Origins of the Maya Peoples
Since the mid-20th century, students in the United States have been taught that the first civilization in the Americas was developed by the Olmecs. After that civilization disappeared, the Maya and then the Teotihuacan Civilizations arose in Mesoamerica while several un-named civilizations arose in Peru, ultimately resulting in the Inca Civilization. It was a “nice, simple explanation” of the past, but was only partially congruent with reality. The Gringo version also left out the histories of about a dozen Mesoamerican civilizations that Mexican students learn about.
Once David Stewart led the way during the 1980s in translating the Maya writing system, anthropologists realized that each of the major Maya city states had their own deities, origin myths, styles of glyphs, meanings of glyphs and urban histories. The Maya Heartland was “civilized” for at least 2000 years prior to the arrival of the Spanish. Many changes and variations occurred during that period.
Today, anthropologists know that the “Olmec” Civilization was not the first “civilization” in the Americas and really aren’t sure when one can say when the “Maya Civilization” was distinct from the Olmec Civilization. Rather than being a single civilization, the “Maya Civilization” really was composed of city states that arose at different dates and maintained varying cultural traditions. It is not even clear, if the residents of one of the oldest “Maya” cities even spoke a dialect of Maya. Thus, official orthodoxy has crumbled into alternative theories and many questions.
A professional paper by anthropologist Erik Velásquez García is an excellent overview of the many variations in Maya deities, “Great Flood” stories and origin legends. Unfortunately, it has the same clunky syntax of most anthropological papers in North America, but contains some very valuable information. To read it, go to Maya Floods. Notice that each city state had its own origin legend. There is no such thing as THE Maya origin legend or THE Maya god of . . .
The Mayas Then and Today – Part Four
Haplo Group C ~ O+ Blood Type: The Ancient Ones
Over the past 20 years, People of One Fire co-founder, Ric Edwards, has been doing some fascinating research in conjunction with laboratory geneticists. All of the advanced cultures in the Americas . . . including those in the Amazon Basin, Peru, Mesoamerica, the Southwestern United States and the Creeks of the Southeastern United States . . . were members of Haplo Group C MtDNA. Almost all members of Haplo Group C also have O+ blood types.
Ric tells us that several geneticists are now increasingly convinced that the Muskogeans arrived earlier than the non-Haplo Group C indigenous peoples, who occupied the other parts of North America. They probably arrived by canoe before the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska was clear of ice.
Until approximately, 2,500 BC, the Gulf of Mexico was essentially a lake with two wide rivers draining it. During the Ice Age and early warming period, it had been a lake with one outlet, the Florida Straits. Edwards theorizes that Haplo Group C peoples, carrying almost identical cultural traits, once ringed the Gulf of Mexico. Even after ocean levels rose to near the level of today, it was still possible to canoe between Florida and Cuba or Cuba and Yucatan. However, the wider channels tended to be ethnic boundaries.
Notice in the map above that the Creeks, Seminoles and Eastern Chickasaws have the same blood profile as the peoples of Mesoamerica and South America. The Choctaw’s blood profile is similar to that of Siouans. Although the Chicasaws have traditionally viewed themselves as being the brother tribe of the Choctaws, their genetic profiles are identical to that of the Creeks and Mesoamericans. The Migration Legend of the Creek People stated that the Chickasaws were original members of the Creek Confederacy. Genetically, that makes a lot of sense.
Not shown on the map above is the unexpected blood profile of the Cherokees. Although in the past 20 years, the Cherokee Tribes have produced TV documentaries and several books, which claim that they are the original people of the Americas and the “ancestors of the Aztecs and Mayas,” their genetic and blood profiles tell an opposite story. Their Haplo Groups are typical of the Eastern Mediterranean Basin and Iberia, plus they have the highest level of B, AB and RH Negative blood of any tribe in the Americas.
There is a little known correlation between radiocarbon dates that seem to confirm the theories of Ric Edwards and the geneticists, he has consulted. The four oldest radiocarbon dates for man-made structures in the Americas are:
- Bilbo Mound in Savannah, GA (3,540 BC)
- Chankillo, Peru (3,500 BC)
- Colha, Belize (3,450 BC)
- Watson Brake, LA (3,400 BC)
* 3,500 BC is also the approximate date when domestication of the indigenous wild squash began in the Southeastern United States.
Three out of four of these sites are in the general region of the Gulf of Mexico Basin. Of course, Savannah is near the Atlantic, but it is only about 90 miles north of the Florida Peninsula. The oldest ceramics at both the Bilbo Mound and Colha was dated to around 1,800 BC. Pottery was continuously made in the ancestral Creek lands until European ironware became available in the late 1600s. However, when people directly ancestral to the Mayas settled the Colha Site, they did not know how to make pottery. They would become the first “Mayas” to make pottery around 900 BC.
