In the beginning there were the Choctaw
Few people question that Choctaw is the oldest and purest Muskogean language. This is quite ironic since Muskogee is the newest Muskogean language and the word, Muskogee, didn’t even appear until just before the American Revolution. In reality, the Muskogeans should be called Choctawians.
Architectural, cultural and forensic evidence strongly suggests that the Choctaw are the direct descendants of the original mound builders in North America. In fact, they could well be the descendants of the aboriginal people of the Gulf of Mexico Basin.
The Irreverent Observations of Bubba Mythbuster
Season 1 – Episode 4
Nanih Waiya, pictured above, is located in Winston County (East Central) Mississippi. Archaeologists have determined that it was built between around 0 – 200 AD. The principal platform mound is today about 25 feet (7.6 m) tall, 140 feet (43 m) wide, and 220 feet (67 m) long. This mound was surrounded by a ten feet tall circular earthwork, which covered about one square mile. Within it were some houses and communal structures.
The massive complex probably functioned as a regional ceremonial center for an alliance of villages over a vast region, which spoke proto-Choctaw and shared cultural traditions. Large numbers of people probably stayed in and around the complex during seasonal religious and market festivals.
The Nanih Waiya mound marks the traditional location, where the Choctaws “came out of a cave.” This cultural memory of formerly living in caves is similar to the migration legends of several other Muskogean tribes. Other versions of the legend state that Nanih Waiya was the place where the ancestors of the Choctaw ceased to be migratory.
Eighteenth century artist and explorer, George Catlin wrote:
“The Choctaws a great many winters ago commenced moving from the country where they then lived, which was a great distance to the west of the great river and the mountains of snow, and they were a great many years on their way. A great medicine man led them the whole way, by going before with a red pole, which he stuck in the ground every night where they encamped. This pole was every morning found leaning to the east, and he told them that they must continue to travel to the east until the pole would stand upright in their encampment, and that there the Great Spirit had directed that they should live.”
Today, the popular concept is that the Choctaw and Chickasaw were Mississippi tribes, who now mostly live in Oklahoma. However, up until the mid-1700s, most of the indigenous peoples of Alabama and the Florida Panhandle spoke dialects of either Choctaw or Chickasaw . . . which are very similar languages. In Colonial times, Choctaw speakers were concentrated in eastern Mississippi, Mississippi Coastal Plain, southeastern Louisiana, western Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. The massive towns along the western edge of Mississippi were built by an intrusive ethnic group, but their commoners may have originally been Choctaw speakers. The chroniclers of the De Soto expedition recorded very few Muskogean town names along the Mississippi River.
The Chickasaw occupied all of the northern fourth of the future state of Alabama, plus the western 2/3 of Tennessee, the western fourth of Kentucky, and smaller provinces in northwest, northeast and southwest Georgia. The Chickasaw occupied the mouth of the Tennessee River on the Ohio River at Paducah, Kentucky until settlers from the new United States forced them out. In earlier times, they probably occupied lands all the way up the river to Cincinnati. At some point in the past, the Choctaw and Chickasaw were the same people. Our next episode will be on the Chickasaw.
It is quite likely that the Choctaw formerly occupied most of Louisiana. Several versions of their traditional history describe migrations over terrain that included snow covered mountains, deserts and large swamps. However, the traditions associated with high mountains and deserts, just like their cousins the Creeks, may represent the dim memories of individual bands of immigrants, who joined the Choctaw Alliance.
Mounds, skulls and bones
There is a dirty little secret in the Ohio River Basin. I have the first modern anthropological textbook on the Adena and Hopewell Cultures. It was published in the 1940s, after pioneer anthropologists had been studying skeletons found in the Midwest for several decades. Anthropology books of that era provided extensive text on American Indian skeletons. Today, the subject is barely mentioned, because of the profession’s embarrassment over the discovery of hundreds of thousands of indigenous skeletons being stored in warehouses . . . for no particularly convincing reason.
