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Dr. Arthur Kelly and his Hallucinogenic Sweet Potatoes

This article is a segment of an overview of the early development of agriculture in the Southeast. The entire article will probably not be of interest to anthropology professors or professional archaeologists, but you will find this story about the late Dr. Kelly, both amusing and thought provoking.

One of the first archaeologists to suspect that agriculture occurred in the Southeast long before the introduction of maize (Indian corn) . . . or at least corn was grown earlier than assumed . . . was Dr. Arthur Kelly, As a young man, Kelly was a key figure in the excavation of Ocmulgee National Monument in the 1930s. He became the first Director of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Georgia. In mid-1950s, he along with Joseph Caldwell and Lewis Larsen supervised the archaeological exploration of Etowah Mounds National Historic Landmark.

Even in the 1950s, Kelly made “waves.” He openly stated that Ocmulgee Mounds and Etowah Mounds were built by the ancestors of the Creek Indians, and that the Cherokees were late comers, who were not involved with mound building. Many generations of white Georgians detested the Creeks because they were not submissive to whites and helped slaves escape from plantations.

In the mid-60s Kelly made real enemies in his profession, when he interpreted some artifacts excavated on the Lower Chattahoochee as either coming from Mesoamerica or being copies of artifacts from Mesoamerica. At the Mandeville site, he found stone agricultural hoes at soil strata that predated Cahokia. Many of his colleagues laughed at his suggestion that agriculture occurred on the Chattahoochee River long before Cahokia was founded.

Kelly must be laughing from heaven now. Several of those artifacts came from a Native America town site near Attapulgus, GA. In 2012, at the behest of the History Channel, the University of Minnesota Mineralogical Laboratory analyzed samples of Maya blue stucco from the famous Maya town of Palenque in the Chiapas State, Mexico. The primary ingredient in the stucco, attapulgite, was found to have been mined in Attapulgus, GA. Most Southeastern archaeologists are not familiar with the Chontal Mayas from the marshes of Tabasco State, but Kelly’s “Mesoamerican” artifacts greatly resemble Chontal Maya artifacts.

In 1968, Kelly was hired by the Great Southwest Corporation of Dallas, TX to supervise “emergency” archaeological excavation of a historic Creek Indian village, across the Chattahoochee River from Six Flags, named Sandtown. The public had gotten wind that the construction of Six Flags Over Georgia by the Texas corporation had destroyed a major Native American town site with three mounds. To save face, executives ordered Kelly to survey the historical Indian town before it was covered with 20 feet of clay.

As the archaeological team was wrapping up the project at Sandtown, they decided to give a cursory look at a low, hemispheric mound, about 100 yards south of Sandtown Creek. It turned out to be a perfectly preserved 2000+ year old pyramidal mound with a ramp. The newly discovered site was labeled 9FU14. Publicity from John Pennington, a popular writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, forced Great Southwest executives to fund excavation of the mound’s environs.

The team, composed of anthropology students from Georgia State University and the University of Georgia, eventually uncovered a large village that had been permanently occupied from around 200 BC to 450 AD. The archaeologists did find some primitive corn kernels in the soil around the houses, but mainly found seeds of plants that in the 1960s were assumed by archaeologists to be wild. Now they are known to have been cultivated. Their radiocarbon dates were similar to that of the village.

Kelly was convinced that this permanent village was proof of early agriculture, but the technology did not exist at that time to discern a wild pigweed seed from a cultivated amaranth. He did notice that around the site, there were three species of wild sweet potatoes and one species of morning glory vine with sweet potato-like roots. The roots of the four plants were slightly sweet and edible. All sweet potatoes are members of the morning glory family.

The Chattahoochee Sweet Potato was slightly different than its South American cousin. It has a single massive tuber the size of a feed beet. South American sweet potatoes have multiple tubers.

Kelly theorized that the people of 9FU14 grew sweet potatoes as their staple crop. When John Pennington announced this in his series about the Six Flags site in the AJC, the vast majority of archaeologists around the country rolled over laughing.

It was the hippie era. Work at the archaeological site became frenzied as giant earth movers began dumping fill dirt directly adjacent the plaza of the village. The students camped out on the site to save time and be part of the Love Generation. Somehow they learned that those Southern Style feral sweet potatoes produced hallucinogenic seeds. Equally frenzied night time partying often included Dr. Kelly’s magic sweet potato seeds along with several other psychedelic imports.

The fun was not to last. Three arch-enemies of Kelly visited 9FU14 one Saturday morning, when he was not there. The next week, they gave a press conference in which they interpreted the village as a Cherokee village dating from around 1200 AD. They authoritatively stated that it was obviously a satellite village of the Great Cherokee Town of Etowah Mounds. The Cherokees never lived in that part of Georgia and were nowhere around when Etowah Mounds was built.

