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How could tropical plants and animals thrive in the Southeast?

That is a very good question,  everyone, who wrote me!  The description of cacao, pineapple and calabaza growing along the Savannah River was a big surprise. It is one thing to haul seeds, growing plants or animals from the tropics to North America.  It is another thing to get them to adapt to a different climate and solar exposure.  

The Chontal Mayas had large sailing craft easily capable of crossing the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea.  The Calusa and ancestors of the Muskogean tribes had large freight canoes that were capable of hugging the coast then island hopping via Cuba to either Mesoamerica or the Caribbean Islands.  Transportation technology was not a barrier.

The big issue for many plants is wintertime.  Even in New Orleans, Mobile, Charleston and Savannah, there are brief times in our era when the temperature drops below freezing.   It is highly questionable whether tropical varieties of cacao, pineapple and calabaza could survive on the Lower Savannah River today.

On the other hand, some of the tropical crops originated in the well-watered Chiapas Highlands of Mesoamerica or the Andean Foothills, where they do get winter frosts.  The only other places that were sufficiently cool in the summer and high enough altitude were in the southern tip of the Appalachians.  It would be necessary to transport the seeds of these plants in one direct trip, not trade them from province to province through the Caribbean Basin.  This is one of the many proofs of direct communication between Mesoamerica and Southeastern North America.

A Change in Climate Patterns

A possible explanation is the Little Ice Age.  Its effects on the Southeast were most noticeable between 1300 and 1750 AD.  North of the Southern Highlands,  the winters were much colder than now, while there were repeated periods of severe drought throughout the Upper South and Midwest.  The droughts are the most likely candidates for the abandonment of Moundville and Cahokia.  They were still severe in Virginia when the English were trying to found colonies at Roanoke Island and later, Jamestown.

Prior to this year, except in the mid-1980s, most storm fronts have come into the Lower Southeast from the west or northwest.  However, during the Little Ice Age, the weather south of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the weather patterns in the Little Ice Age were like what we are experiencing in 2015.  Long monsoon-like columns of warm, humid air sweep across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and northern Florida.  Southern Florida and a region east of Barnwell and Allendale Counties in South Carolina were in “rain shadows” and desert-like.  The “Barnwell Desert” was the desolate region in which De Soto found almost no inhabitants during the spring of 1540 while trying to find Cofitachequi.

There was another desert-like region in the French Broad River Valley near Asheville, NC.   This explains why all its indigenous towns were abandoned between around 1500 AD and 1650 AD.   Weather patterns in Western North Carolina shifted to like the Little Ice Age during the mid-1980s.   On January 15, 1985, the temperature dropped to -43 ° F. near Asheville.   That same year, the last snow flurries were on June 6 and the first fall frost was on September 7.  The following year many sections of the Western North Carolina Mountains went from  February 11 to June 19 without any measurable rainfall.

Since the arcing weather systems from the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic probably blocked extremely cold air from Canada,  the lower elevations of Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina would have enjoyed sub-tropical climates like southern Florida today.  Where these lowlands were near the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico,  freezing temperatures were probably extremely rare  – like near Miami today.

Up until the mid-1750s, several sections of Northeast Georgia were grassy prairies.  Large herds of massive Woodland buffalo and deer roamed these prairies.  The buffaloes suddenly disappeared about the same time that the Little Ice Age ended – probably due to climatic stress, over-hunting and the introduction of British cattle diseases.

The Southern Appalachians were a battleground between the two, starkly different climates.  Some of the heaviest snows in eastern North America occurred along the Blue Ridge escarpment in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.  That is why the traditional Creek name for North Georgia is the Snowy Mountains.   In December 1567,  Juan Pardo found the snow so deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains that they were impassible.  His expedition had to turn around and go back to Santa Elena on the South Carolina coast.

When the snow pack on the Blue Ridge Mountains melted,  much of the South Carolina Low Country and Southeast Georgia filled with shallow lakes like sections of northeast Florida do today.   In the spring of 1776,  botanist William Bartram encountered an Okefenokee Swamp that covered an area over three times its size today.   During the 1500s and 1600s, large lakes existed in southeast and central Georgia, such as Lake Tama, that are now modest swamps.   Because of the much heavier precipitation falling on Georgia back then the Altamaha River Delta had multiple channels to the sea back then like the Mississippi River before the Corps of Engineers channelized it.   This is why maps of  Southeast Georgia up until the mid-1700s has rivers on them that either do not exist now or are much smaller.