The Adena People arrived in the Ohio Basin from somewhere else around 1000 BC. Their brachycephalic skulls and robust, medium height skeletons were very different from the inhabitants, who preceded them, but also the creators of the Hopewell Culture, who arrived in the region around 100 BC – 0 AD. The Adena Culture disappeared soon thereafter. Adena skeletons were more similar to the people of the Fort Ancient Culture, who flourished from around 1000 AD until the European Disease Holocaust.
Proto-Archaeologists from the Smithsonian Institute, Heye Foundation and Peabody Museum had brought back railroad car loads of skeletons from the “mound builder” sites in the Southern Mississippi River Basin. They were identical to the Adena skeletons. Midwestern academicians concluded that the skeletal evidence was absolute proof that advanced indigenous culture of the Adena originated near the hometown of General William Tecumseh Sherman, Chillicothe, Ohio. The Adena then paddled down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to populate Louisiana and Mississippi.
According to their beliefs, the Adena invented mounds, pottery and agriculture. The Hopewell Indians then developed the concepts to a more sophisticated level and eventually founded Cahokia. Missionaries from Cahokia then introduced these concepts to the ignorant savages south of the Mason-Dixon Line. A version especially popular in the 1800s was the Sherman’s troops introduced corn, beans, squash and mounds while marching through Georgia, but that is not likely. <joke>
After development of radiocarbon dating technology in 1947, a century of Midwestern presumptions fell apart. In the late 20th century, mounds in Louisiana were found to be as much as 3,000 years older than those in Ohio and 1,900 years older than the first earthen pyramids in Mexico. Pottery made in Georgia was as much as 1000 years older than Mexican pottery and 2,000 years older than Ohio pottery. The oldest maize (Indian corn) pollen found in the United States was at archaeological sites in southern Alabama and southern Florida. The mounds and village platforms of Poverty Point, LA predate the first permanent Adena villages by 1000 years.
A 5,000 year old architectural tradition
The circular platform and mounds at Watson Brake, Louisiana were built between 3,500 and 3,400 BC. The communal structures may have been part of a regional ceremonial site or the focus of a village.
The landscape around Watson Brake has changed so much since then, it is almost impossible to determine if houses, composed of saplings and thatch proliferated in the area. However, one thing is clear, the architectural tradition of a ring of mounds surrounding a circular plaza moved eastward into Mississippi and Alabama. They stayed there until around 1600 AD. Even the massive town site now called Moundville, AL began as a ring of mounds. This tradition was confined to where the Choctaw and Chickasaw lived.
This is strong evidence that the primeval people, who became the Choctaw, can be considered aboriginal to Louisiana and Alabama. It is quite likely that over the eons, they received immigrants from elsewhere who introduced their own old cultural memories and new cultural traditions, which were mixed in with the aboriginal ones.
The Choctaw word for town, tama, is the Totonac word for trade.The Choctaw word for a winter house, choko, is the Itza Maya word for warm. Nanih Waiya looks like its much larger contemporary, Mound A Kolomoki in Georgia, but also much later structures such as Mound A at Hiwassee Island, Tennessee, an early stage of the Irene Mound in Savannah, GA and the Nikwasee Mound in Franklin, NC.
I am convinced by the 5,000 years of continuous architectural traditions that the Choctaw are aboriginal to the Lower Mississippian Basin and that the other Muskogean languages represent mixing of Choctaw with the languages of immigrants. However, how could the Choctaw be the descendants of an aboriginal people and yet show many Mesoamerican traits? The answer can be explained by the early cultural history of Mexico.
The surprising early history of Mexico
Geological history is very pertinent to understanding the early human occupation of the Gulf of Mexico Basin. During the Ice Age and Early Archaic Period, the ocean channels between Cuba and Florida was little more than rivers between islands. There was a land bridge between Cuba and Yucatan. The coast lines of the region extended a hundred miles farther out. There were islands scattered across the Gulf of Mexico. The last one disappeared as the waters rose in the early 1800s.
