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The Totonac Origin of Muskogean & Hopewell houses

If you are ever in a financial position to see the ruins of El Tajin in northern Vera Cruz State, Mexico, do so. It will blow your mind. They are near Pozo Rico and Paplantla. Over 1400 years ago, the Totonac people were building temples and houses for the elite out of a primitive form of concrete. Both the walls and the floors of multistory buildings were constructed out of this concrete. In addition, the architectural esthetics of the Totonacs was the most sophisticated in the Americas. They were world-class architects.

One of the perks of being an official guest of the INAH on my fellowship was that I was allowed to accumulate 125 kg of prehistoric building materials, tools and potsherds to use as teaching aids for architecture students back at Georgia Tech. Plastic bags of these samples were sealed at the offices of individual archaeological zones then inspected by the office of Dr. Roman Piña-Chan at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia then shipped under diplomatic bond to the Mexican consul in Atlanta. The Consul happened to be a graduate of Georgia Tech’s architecture school. That didn’t hurt things at all.

While scouring the suburbs of El Tajin in search of a concrete sample, stucco sample, stone tools and potsherds, I stumbled upon the construction of several traditional Totonac houses. At the time I was much more interested in the seeing the biggest and best in Mexico, not the homes of camposinos, but the use of prefabricated construction caught my eye. I stopped to sketch three houses in different phases of construction.

The traditional Totonac house is called a chiki. (Hm-m-m, have we heard that word before?) The word comes from the root Maya word, meaning “to weave a basket.” The first step for both the primary residence and the casa fria, a warm weather house for sleeping, is to dig a ditch. Lattice-like wall sections are assembled on the ground then raised up and set in the foundation ditch. The frames of primary residences are made from a matrix of samplings, bound with twine. The sleeping houses and barns are formed from a twin row of river cane.

The raised wall sections are tied in place. The next step is something that Gringo archeologists don’t know about when trying to re-create waddle & daub houses for museum exhibits. The Totonacs install a compression band at the tops of the wall sections that creates a single structural system. This keeps the walls from kicking out when rafters are installed or hurricane winds are blowing. Today that compression band is a steel cable, but in pre-industrial times, it was a vine that looks like the Southeastern Muscadine vine, about 1 ½” in diameter.

A lathing of smaller saplings or river canes is then tied to the framework of the primary house. The walls of primary houses these days are packed with Portland cement concrete mixed with dried grass. In the old days, the walls were packed with waddle & daub then stuccoed with lime plaster. I noticed that in the higher elevations of the mountains, which get some sleet and snow in the winter, the walls of the Totonac houses had one to two feet sections of river stones in the base of the wall.

The wall frames of sleeping houses and barns are interlaced with skinnier river canes like a basket; hence the origin of the name, chiki. They are not as large as the primary houses and therefore, the walls will not be under as much lateral stress.

Once the concrete has cured a few days, the construction crews erect roof frames made out of young trees lashed together. The thatching is made from the fronds of a small palm tree. The Totonac chiki’s survive earthquakes much better than the Nahuatl houses, which are made of stacked stones, stuccoed with Portland cement and lime plaster.

Back in Gringoland

The memories of the Totonac houses stayed quietly in the back recesses of the useless trivia section of my brain until 2006. While picking up a male herd dog pup from a sheep farm in northern Ohio I made a grand 10 day tour of all the Native American archaeological sites in that interesting state. My pup and the female puppy that was to be his mate were almost arrested at the Great Serpent Mound for playing ”king on the mountain” on the sides of the serpent. I explained to the ranger that although the 7 week old pups had already acquired Southern accents, they were quite harmless and definitely did not admire the Haliburton Corporation. They were released with all charges dropped.

The Seip Earthworks were one of the last ceremonial complexes erected before the Hopewell Culture went poof. In its center is one of the very few pyramidal platform mounds erected by the Hopewells. The site also contains a couple of the few Hopewell houses ever found. In fact, anthropologists STILL have not found a permanent Hopewell village, only a few transient sites lived in for 2-3 years. There seems to be a lot still unknown about the Hopewell Culture.

The footprint of the house at the Seip Earthworks was exactly like the double row of saplings or canes seen in Totonac sleeping houses. The wall of the house did not contain waddle & daub. Must have been COLD in the winter! These rectangular Hopewell houses were absolutely unlike any structures being built north of the Mason-Dixon Line during that era.

A young archaeologist was giving a lecture at the Seip Earthworks. She explained that the Seip Mound, dating from about 400-500 AD, was the oldest pyramidal platform mound north of Mexico. (absolutely not true) I asked her if the footprint of the Hopewell house was evidence of prefabricated post-ditch construction. She said yes, and that the Hopewells invented post ditch construction. I responded with another question, “Did the uncle of General William Tecumseh Sherman in Chillicothe, Ohio, invent Coca Cola? “ General Sherman, the original Urban Renewal Director of the City of Atlanta, grew up in the shadows of Hopewell earthworks. She went blank-faced with a frozen smile.

The only people in the crowd who were amused by my last question were a group of anthropology students from the University of Tennessee. They were laughing so uncontrollably that they had to leave the reconstructed Hopewell house. They gave me a high five as they walked out.

Of course, the details of the Totonac houses that I watched being built near Pozo Rico can be found at thousands of archaeological zones in the United States, from the Mississippi River Basin to the Santee River in South Carolina. Gringo archaeologists call them post-ditch houses. The Alabama, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Eastern Muskogee use the word choko for house . . . from the Itza Maya word for warm. Oklahoma Muskogees use chuko for house. GA/SC Itsate (Hitchiti) Creeks, some Florida Creeks and all Seminoles use the word chiki (or chikee) for house.

Since it is known for a fact by a certain clique of anthropologists that there were no direct contacts between Mesoamerican and Southeastern indigenous peoples, the presence of Mesoamerican residential architecture with Mesoamerican names in Dixie and Ohio remains a mystery. Guess they bought the house plans off the internet.

Something to ponder about . . .

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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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