hundreds of thousands of commoners just couldn’t disappear. The Mayas living there today immigrated into the region from elsewhere.
One thing that particularly distinguished the indigenous Mayas of Northeastern Belize was their extensive use of raised causeways and canals to interconnect towns efficiently. Other Maya city-states did build “White Paths” or major roads paved with limestone gravel or shells, but these roads connected major cities with each other. The Mayas of the Cohal and Waka Provinces linked all significant towns and villages with roads, causeways or canala.
One of the most curious situations is Waka (El Perú) in Guatemala. Its entire aristocracy was executed by the elite of Tikal in 753 AD. However, commoners continued to live in the city until the 880s AD then it was virtually abandoned. The city was situated on a natural terrace at the Fall Line of the San Pedro River that then flows westward into the Gulf of Mexico. It was originally founded by Itza Mayas from Lake Peten to the southeast. Waka became a major salt trading center because an old horseshoe bend beneath the terrace provided a natural port for trade canoes. The people of Waka manufactured 2-3 feet diameter ceramic trays for drying brine water. Hundreds of these unusual ceramics were also found at Ocmulgee National Monument in the 1930s, but they are not put on display because the Georgia archaeologists do not know what their function was. Oh . . . did we mention that the acropolis of Waka was the exact same distance from the ocean as the acropolis of Ocmulgee National Monument . . . which was also situated on a natural terrace and also apparently named Waka, Waka-te or Waka-ke?
Southeast: During the 800s AD, the population exploded in Southern Florida near Lake Okeechobee. The town of Waka-te (Waka People) became so large and powerful by 900 AD that it was able to form either an alliance or a true kingdom around 900 AD, composed of all the ethnic groups in southern Florida. They all started making the same styles of pottery, so it is possible that the polity was something more than a confederacy. All of the large towns of the Waka-te Polity were interconnected with causeways and canals as was the practice of the people of Northeastern Belize. The combined length of these transportation linkages was hundreds of miles.
When Spanish soldiers and missionaries entered the Lake Okeechobee region in the early 1600s, they called its indigenous occupants, Maiacoa, which is an Arawak word meaning “Maya People.” The ruins of the ancient town were labeled in Spanish, Guacata. In the 1560s, the French at Fort Caroline on the South Atlantic Coast called the indigenous people living in the present day Macon, GA area, Mayacoa.
Around 900 AD newcomers arrived on the Macon Plateau at the Fall Line of the Ocmulgee River and established a village that quickly began growing into a regional trade center with many Mesoamerican traits. Just like Waka in Guatemala, it became a major salt trading center, which manufacture three feet diameter ceramic trays for drying brine water. However, we now know, thanks to the ground radar study of Dr. Daniel Bigman (see featured article on Ocmulgee National Monument) that these original settlers were Arawaks, making Maya commoner style, shell-tempered redware pottery. They lived in large conical shaped houses that were typical of northern South America and the Toa River Valley in Cuba. Perhaps they were escaped Maya slaves of Arawak ancestry or the descendants of escaped slaves. Descendants of the founders of this great town were still distinct members of the Creek Confederacy in the 1700s. They were called Waka-te (Itza Maya) or Waka-ki (Muskogee).
At the same time, newcomers also established a village at the Great Falls of the Chattahoochee River in present day Columbus. We don’t know as much about them other than that they initially made the same styles of pottery as was initially made at Ocmulgee.
950 AD-1000 AD – Fourth Migration by Itza Mayas
Mesoamerica: Around 947 AD, the king of Tula, whose later Mexica name was Cē Ācatl Topiltzin QuetzalCoatl, fled the great city in central Mexico and headed for the coast. Most likely, he was really a Totonac, since he was born in the spectacular town of Tepotzlan and Tula is the Totonac, Itza Maya and Hitchiti Creek word for “town.” There are many versions of his legend, but the most plausible is that he sailed southward along the coast of Vera Cruz to Coatzcoalcos. Most of his followers did not want to remain, so he led a small party of loyal followers northward across the Gulf of Mexico and landed somewhere around the mouth of Mobile Bay or Apalachicola Bay. It is interesting that the glyphs on Boulder Six at Track Rock Gap are NOT the graffiti of a bored Cherokee hunter as Georgia archaeologists would have you believe, but the commonly known Maya glyphs meaning, “Hene Mako Ahau Kukulkan” or “Great Sun (King) Lord Quetzalcoatl.”
Those followers, who remained, quickly built up a powerful alliance of Putun Maya towns on the Vera Cruz coast. The Putun Maya were the descendants of Tabasco Maya mariners, who traded so much with Nahua-speaking customers that their language and cultural mixed those of the Puuc Mayas of coastal Campeche, Totonacs and Nahua towns in the interior. The Aztecs speak a Nahua language.
Around 980-990 AD, a great flotilla sailed northward to Jaina Island on the northwest coast of Yucatan. The Coatzcoalcos Alliance captured this sacred shrine and then marched island, driving out the Itza inhabitants as they went. They captured Chichen Itza and expelled those Itzas that they did not kill. The Yucatan Itzas were scattered to the winds.