Hacking one’s way through an academic jungle

Because of the continued geographical provinciality of anthropology-related disciplines in the United States, it is extremely difficult to get accurate information on the chronology of tropical plant cultivation in the Southeast. For example, forensic botanists at a university in Illinois precisely dated the oldest age of corn and bean seeds found in the vicinity of Cahokia to be around 1000 AD. Their sentences were in-filled with a legion of reference citations and descriptions of multi-million dollar technology to make appear that their analysis was well researched. Then in their conclusion, they said some really stupid things . . . like “the earliest cultivation of maize and beans in Eastern North America was in the Middle Mississippi Basin around 1000 CE and that from there the cultivation of corn and beans spread into the Southeast.”

The cited reference for that statement was not on a comparison with radiocarbon dates from sites in the Southeast, but an archaic book on Cahokia, which announced that Cahokia was where Mississippian Culture began. In fact, I found a paper by a University of Tennessee botanist that dated the oldest beans in eastern Tennessee to be from around 400 AD and improved varieties to date from around 800 AD. He was earlier the first botanist to figure out that Southeastern Native Americans began domesticating plants at least as early as 3500 BC.   His opinion seems more credible.

Primitive, tropical Mexican corn pollen has been identified at Fort Center near Lake Okeechobee, FL (c. 1200 BC) and in southern Alabama (c. 1500 BC.) The tropical varieties of corn grown in most of Mesoamerica and the Amazon Basin would not survive in most of North America. Conversely, modern varieties of corn do not thrive in the two locations, where the archaic corn pollen was found.  Most archaeological references for states in the Lower Southeast state that the first corn was cultivated around 200 AD and that improved varieties were first cultivated on a large scale around 800-900 AD.

Botanists in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina have not tried to date their oldest beans, even though the Natives there were definitely “has beans.” Their botanists have focused on such relevant issues as “the pollination of wild grasses in Kazakhstan during the Fourth Post Glacial Warming Period.”

There seems to be general agreement from several sources that Lima beans did not appear in eastern North America until around 1300 AD.  The earliest cultivation of Lima beans was in highland areas occupied by the Kaushete (Cusseta ~ Upper Creeks) who were the last branch of the Creeks to arrive from Mexico.

List of tropical plants and animals

Most species of squash grown by Muskogeans in the Southeast  . . .  except the Calabaza . . . were selectively developed from a wild indigenous ancestor. So far we have eyewitness accounts or forensic confirmation of the following tropical plants and animals being raised by indigenous peoples in the Southeast:

1. Maize (Indian corn)  – Cross pollination of Mexican cultivate with a mutant descendant from South America

  • VIA:  Probably introduced by Chontal Maya traders or immigrants from the foothills of the Andes.

2.  Indigenous Sweet Potato (large single tuber) –  Probably developed from bush type morning glories in Piedmont river flood plains in Alabama and Georgia.  Only grown in Piedmont and mountains.

3.  South American Sweet Potato (multiple tubers) –  Eastern Peru –

  • VIA: Panoan or Arawak immigrants.  Only grown in Coastal Plain.

4. Tobacco –  This ancient crop is indigenous to Central America, but was eventually adapted to the climates of many parts of the Americas.

  • VIA:  Caribbean tribal trade up through Florida Peninsula or Panoan immigrants.

5.  Most Beans – Mexico, Central America and Andes (two wild ancestors from different regions) – Probably introduced separately by immigrants from Northern Mexico, Cuba Highlands or South America.  Beans will not grow in swampy or damp, hot climate soils.

  • VIA:  Direct transportation of beans from the Mesoamerican Highlands or Cuban Highlands to the Southern Piedmont or Highlands.

6.  Lima Beans – Originated in Peru, but cultivated by the Itza Mayas in their terrace complexes.  It will not grow in Mexican Lowlands.  The Maya word for Lima Bean is the Creek word for bean – tvlako.

  • VIA:  Direct transportation of Lima beans from Chiapas Highlands to at least the Southern Piedmont.
  • Today, the primary crops grown in Highland Maya terrace complexes are various varieties of beans.   At my experimental terrace complex near Dahlonega, GA, I found that several indigenous varieties of beans that normally grow about 36″ tall on flat fields, grew to up to 12 feet tall on the terraces – with incredible quantities of bean production. 
A Itza Maya farmer growing beans on a terrace complex near Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.