Two weeks later, a stone hoe excavated at the Mandeville site was stolen from the University of Georgia’s Archaeological Lab. On a Sunday afternoon, an assistant of Kelly’s pushed the hoe into the side of the mound. The next day was to be the first day of excavating the mound. The assistant announced to the world that the stone hoe was proof that 9FU14 was an agricultural community. On Wednesday, Kelly’s enemies informed the AJC that the hoe was stolen from the lab. Kelly was cleared from any involvement with the theft or planting of the hoe, but nevertheless was forced to resign his department chair.

Almost all references state that the sweet potato was developed in South America then brought to the Southeast by English planters to feed slaves. Archaeologists refuse to listen to Southeastern Indians when they say that they also developed a sweet potato. However, the proof was always there.

One of the oldest clans of the Creek Indians is the Sweet Potato Clan. The chronicles of the Captain Juan Pardo expedition (1567-1569) mention that on his way back to Santa Elena (South Carolina) from the Appalachian Mountains, the expedition passed through the town of Aho, which specialized in growing sweet potatoes. Aho is the Creek Indian word for sweet potato.

The times are a-changing.

The entire article may be Read Here

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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.



    What are the four species of wild sweet potato? Presumably Ipomoea macrorhiza, Ipomoea pandurata, and ….?

    • I don’t know. I was just a wet behind the ear Sophomore in architecture. I just remembered him telling me about the wild sweet potatoes that seemed to have cross-bred over the centuries with some morning glories. He showed me the four types of plants with large edible tubers. I remember that at least one was a vine like a morning glory. Keep in mind that anthropological texts tell students that the sweet potato was brought to North America by South Carolina planters. That’s not true. The Creeks cultivated it long before corn arrived. Our word for sweet potato is the same as the one used by the Panoan peoples in Peru. In fact, Captain Juan Pardo’s chronicler, Juan dela Bandera specifically mentioned one village that specialized in cultivating sweet potatoes and then exported them. The village was named Aho (ajo in Spanish) the Creek word for sweet potato.


        Fascinating! You don’t need to convince me — I’ve been trying to track down evidence and live plants of such indigenous food crops. Lots of plants simply thought of today as wild were once important parts of Native American agroforestry. I’m curious — is there any evidence left of these four feral sweet potato species? Photographi, drawings, or otherwise. Obviously the archaeological site is totally destroyed today. I have been looking for Arthur Kelly’s 1973 publication about Early Towns of the Chattahoochee River but I cannot find it.

        Much appreciation for your writings and perspective here. The world needs to know.

        • Zach, my understanding is that these feral sweet potatoes still thrive on the Douglas County side of the river at Sandtown and Buzzard Island, down to where Campbellton Road crosses the river at the site of Annawakee.


    Some of those might not have been actual “sweet potatoes”. The one you mentioned that had a single large root may have been ipoemea pandurata, which is known to have been eaten by tribes in the southeast. Another may have been ipoemea lacunosa. Both have edible roots that are sweet. They may have been growing those or at least relocating them closer to the village so they didn’t need to be looked for.

    That said, some of the tribes in the Southeast are thought to have migrated north from central and South America. So if they were growing actual sweet potatoes that would make a lot of sense. From a cultural and genetic point of view, a lot of the south eastern tribes definitely appear to have originally lived further south or at least absorbed a lot of people from central and South American tribes.

    I believed that our folks had at least been growing the white-star and wild potato vine but I never had anything to base that theory on. It just made sense. If something delicious grows wild in the area why wouldn’t you take advantage of it?

    • The Creek and Panoan (Eastern Peru) word for sweet potato are the same – aho. The Creeks had a Sweet Potato Clan that long predated the establishment of plantations in South Carolina. In fact, Juan Pardo passed through a village, which he said specialized in the growing and export of sweet potatoes. The village’s name was Aho. Pardo took part in the invasion of Peru, so he would know what a sweet potato was.


        I was basically making the same point that Zach made, though his was more of a question.

        Ipomoea batatas is the “sweet potato”. Sweet potatoes come in many varieties or sub species but they are all the same plant. Anything that is not ipomoea batatas is not a sweet potato. However, a sweet potato is basically just an edible, tuberous root that is sweet. To take that a step further, we’ll say it’s an edible, tuberous root that is sweet and comes from a species of morning glory.

        In other words, I’m not saying they didn’t grow sweet potatoes. They’re all sweet potatoes. some of them just might not have been actual “Sweet Potatoes”, if you catch my drift lol. Specifically, that one with a single large root. I don’t think that’s ipomoea batatas. That sounds like ipomoea Pandurata (sometimes called the “wild sweet potato” vine).

        The other point I was making is that the other “non sweet potato” sweet potatoes (like the wild potato vine and the white star morning glory) are regarded as being eaten by tribes in their native range, but not as a cultivated crop which I didn’t believe. I find it even harder to believe after reading this article, which is very well written by the way.


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