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Georgia Mountaintop Temples

Mountaintop Temples in Georgia were also Aviaries

In 1653 an English gentleman from Barbados visited the capital of the Province of Apalache in the Georgia Mountains then toured some of the other Apalache towns in Georgia and North Carolina. The capital was located in what is now the Choestoe Community of Union County, GA. Unlike most people who came to the Southern Appalachians at that time, Mr. Brigstock was keenly interested in the culture and history of the Apalache people. In 1658 French Huguenot minister Charles de Rochefort included Brigstock’s account of the journey in his book about the Caribbean Islands, “Histoire naturelle et morale des iles Antilles de l’Amerique.“

At its peak size Apalache was a kingdom that stretched from southwestern Virginia to the Forks of the Altamaha and the Columbus area in Georgia. The maximum territory of Apalache corresponded to the original homeland of the Creek Indians’ ancestors. However, by the mid-1600s the polity had evolved into what was a essentially a religious confederacy, in which the Great Sun (king) of Apalache functioned as a spiritual leader like the Pope, who settled differences between individual provinces.

The Apalache king told Brigstock that their original capital was in central Georgia, presumably at Ocmulgee National Monument. The capital was moved northward several times. Their old homeland in central Georgia was called Amana.

View from the acropolis of Copal (Track Rock Terraces) toward Blood Mountain & Neels Gap Gold colored mica applied to Apalache temples made them appear to be veneered with gold. VR Image by Richard Thornton, Architect from book - The Apalache Chronicles

View from the acropolis of Copal (Track Rock Terraces) toward Blood Mountain & Neels Gap
Gold colored mica applied to Apalache temples made them appear to be veneered with gold.
VR Image by Richard Thornton, Architect from book – The Apalache Chronicles

The actual name of this advanced indigenous people in the Southern Appalachians was Apalasi (pronounced A( : pa( : la( : she-. The word literally means “Children of a torch” in the Creek languages. An “apala” then meant a torch or point source of light. In the contemporary Creek language, it means “flash light.” The word is the source of the name of the Appalachian Mountains.

The name can be interpreted to have two possible symbolic meanings. The Apalache believed that their people had a originated far to the south, in the land of the sun. Perhaps the elite viewed themselves as bringing civilization (light) to the less advanced indigenous peoples of North America.

Another interpretation is that a non-functional torch was the symbol of “office” for the Sun Lords (Hene Ahau) of the Mayas. The form of this torch became a wooden and copper scepter that was the symbol of power for the members of the governing elite in the Southeast, beginning around 900 AD. Perhaps, the word, Apalasi, meant that they were descended from sun lords. Heneha is still a political title in the Muscogee- Creek Nation of Oklahoma.

The Mountain Apalache were a different ethnic group than the Native Americans called Apalachee today in northern Florida. However, they claimed that the people in Florida, whom they called the Alachua, originated as one of their colonies.

Since the elite of the Apalache built their temples and houses on the tops and sides of mountains, they are probably the source of the Cherokee legend about the Nûñnë’hï. According to Cherokee tradition, the Nûñnë’hï lived in great “town houses” on the tops of mountains when the Cherokees first entered the Southern Highlands in the late 1600s. The Nûñnë’hï showed great hospitality to lost Cherokee hunters and have since then become spirit people, who still inhabit the mountains.

The Apalache practiced a custom that was typical of Peru, but not of North America. They mummified their leaders in sitting positions, with a concoction of herbs and preservatives. Just like the custom of the Incas, the Apalache displayed the mummies of their leaders for an extensive period of time. The mummies were then buried in caves with grave goods.

Apalache religious Beliefs

The people of Apalache worshiped an invisible sun god, who they believed was the Creator of the universe. They did not consider the sun itself to be this deity, but rather a proof of his love for mankind. The concept of the sun was similar to the Hebrew concept of the rainbow. They considered it “sinful” to create statues or images of the sun god.

The Apalache temples were placed on mountainsides or mountaintops. Brigstock did not mention seeing any mounds. The temples and homes of the elite were on the mountains. These buildings were either built out of stone or at least, built on stone foundations. The commoners lived in the river valleys. Their homes built out of timber frames with wattle & daub (clay stucco) walls.

Some Apalache temples were built over ancient volcanic fumaroles. There is a dormant fumarole in the Track Rock Archaeological Zone. Other temples were built over natural or manmade caves. Principal temples were sited so that the sun would illuminate the interior at sunrise on the Summer Solstice. Beginning around 1375 AD temples with this solar orientation began appearing in Georgia and the Southern Highlands. Georgia archeologists call the Apalache Confederacy, the Lamar Culture.

Unlike most Mesoamerican and Andean civilizations, the Apalache did not practice any form of blood sacrifice. The priest did burn an aromatic resin constantly from large ceramic jars. Around 1587, English scholar, Richard Hakluyt, interviewed two men under oath, who had formerly lived in the Spanish colony of Santa Elena (South Carolina.) There were among several men, who traded regularly with the Apalache. Both men said that the name of the capital of the Apalache was Great Copal, and that it was a city built of stone on the side of a high mountain. Their description matches the Track Rock archaeological zone, near Brasstown Bald Mountain.

Copal is an aromatic resin that was burned by Maya priests. The incense burned by the Apalache priests may have been copal, or may have been another substance that smelled like copal to the Spanish traders. A shell gorget found at Etowah Mounds portrayed two men standing at a boiling pot of copal, sitting on a pedestal. Virtually identical scenes are portrayed in the art of several Mesoamerican cultures.

The “Migration Legend of the Creek People” also mentions the Mountain Apalache. At the time that the Kashita branch of the Creeks passed through the region, the Apalache lived in the vicinity of Dahlonega, Gainesville and Helen, GA and were vassals of the people who built the Track Rock terrace complex on the north side of the Blue Ridge. This appears to be have been a much earlier time than the 1600s.

Messengers of the Sun God

Sacred Fire Gorget

Sacred Fire Gorget

The Painted Bunting is considered one of the most beautiful birds in the world. It lives in the Southeastern United States in the late spring, summer and early fall. It lives in Mesoamerica during the rest of the year. Most people have never seen a Painted Bunting because the impact of European settlement devastated its population.

The Apalache considered the Painting Buntings, which they called by its Mesoamerican name, Tonatzuli, to be the messengers of the sun god. They believed that the Tonatzuli spent the winter in the home of the sun, where their people originated. The Tonatzuli were semi-domesticated. Large flocks lived in and around the temples. They were fed daily by the priests during the time of the year when they were in the Appalachian Mountains. When it was time for the Tonatzuli to migrate south for the winter, the people of Apalache would climb up the slops of their mountaintop temples to offer prayers and thanksgiving to the pretty little birds to take to the sun god.

The large temple mounds, built in the Lower Southeast during the Mississippian Cultural Period emulated mountains. Presumably, during at least the Late Mississippian Period, mound-top sun temples within the territory of Appalache also functioned as aviaries.

The last capital of the Apalache was in the Nacoochee Valley in northeast Georgia. It appeared on an English map published in 1693. The location appears to be that of the present day community of Sautee. The next English map published in 1725 showed the Cherokee village of Noguchee at that site. The Apalache were presumably victims of the Native American slave trade, plus wars between Great Britain, France and Spain. With no priests to feed them, the Painted Bunting population collapsed. They are seldom seen in the Southern Highlands today.

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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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