These strange facts are telling us that almost 3,000 years ago, there was movements of people and technological ideas between Southeastern North American and Mesoamerica. However, the initial movements were from north to south! In other words, ancestors of the Uchee from Southeastern North America probably introduced some of the basic elements of advanced culture to the ancestors of the Mayas. That definitely includes pottery, but probably also includes members of the squash family.
What your teachers didn’t tell you
No one told the students that the real Olmecs didn’t arrive in Southern Mexico until about 2,400 years after the “Olmec Civilization ” began. They were not told that the real “Olmecs only built “Indian Mounds” very similar to those in the Southeastern United States and that later “Mexican Pyramids” were really earthen mounds, veneered with fieldstones. Even today, the students certainly aren’t told that the Mayas never called themselves the Mayas and probably did not even have a concept of being a single discrete ethnic group. Actually, they weren’t.
Meanwhile, widespread archaeological studies in the Americas, using far more scientific methodology, have radically changed the understanding of the New World’s past. The first civilization in the Americas is now known to be the Casma/Sechin Culture of Western Peru, which dates to about 3,500 BC. However, the Bilbo Mound in Savannah, GA (3,540 BC) and Watson Brake Earthen Circle (3,400 BC) are about the same age. The oldest known pottery in the Americas (c. 5000 BC) was found in the Amazon Basin. The oldest known pottery in North America has been found in the Lower Savannah River Basin of Georgia and dates from around 2,500 BC. It is very likely that the earliest pottery will eventually be found to date from around 2,800 BC.
According to the tradition of the tribes, who claim to be descendants of the Olmec Civilization . . . Zoque, Chinateco, Homchuk (Popluca), Huastec, plus many branches of the Mayas in Tabasco State . . . their ancestors arrived on the coast of Mexico from a land across the Gulf in three great flotillas of canoes. More realistically, newcomers probably arrived around 1600-1400 BC and set themselves up as the elite over the indigenous peoples. The newcomers introduced the practice of building mounds, but right now the oldest Olmec pottery dates from around 800 BC. Obviously, much of the dramatic art and architecture associated with the Olmec Civilization must have occurred in the last few centuries of its official existence.
Most of the Poverty Point raised platform village in NE Louisiana was constructed between around 1600 BC and 1200 BC, thus predating the “Olmec Civilization.” Until around 800 BC, indigenous peoples in southern Mexico were culturally behind such areas in Southeastern North America as northeastern Louisiana (Poverty Point) and Lower Savannah River Basin (Deptford Culture). However, while Deptford pottery is rather sophisticated, neither Poverty Point nor Southern Mexico had pottery until around 800 BC.
This is pure speculation, but the most likely origin of “advanced newcomers” arriving in Southern Mexico, would be either from the Poverty Point Culture in Northeastern Louisiana or the western end of Cuba, which are actually much more hospitable places than the Yucatan Peninsula. In 2001, geologists found what appeared to be manmade structures under the water there. See A Lost Civilization in Cuba? http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/1697038.stm Strangely, this site has never been further investigated, due to political distrust between the United States and Cuba, plus disbelief without knowing the site first hand by the Gringo archaeological establishment,
There was pottery in the Savannah River Basin 1,600 years before it was made in eastern Mexico. Mounds were being built in Georgia and Louisiana 2,000 years before they appeared in Mexico. However, the indigenous peoples of Southern Mexico were already growing primitive species of maize, plus several other vegetables. The sophistication and productivity of Southern Mesoamerican agriculture made possible the development of large, permanent towns and a sudden explosion of cultural sophistication after around 800 AD.
A more accurate name for the so-called “Maya Civilization” would be “Southern Mesoamerican Civilization.” Radiocarbon dating, much more extensive archaeological work and the advent of Maya writing becoming comprehensible has resulted in a more accurate understanding of that region’s cultural development.
Anthropologists now suspect that two, three or even more distinct ethnic groups may have been involved with the “Olmec” Civilization. There are at least five different distinct physical types associated with the ethnic groups collectively labeled today, the Mayas.
Beginning around 1200 BC, the region was characterized by individual towns fluorescing and declining. At no time were all of Southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras at the same cultural level. Some branches of the “Mayas” were never literate. Perhaps 90-95% of the Mayas were never literate. They were commoners, whereas both the Maya and Itsate-Creek verb for writing means “dictation from the gods.” * This is true for both the “Olmec” and the “Maya” civilizations. The “Olmec Civilization” didn’t mysteriously disappear as I often read in sensationalized web sites. It merely continued evolving with some cities being abandoned and new cities appearing in Guatemala.