A Maya farmer growing beans on a terrace complex near Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.   The original varieties of beans grown in the Mexican and Andean Highlands would not do well in the  lowlands of the Southeast or the swampy soil around Cahokia.  Bean fields must both be well-watered and well-drained – conditions that are achieved best on terraces.   Bean varieties grown by Midwestern indigenous peoples, were selectively cultivated to adapt to the climate and soils of that region.


7.  Salvia –  Domesticated in the Chiapas Highlands of Mesoamerica.  Chiapas means “Place of the Salvia” in Itza Maya.  Salvia was observed by the De Soto Expedition, growing in large, cultivated fields along rivers in the the province of Chiaha.   Chiaha means “Salvia River” in Itza Maya.

  • VIA:  Direct transportation of Salvia seeds from the Chiapas Highlands to the Southern Highlands.

8. Honey Bees – The Mayas were the only indigenous people in the Americas to domesticate an indigenous, stingless honey bee, which is indigenous to the Yucatan Peninsula and the Chiapas Highlands.  They were and are kept as pets at houses, plus actually have a higher per-bee rate of honey production than European honey bees. These bees pollinate members of the indigenous tomato, potato and pepper family, while European bees do not.   Mayas called them xunan kab or “the noble bee.”   The peoples of the Caribbean and South America did not know about honey.

Most references and TV documentaries on Native Americans state that there was no honey in North America until Europeans arrived.  This is not true.   The chroniclers of the De Soto Expedition in 1540 stated that Chiaha was the only province they visited, in which bees were domesticated and honey consumed.  However, the commander of Fort Caroline, Captain  René de Laudonnière, stated in the 1560s that the Native provinces around Port Royal Sound, SC and Savannah, GA maintained honey bees and consumed honey.    Creek folklore is filled with descriptions of wild bees in hollow stumps that produced honey.  These were probably Maya bees that went feral.

  • VIA:  Direct transportation of domesticated Maya honey bees from the Chiapas Highlands (where the climate is much cooler)  to the coast of Southeastern North America.   Over time these former tropical bees gradually adapted to colder climates to the point that they could thrive off the salvia blooms in Chiaha.

9.  Copal –  Domesticated in Chiapas Highlands of southern Mesoamerica. It grows best on terraces at an elevation of 3,000 feet and requires frequent rainfall.  Late 16th century Spanish traders from Santa Elena in South Carolina called the Track Rock Terrace Complex, “Copal Grande” because the priests at the temples on top burned copal resin constantly.  In 1653, British explorer, Richard Briggstock, observed copal resin being burned constantly from hilltop Apalache temples in present day Metro Atlanta.

  • VIA:  Direct transportation of copal seeds from the Chiapas Highlands to the Southern Highlands.

10.  Chichona – Quinine is made from the bark of chichona trees.  It was first domesticated in the highlands of Eastern Peru.   Fort Caroline colonists stated that the Alecmani People, living along the Altamaha River,  had grown wealthy by trading chichona bark to the Apalache in present day North Georgia in return for mountain greenstone for making wedges and axes.   Apparently, the variety of chichona grown on the Altamaha River was first adapted to sub-tropical lowland conditions before be planted in Georgia.

  • VIA:  Caribbean traders or immigrants from South America.

11.  Pineapple –  Pineapple was first domesticated in southern Brazil and eastern Paraguay.  Their cultivation spread throughout South America, well-watered sections of Mesoamerica and the Greater Antilles Islands of the Caribbean.   The Tupi-Guarani word for pineapple is anana.  Tupi peoples settled the Georgia coast from the Ogeechee to the Altamaha.   The Uchee occupied the Ogeechee River Basin.

  • VIA:  Tupi settlers may have introduced pineapples to the Georgia coast or they may have been obtained from Arawak traders from Cuba, Dominica or Puerto Rico.  There is no record of Spanish friars growing pineapples on the Georgia coast, but they did introduce peaches, melons and cantaloupes from southern Spain.

12. Cacao –  Cocoa and chocolate is made from the roasted seed of the Cacao Tree.  It is indigenous to the Lowlands of Tabasco State, Mexico but was grown in several lowland areas of Central America and Mexico at the time of the Spanish Conquest.  It’s growing region is usually accepted as being limited to between 20° S and 20° N latitude.

Cacoa was not grown at all in the Caribbean Islands until 1540, when the Spanish first attempted to grow it on the eastern end of Cuba.  Cuban cacao cultivation is still largely limited to its eastern tip.   There is no record of cocao trees being planted in southern Florida until the 20th century.   The trees consume large quantities of rainfall and are vulnerable to high winds.