Thus, it is quite easy to conceive a very early Pan-Gulf of Mexico culture around the edge of what was essentially an inland sea. With canoe transportation so easy, it is also quite plausible to visualize people from present day Vera Cruz to the Florida Panhandle speaking similar languages and practicing similar customs.
The aboriginal people of Mexico were not mound or pyramid builders, nor did they know how to make pottery. Mexican anthropologists are convinced that many of the Paleo-Americans of Mexico were of Polynesian or Southeast Asian origin. Yucatan’s oldest skeletons were Southeast Asians, who strongly resembled the Uchee of the Southeast.
Until around 1500 BC, Mexico lagged far behind Southeastern North American in cultural advancement. Both regions were developing native plants into cultivated ones, but in eastern Mexico, until that time, there was no significant communal architecture.
Then the newly arrived progenitors of the Olmec civilization introduced public architecture and pottery, then began to make great cultural strides as they developed the already domesticated plants of the region. They also adapted domesticated plants from Central and South America to their environment
Of all the major civilizations in Mexico, only Totonacs and Toltecs were probably indigenous to the region for any length of time before achieving fame and fortune. The elite of Teotihuacan was Totonac. The capital of the Toltecs was named Tula, which is a Totonac word.
Totonac is a language isolate in Mexico. The only other languages in which one finds Totonac words are Itza Maya and guess where else? . . . the Muskogean languages. The Itza were not ethnic Mayas, but apparently were originally Panoans from Peru, who were ruled by the Totonacs for about 500 years.
The Mayas and Huastecs came from either Central America or Colombia. The ancestors of the Aztecs originated from around Lake Athabaska and the Great Slave Lake in western Canada. The Zoque came by water over the Caribbean Sea. The Zapotecs were from Central America or South America. The Purepeche were from either Peru or Ecuador.
Not too much is known about the aboriginal peoples of Mexico’s Gulf Coast, but we are trying to learn more. According to the Creek Migration Legend, the Upper Creek’s ancestors came from the western mountains of Vera Cruz. The Hichiti-speaking Creeks, Seminoles and Miccosukee came from farther north in Tamaulipas and farther south in Tabasco and Chiapas. You can see Muskogean words, prefixes and suffixes in several village names of Tamaulipas State today.
What we do know is that the aboriginal peoples were pushed out of the southern Vera Cruz Coastal Plain by the Zoque around 1400 BC; out of the northern Vera Cruz Coastal Plain by the Huastecs around 1000 BC and out of the Sierra Orientale Mountains by the Aztecs around 1200 AD.
Ethnic groups using words and grammar similar to Muskogean continued to live in the less fertile Tamaulipas region of northeastern Mexico until 1250 AD, when they were driven out by the Chichimec barbarians, and ultimately replaced by Nahua speaking peoples. The Tamauli built pyramidal earthen mounds that were stuccoed with brightly colored clays.
Knowing that there were peoples to the northeast, who spoke similar languages and practiced similar customs, it was natural that many Tamaule refugees headed in that direction, by canoe or foot around 1200-1250 AD, and perhaps earlier. In fact, their name survives in several Muskogean place and ethnic names around the Southeast . . . Tama, Tamasee, Tamale, Tamate, Tamatli, Tamakoa, Tamahiti (Tomahitan), Altamaha, Tomatly, etc.
One band of refugees from Tamaulipas, elected to take Chontal Maya sailboats southward to the Chontal Homeland in Tabasco State. Today, their descendants go by their Itza name of Tamulte. They are the only indigenous people in Mexico, who eat corn on the cob and grits or dance the Stomp Dance. Their calendar is the only one in Mexico that begins on the Summer Solstice. They are also the only tribe in Mexico, who celebrate the Green Corn Festival. Now which group of tribes in the United States also has those cultural traditions? Perhaps, were they the same peoples, who also built pyramidal earthen mounds, stuccoed with brightly colored clays?
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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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