*The Itzate (Hitchiti) Creeks used the Maya word for writing, which means “dictation from the gods,” while Muskogee-speakers used a word similar to that used by the Alabamas, Choctaws and Chickasaws.
There was never a single style of “Olmec” or “Maya” ceramics. Maya commoners were allowed only to make undecorated, shell-tempered redware or grayware . . . the same stuff that is endemic at such Georgia “Early Mississippian” sites as Ocmulgee, Track Rock Gap, Nacoochee Valley and the Great Falls of the Chattahoochee River. The ceramic styles of the 5% elite varied considerably by time period and by city state.
As discussed in Erik Velásquez García’s article, even if two city states shared the same or similar glyphs in their writing systems, they might symbolize different words. More common, though, was that there were regional variations in the design of glyphs. The experts on the Maya writing systems must spend many years in research before they are proficient in recognizing the equivalence of glyphs between city states.
Discovery and naming of the Olmec Civilization
In 1929, anthropologist Matthew Stirling, realized that there were artifacts being shipped out of Mexico, which seemed much older than typical Maya artifacts. This was in a period of time, when Mexico was just recovering from the ten year long Revolution and there were few Mexican anthropologists. Stirling received a grant from the National Geographical Society to excavate the Tres Zapotes Archaeological Site in southern Vera Cruz. Work began in 1939.
The giant basalt head found at Tres Zapotes has become an icon for the Olmec Civilization and now is on display in a sculpture garden with in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia at Chapultepec Park in Mexico City.
Stirling continued to work at Tres Zapotes and other similar sites until he had accumulated enough evidence to prove that these cities predated the Classic Maya cities. He gave named this culture, “The Olmec Civilization” because he did not have access to radiocarbon dating and assumed that the Nahuatl-speaking Olmec peoples of the region built these cities, towns and villages. Actually, they did not arrive in the region until around 1200 AD or later. The real Olmec drove out the real descendants of the “Olmecs” and “Mayas.” The arrival of the real Olmecs in the region corresponds with the probable era when the Kashita (Cusseta) departed that region and headed north.
Tres Zapotes is one of many “Olmec” sites that do not match the simplistic description of the Olmecs Civilization found in most high school history books. It was first settled around 1000 BC and was not abandoned until around 900 AD. Typical history texts tell readers that the Olmec Civilization lasted from about 1200 BC to 600 BC.
To the southeast of Tres Zapotes about 45 miles is the “Olmec” city site of La Laguna de los Cerros. It was occupied from around 1200 BC to 900 AD. Its peak period was from around 250 AD to 900 AD. Between around 200 BC and 900 AD, it is considered a “Maya” city.
Like several “Olmec” cities, the occupants of Tres Zapotes engraved the “Maya” long count dates on stone monuments. Also, beginning around 500 BC some stones also portrayed an early form of the “Maya writing system” called the Epi-Olmec writing system. These boulders were hauled long distances from the Tuxtla Mountains. No stone was utilized in the construction of buildings. Stela C at Tres Zapotes was broken in half. When the other half was found, the date was determined to be 36 BC.
Both Tres Zapotes and Laguna delos Cerros were located in a region that did not have limestone for making lime mortar. Cerros was somewhat closer to the Tuxtla Mountains, but those mountains were igneous rocks like those in North Georgia and Western North Carolina. Due to the difficulty or hauling building stones and the lack of limestone, both cities continued to build earthen mounds, stuccoed with clay until the cities were abandoned. They were considered “true Mayas” but their pyramids were identical to those of the Southeastern United States.
Colha, El Mirador, La Venta and Izapa
When Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan wrote his landmark book, during the 1970s, on the Olmec Civilization, Los Olmecas: La Cultura Madre, members of the archaeological profession thought that they had answered all the chronological questions about the Olmec and Maya Civilizations. Now archaeologists are not so sure. Back in the early 1970s, the El Mirador and Itzapa city sites were assumed to be secondary or tertiary in importance. That has proved to be a very inaccurate assumption.
Colha in Northern Belize is considered by archaeologists to be the oldest known Maya site. However, were the original inhabitants ethnic Mayas? No one has dared to ask that question. The people living at that site from 3,500 BC to 1,800 BC shared cultural traits with those in present day Georgia, but some of the more advanced traits such as pottery and mound-building were missing when the site was reoccupied around 1200 BC. There is continuous development at the city site from 900 BC to around 250 AD. However, the population waxed and waned within this time span.
The town was completely abandoned around 950 AD. Its inhabitants moved far away to unknown points. The timing is intriguing because it closely precedes the appearance of a new people in Georgia, who established villages on the Ocmulgee and Etowah Rivers. That region of Belize was ultimately re-occupied by Yucatec Mayas, who were a distinctly different ethnic group.