Southeast: Around 1000 AD extraordinary changes occurred in the Lower Southeast, especially in present day Alabama and Georgia. Large towns suddenly sprang up with Mesoamerican Commoner characteristics. The newcomers built pyramidal mounds, built rectangular, post-ditch, prefabricated chiki’s like the Totonacs and Itzas, buried their dead in stone slab sarcophaguses and planted vast fields of corn, beans and squash. In Georgia and Southeastern Tennessee, the newcomer’s houses had doors on their corners. That should have been a big hint to archaeologists that their orthodoxy was amiss . . . what it wasn’t. You see the houses of the Itza commoners at Chichen Itza also had corner doors. It is a very unique form of Mesoamerican architecture.
Given the scale of new urban populations in the Southeast around 1000 AD, the diaspora of Itza Commoners from northwestern Yucatan during that time period represents the largest infusion of Mesoamerican influence. Small bands of refugees poured into the Southeast. Thus, this really cannot be considered a “military invasion” or a single mass migration of a large group of foreigners. The small bands intermarried with the locals and perhaps in many situations set themselves up as elite groups, who knew the advanced agricultural technology of the Mayas. This would explain why elite status among the Muskogean Peoples was still being determined by descent from founding families of a town . . . inferring that the founding elite were different ethnically than other families.
1150 AD – 1250 AD – Fifth Migration by Tamauli Mayas
Mesoamerica: Perhaps as early as around 780 AD when Teotihuacan was abandoned, relatively primitive Nahua tribes began moving southward into the heart of Mexico. By 900 AD, most of these “first wave” Nahuas had absorbed and modified the cultural traditions of the peoples they conquered. Powerful Nahua city states developed in the Valley of Mexico, Pueblo, Hildago, Guanajuato, Jalisco and western Vera Cruz. However, around 1150 AD, a severe drought in Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States caused massed migrations of relatively primitive hunter-gatherer-gardener peoples into the “civilized” regions of Mesoamerica and Southwestern North America. Tula, the capital of the Toltecs, was sacked by barbarians around 1150 AD. The Chichimecs then attacked the Totonac Civilization to the southeast of there. El Taijin, the Totonac capital, was sacked around 1200 AD. The center of power for the Totonacs shifted eastward to near the Gulf Coast.
The civilized Nahuas called their primitive Nahua cousins, Chichimecs, which means “Coyote or Dog People.” The Totonacs and Itza Mayas called them Chiliki, which means “barbarians.” Yes, this Totonac word is the source for the Muskogee Creek word that means the same thing! However, keep in mind that we know for a fact that there was no contact between Mesoamericans and the Creek’s ancestors. <joke>
Tamaulipas is an Itza Maya word that means “Trade People – Place of.” First, the hybrid Maya-Huastec-Muskogean peoples of western Tamaulipas were driven into the coastal plain and then on to the Mississippi Valley. Then the Kaushite (Cusseta Creeks) were driven out of their homeland on the east slopes of the Orizaba Volcano. They eventually headed northward for the future destiny in the Southeast. Then the more sophisticated and powerful, Tamauli, were driven out of their lands in he Coastal Plain of Tamaulipas. Apparently, they went by water because they were really descendants of Chontal Maya mariners. Most direct communications with Southeastern North America apparently ended when the Tamauli coastal ports fell to Nahua barbarians. There does not seem to have been anymore immigration northeastward out of Mexico after around 1300 AD.
Southeast: Radical changes occurred in the Southeastern Coastal Plain after around 1150 AD. Construction stopped on major buildings in the Ocmulgee Acropolis around 1150 AD. However, the population of Ichesi, about two miles to the south, accelerated after this time. So the whole region was not sacked by an enemy . . . unless the enemy was the same ethnic group that occupied Ichesi. Almost all the large towns around Lake Okeechobee, Florida were abandoned at the same time. There must be a connection between the simultaneous abandonment of the two most sophisticated urban centers in the Southeast. It just is not apparent at this time.
All along rivers of the Gulf Coast and Atlantic Coastal Plain, new towns arose with different forms of architecture. During the “Early Mississippian” Period, the coastal plains of rivers feeding into the Gulf of Mexico had seemed to be backwaters . . . literally. The temple mounds were often linear and faced south, east or west . . . indicating orientation to the Summer Solstice. Elsewhere in the Southeast older temple mounds faced the azimuth of the Winter Solstice Sunset . . . the beginning of the Maya Calendar Solar Year. The Tamauli began their calendar on the Summer Solstice and introduced the Green Corn Festival to the Southeast. After 1250 AD such towns as Moundville, Etowah Mounds, Bottle Creek Mounds and Shoulderbone Mounds exploded with growth.
Although perhaps not as numerous as earlier Itza Maya immigrants from Chichen Itza, the Tamauli Mayas had a major impact on the Southeast. They were skilled mariners and consumate traders with centuries of experience. The “Mississippian” Culture spread all over the Southeast in a relatively short time. Algonquian and Siouan Tribes in the Middle Atlantic and Middle West regions began cultivating corn, beans, squash and tobacco. The Southern Shawnee used the word, tama, for corn!
About 1300 AD the lima bean and the Mexican purple plum was introduced into northwest Georgia and southeastern Tennessee, apparently by the Kaushete. Cultivation of the lima bean then spread northward from there. By that time, however, populations were crashing in the Mississippi River Basin around Cahokia. Moundville would last a little longer, but by the time European explorers launched expeditions into the Southeast. the most advanced indigenous societies were in the Lower Mississippi Basin and the region that would become the Alabama, Creek and Chickasaw Indians.
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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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