“Mesoamerican” civilization may have originated in Louisiana
The designation of the massive 910 acre Poverty Point Archaeological Zone as a National Monument and UNESCO World Heritage Site has brought in the funds required to thoroughly study this ancient town. The result has been many surprises that radically change our understanding of both Poverty Point and the evolution of advanced indigenous cultures in North America. Public architecture and pottery appeared much earlier in the Southeastern United States than it did in Mexico. The peoples of the Mexico have a tradition that the progenitors of the Olmec Civilization arrived on the shores of Mexico from across the Gulf in three large canoe flotillas.
Louisiana archaeologist William Haag radiocarbon dated the Bilbo Mound and Ceremonial Pond in Savannah, Georgia at c. 3540 BC. It is the oldest known public architecture in North America and concurrent with the oldest known mound in South America. The oldest pottery in North America is also found near Savannah and dates from about 2,800 BC. However, no evidence of a large town with other earthworks has been found adjacent to the Bilbo Mound.
It is now known that construction of the Poverty Point platform village occurred between c. 1730 BC and 700 BC. However, more intensive study of so-called Bird Mound or Mound A at Poverty Point has completely changed the understanding of this massive earthwork. It was NOT a bird effigy, but actually an oval mound with a ceremonial platform in front of it. In shear volume of earth, it is the second largest mound in North America.
Mound A was constructed quickly, probably over a period of less than three months. Prior to construction, the vegetation covering the site was burned. According to radiocarbon analysis, this burning occurred between approximately 1450 and 1250 BC . . . most likely around 1400 BC. Workers immediately covered the area with a cap of silt, followed quickly by the main construction effort.
As can be seen by the latest architectural rendering of Poverty Point, sponsored by the National Park Service, the pyramidal mounds there were identical to the earliest pyramidal mounds in Mexico . . . but those in Mexico were constructed at least 500 year later! So . . . for two centuries, American architects have suspected a direct cultural link between the Southeastern United States and Mexico because of the similarity of the public architecture . . . but the joke is on us! Pyramidal mounds BEGAN in the Southeast and then the idea was probably carried to Mexico. However, the mound-building in Peru began around 3500 BC and their appearance is the same as those at Poverty Point, which were constructed much later.
The Bilbo Mound in Savannah was quite different than those at Poverty Point, but is very similar to what was built in Southeastern Spain about 1,500 years later. The ancient world was quite a complex place.
Whereas cultivation of indigenous plants occurred very early in Georgia . . . at least by 3,500 BC, there is no evidence of agriculture at Poverty Point. There is also very little pottery at Poverty Point. However, the people there DID know about ceramic technology. They cooked with highly ornamented ceramic balls dropped into watertight baskets, containing water.
Here is where things get strange. The ceramic cooking balls and stone fishing net weights at Poverty Point are identical to the stone cooking balls and stone fishing net weights at Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands of Scotland. Skara Brae was occupied from 3,180 BC to 2,500 BC. The people of Skara Brae thrived from the bounty of the sea, but also grew barley and grazed animals. The architecture of Scara Brae was entirely different as their buildings and furniture were constructed out of stone. The environment of the Orkney Islands lacks the ecological diversity of the Southeastern United States and certainly had few edible wild plants and fruits.
Misconceptions about the Olmec Civilization
The Olmec People had nothing to do with the Olmec Civilization. That was an inaccurate name given by Gringo archaeologist, Robert Stirling, in the 1940s. The Zoque People of Southern Mexico and the Soque People of Northeast Georgia and Northwest South Carolina claim to be descended from the founders of the Olmec Civilization. Zoque and Soque are pronounced the same . . . Zjhō : kē. The members of the federally-recognized Thlopthlocco – Creek Tribal Town in Oklahoma are also descendants of the Soque’s and thus also, this civilization. Waverly, Alabama was the original location of Thlopthlocco. There are Soque descendants living there.
The oldest skeletons found so far in the southern Mexico were people, whose genes originated in Southeast Asia. The Polynesians are descended from the same parent stock. Perhaps, this is not scientific, but in my contacts with the Zoque of Mexico, the Soque of the Southeast and the Creek descendants in Waverly,I have noticed a distinct “Polynesian” influence on their facial features and physique. There has to be a connection. I prepared Waverly’s first comprehensive plan and historic preservation conceptual drawings! At the time, about a third of the town’s population were Creek descendants.
The meaning of the federally-recognized Miccosukee Tribe in southern Florida is “Leaders of the Soque.” According to their Migration Legend, they originated in Tabasco State, Mexico and eventually became part of the Maya civilization. Their land was invaded by a powerful nation, who oppressed their people. This probably be either Tula (Teotihuacan) or the Zapotecs . . . perhaps a more powerful Maya city state. Their ancestors traveled northward on the Great White Path along the Gulf of Mexico . . . picking up other peoples as they went. They eventually ended up on the southern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
There is physical evidence in North Georgia that backs up the Miccosukee version of history. I have been trying to reconstruct the Creek writing system. Many of the glyphs that I have identified on rock engravings or proto-Creek art at Etowah Mounds and in the Nacoochee Valley are identical to the symbols of the oldest known version of the Olmec writing system . . . the Cascajal Block . . . which was found in the same region of Tabasco, where the Miccosukee say that they originated.
Note that many of the symbols in the original Zoque writing system were found at Etowah Mounds in the form of copper art. The writing is believed to date from around 1000 BC or earlier. Even today, the Miccosukee can communicate in their own language with certain branches of the Mayas, living in Tabasco and Chiapas States.
The official settlement dates for some of the oldest “Olmec” towns, such as San Lorenzo, are about the same as Poverty Point. However, what most people don’t realize is that significant public architecture did not begin in Tabasco until around 1200 BC or later. The earthworks at Poverty Point are far more impressive than the Olmec Civilization produced until around 600 BC. The “Olmecs” did not even make pottery until around 900 BC. The earliest giant stone heads at San Lorenzo date from around 1000 BC or later.
The difference between the advanced indigenous culture of Northeastern Louisiana and the “Olmec” Civilization is that the indigenous peoples of Tabasco and Vera Cruz began experimenting very early with the cultivation of indigenous plants. There were many local plants, which were suitable for domestication, plus they were much closer to the South American peoples, who were domesticating many of their local plants. The Zoque were fully agriculturalists before they began constructing large public monuments.
Whereas, because of the abundance of their environment, the people of Northeastern Louisiana were apparently able to to obtain most of their nutrition from fishing and hunting, plus the gathering of roots, berries and wild grains, the people in Tabasco and southern Vera Cruz quickly became dependent on agriculture. As their farming skills improved, the cultivation of maize (Indian corn) and beans together made it possible for them to be less reliant on animal and fish proteins.
This made possible the growth of large towns, which were not limited by the availability of fish and game animals. However, the Zoque did continue to hunt and fish in order to obtain animal proteins. They also domesticated turkeys. Nevertheless, intensive agriculture did create more nutrition for the human energy expended. There was spare time left over to construct major monuments in the period between 600 BC and 400 BC. Towns of this scale would not appear until around 900 AD in the Southeastern United States, when these people also began cultivating corn, beans and members of the squash family on a large scale.
Several POOF readers have asked that “we put it all together in a time line.” The next featured article on the People of One Fire will be chronology of major cultural events in the Southeastern United States between 3500 BC and 500 BC.
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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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