El Mirador in Northern Guatemala was first discovered in 1922, but its remoteness and dense vegetation made further understanding difficult. It was more or less “forgotten” by the mainstream of archaeology. Textbooks, when I was in college described it as a secondary Maya town, built on an outcrop of hills within the normally flat Peten Jungle. A detailed investigation was begun in 1978 with an archaeological project under the direction of Bruce Dahlin (Catholic University of America) and Ray Matheny (Brigham Young University).
What earlier generations of archaeologists thought were hills, turned out to be pyramids. The civic center of El Mirador covers 10 square miles with several thousand structures, including monumental architecture from 30 to 276 feet high. A 236 feet tall “hill” with a small temple on top turned out to be a massive pyramidal temple – one of the largest pyramids in the world.
Archaeologists were astonished by the radiocarbon dates obtained from the bases of temples. The city flourished from about the 600 BC to around 530 AD, but probably began as a village or cluster of villages about 200 years earlier. It was at its peak population around 300 BC to 100 AD, reaching its height from the 3rd century BCE to the 1st century CE, with a peak population of perhaps between 100,000 and 250,000 people.
El Mirador was contemporary with the last phase of the Olmec Civilization, when the greatest cultural achievements of the Olmec Civilization occurred. However, from the beginning the people of El Mirador made more extensive use of stone in their architecture.
La Venta near Villahermosa, Tabasco was probably the largest “Olmec” city when at its peak. It was founded around 1200 BC, but did not grow into a regional capital until the “Olmec” city of San Lorenzo was virtually abandoned around 900 BC. Its peak population and cultural fluorescence occurred between 800 BC and 400 BC. The earthen pyramid seen in the rendering at the top of this article was the largest constructed by “Olmec” cities. For reasons unknown, the largest earthen pyramid at the Troyville Site in Northeastern Louisiana was built about 1,500 years later, but seems to mimic the great mound at La Venta. Troyville is almost due north of La Venta. Now you figure that one out!
In 1776, William Bartram sketched a Creek town in Middle Georgia, whose site plan had exactly the same esthetic arrangements as the central area of La Venta . . . except La Venta’s plan was developed about 2,500 years earlier. Again . . . you go figure.
Izapa in Southeastern Chiapas is an enigma, getting worse by the year. It was first settled around 1,500 BC . . . making it equally as old as any “Olmec” sites. Its period of peak population spanned from 600 BC to 100 AD. It was not a regional capital until after the “Classical Olmec” city of La Venta was declining. It was one of the largest and oldest Formative Period cities in Mesoamerica, but is little known outside archaeologists, who frequently work in Mesoamerica. Gringo TV documentaries invariably go to Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Palenque and Tikal when they want film coverage of the Mayas.
The word Izapa appears to be the Hispanization of Itzapa, which means ” Place of the Itza.” The Itzas were indigenous to Chiapas, so that is reasonable. Chiapas, itself, is an Itza word. If that word sounds familiar, it is the name that the Georgia Creeks gave to the province in the mountains where many descendants of the Itza lived.
There are many examples of beautiful stone engraving at Izapa, but very few glyphs. The people of this city state apparently never developed a complete writing system or else chose not to show it on stone. Meanwhile the Epi-Olmecs, as anthropologists call them did develop a writing system . . . actually two of them. Almost all of the symbols in the oldest system can be found in the art of ancestral Creek towns such as Etula (Etowah Mounds), while the newer system looks very much like the early Maya writing system. There is only one problem, as yet, Maya writing experts cannot read this system. Part Five of this series will discuss the development of writing by the Olmecs and Mayas.
Archaeologist Garth Norman has been working in Izapa for five decades. He is particularly interested in translating the meanings of the stelas, since the communication is artistic rather than linguistic. One of the things that he has discovered is a cultural link between Izapa and Teotihuacan in central Mexico. He thinks that Teotihuacan was founded by a prince from Izapa. He has found artistic portrayals of the Rain Goddess and Tree of Life in Izapa that predate their appearance in Teotihuacan imagery. In other words, one of the oldest and larger Maya cities was not ethnically “Maya.”
Conventional understanding of the relationship between Teotihuacan and the Itza are just the opposite. It is commonly accepted that the elite of Teotihuacan were Totonacs. Mexican prehistorians state that around 200 AD, elite from Teotihuacan were sent to rule over Chiapas. This would explain why many Totonac words are found even today in the Itza and Creek languages. However, no one has been able to figure out, who the Totonacs were and where they came from. They seem to speak a language isolate.
If the Maya civilization was jump-started by a people, who didn’t speak Maya and actually were the founders of Teotihuacan, it makes Mesoamerican history very complex indeed. It is obvious that there is much to be learned.
Mayas . . . Then and Now Series on POOF
COMPREHENSIVE RESEARCH ARTICLES
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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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