The coast of Tabasco is virtually identical to the tidal marshes and barrier islands of Georgia and South Carolina.  The region just inland from the marshes in Tabasco where the commercial cacoa orchards are located is virtually identical to the region just inland from Savannah, GA and Beaufort, SC.   However, unless a variety of cacao tree was developed, which was tolerant of some winter weather,  if would be impossible to grow cacao near Savannah today.

  • VIA:  Possibly introduced by Chontal Maya traders, but more likely to have been introduced either by Spanish friars on the coast of Georgia in the 1600s or obtained from an orchard in Cuba.

13.  Peppers –  An immense varieties of peppers are native to Mexico, Central America and northern South America.  They are close relatives of tomatoes and potatoes. Both hot and sweet peppers were grown by indigenous peoples along the Gulf Coast and in Florida.  They were probably grown farther north and just not noticed by early explorers.  Modern varieties can be grown over much of the United States.

  • VIA:   Most likely,  individual pepper varieties arrived on the Gulf Coast on Calusa trade canoes from Cuba or Itza Maya sailing craft from Mesoamerica.  At that point they were traded from village to village in regions with semi-sub-tropical climates.

14.  Calabaza and Calusa Squashes –  These are sweet, flavorful squashes that have roughly the same shape as pumpkins, but are smaller.  The Calabaza is similar to a medium sized pumpkin.  The Calusa squash in pre-European times was about the size of a grapefruit.  These squashes were staples of the Calusa People and later the Seminoles.   Unlike pumpkins, from which the evolved, they can be planted throughout much of the year in the tropics.

Despite what the Wikipedia article says,  these squashes are classified as winter squashes like pumpkins and therefore their ancestor lives in the Southern Highlands and Cumberland Plateau of the Southeastern United States.  They were developed in the  Southeast THEN spread to all of the Caribbean Basin, plus parts of Central America and northern South America.  Calabaza are grown commercially in south Florida today.  There is no reason why they couldn’t be easily adapted to much of the South Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.

  • VIA:   Arawak traders obtained  seeds from pumpkin-like tropical squashes on the Florida coast.  On individual islands of the Caribbean the plants mutated to a variety of shapes and colors.
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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.



    Great post/article.

    It’s truly amazing to trace back the origins of the tropical plants and animals to MesoAmerica and South America.

    Although Chontal Mayas were most likely very well capable of crossing the gulf of Mexico without making any stopovers
    and some (indigenous)traders probably bypassed Cuba since some plants were introduced after the colonization; Cuba seems to have been the tradecenter and functioned as the main seaport.

    Plants are amazing organisms. Tropical plants can thrive in unexpected places. Some palm tree species grow as far north as Ireland.

  2. Actually, I saw palms growing in Stavengar, Norway. The city is at the tail end of the Gulf Stream.


      That’s right. There are palms growing in Stavenger Norway. Tropical plants can thrive under the right circumstances.

      The fact that there are South American, MesoAmerican and Caribbean words, architecture / structures and tropical plants in North America should be enough evidence that Southeastern North America is populated from the South.


        circumstances = conditions


    I just read your artical on tropical plants in the southeast. I lived in Charleston form 1974 to 2002, and while I was there I got into growing banana trees. In the winter if it got frost, I would cut them back in the spring and they would continue to grow, they would reach almost 20 feet in height. My best year I had thirteen trees but on bananas, they were the small chubby type, almost like a planteen. The South Carolina wren loved to eat the flower blooms, so I didnot get as many bananas as I would like.

    We also had a road in the west Ashley area of Charleston, called Orange Grove rd, this would lead me to believe that at one time Oranges could be grown in that part of the country, especially along the coast were the ocean gulf stream would help retain the heat. I lived in Pimilco, just north of Charleston between the Cooper river and a private 80 acer lake that helped retained warmth, this would help in the growth of tropical plants, in areas like this.

    The pic I sent if of me in my back yard, I had hundreds of banana trees, people would see the picture and thought I was in South America, lol.

    Thank you again for all the articals and information, I look forward to reading them every day. If I could ever be of assistance let me know, take care and bless.

    • That’s very interesting about oranges and bananas growing in the Charleston Area. I knew that back in the late 1700s and 1800s, Naval oranges, limes and lemons were grown commercially on many of the plantations on Georgia’s Barrier Islands, but the islands were surrounded by ocean water, which generally prevented freezing temperatures. Any time that you want to write an article on your experiences, feel free to do so.


    Mind blowing as usual! Tupi in Savannah! I can see how the threat of desertification could have depopulated huge regions and left them open for colonization from the north..


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