Origins of the South Atlantic Coastal Peoples . . . the Mayas
The discovery of the lost Creek migration legends in England, during early 2015, has radically changed our understanding of WHERE the first ancestral Creek towns and mounds were developed . . . the Savannah area. However, an abbreviated version of the Hitchiti-Creek Migration legend has been in printed form since 1776. It states that the ancestors of the Hitchiti came by water a long distance from the south. In many documents from the 20th century, Creek descendants made vague claims of being partially descended from the Mayas. There is absolutely no excuse for Southeastern archaeologists not knowing these facts in 2012 and 2013, before they acrimoniously attacked any suggestion that Itza Maya refugees settled in the Southeast.
Part II of the series on the South Atlantic Coast
In the spring of my sophomore year in architecture at Georgia Tech, Dr. Arthur Kelly, Director of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Georgia, showed me a cylindrical ceramic seal found near the attapulgite mines in Georgia and photos of other artifacts that he found along the Chattahoochee River in Georgia. He thought that these artifacts were Mesoamerican in origin or at least copies of Mesoamerican artifacts. Although, very honestly, the possibility that Maya refugees settled in the Southeast was a very low priority in my career for many decades, I, nevertheless, assumed that some archaeological team would eventually find further proof of a Maya presence in the same region, where that Kelly found these artifacts.
Ironically, because of the artificial controversy created about the Track Rock Terrace Complex in 2012, that proof would come from the attapulgite mines in Georgia, but not by Georgia archaeologists. Instead, in October of 2012, University of Minnesota scientists found a 100% match between attapulgite mined in Georgia and Maya Blue stucco on temples in the Maya city of Palenque, capital of the Itza Mayas.
The “Maya immigration” question first popped to the forefront of my professional attention in 2007. While I was reading a box full of Spanish archives, sent to me by the American Museum of Natural History, I encountered the description of what appeared to be Maya houses. As part of my project, I was to prepare drawings of the Native American village next to Mission Santa Catalina de Guale.
A Spanish architect, based in Santa Elena (South Carolina), visited the new village of Wahale (Guale in Spanish) that had moved from the region just south of the mouth of the Savannah River to St. Catherines Island, GA. Caucasian archaeologists seem to not know this, but Wahale means “Southerners” in Creek.
He said that the interiors of the walls were composed of local adobe clay, reinforced with saplings. The walls were finished with a stucco* composed of white clay, sand, burned sea shells and crushed shells that made the buildings “glisten like pearls.” Interior partitions created three rooms inside the houses and the ends were rounded. I had actually lived in a house like that . . . but it was in the jungles of eastern Campeche State, Mexico in the Yucatan Peninsula!
*Yes, this is proof that the Native Americans on the South Atlantic Coast were constructing tabby buildings long before Europeans arrived.
Later that year I came upon a report written by Lt. Thomas Timberlake, while he was visiting the Overhill Cherokees in 1763. He said that the Tomatley (Tamatli) Cherokees built villages and houses that were very different than the other Cherokees. His description of the Tamatli houses were identical to that made by the Spanish architect on the coast, two centuries earlier . . . including “glistening like pearls.” What the heck was going on?
Maya descendants in the Savannah River Basin
During the past seven months, my primary professional activities have been two projects involving the Native American history of the Savannah River Basin and the South Atlantic Coastal Region between Charleston, SC and the St. Marys, GA. I have identified four ethnic types among Native American descendants along the Lower Savannah River Basin.
The Uchee descendants have oval heads, high hair lines, super-sized cheek bones and pronounced noses. The Puuc Maya descendants have facial features like the Campeche lady above. The Highland Maya descendants, like the Itza lady above, have square heads, low hair lines, small noses, protruding chins and small, lobeless ears. The Apalache descendants are similar to the Highland Mayas, but tend to have “longer” heads and noses. They look very similar to the native peoples of Satipo Province, Peru that you saw in the videos of the article, “Canciones de Satipo.”
Maya provinces in the South Atlantic Coastal Plain
1. Itsate and Ichese (Ichete, Etchete, Etcheo, Hitchiti, Achese, Ochese, Wakate, Mayacoa, Mayaqua)
Itsate means “Corn Tamale” People in the Itza language. Ichese means “Offspring of Corn (Goddess?)” in Itsate Creek. Iche is also the Itza Maya word for maize (American corn.) “Te” is the Itza Maya suffix for “people.” The Muskogee word for Ichese, is Vchese, which means the same thing in Mvskoke. British settlers pronounced the broad A (V) in the beginning of the Muskogee version as an O. Creeks in Oklahoma have forgotten the original name of the ethnic group and now call them by their English names, Hitchiti and Ochese.
The Itsate and Ichese were Itza Maya – Muskogean hybrid peoples, who are now called Hitchiti Creeks. They were living in the Middle Ocmulgee River Basin, when Hernando de Soto passed through in 1540, when the French explored Georgia in the 1560s and also when British settlers arrived in the Southeast 110 years later. In the mid-1560s, the French called them by their Arawak name of Mayacoa (or Mayaqua) which means “Lake People.” Both they and the Spanish showed the Mayacoa also living near Lake Okeechobee, Florida. Originally, they probably called themselves Wakate, which means “Lake People” in a hybrid Panoan-Itza Maya word.
The Itsate, who were the same people as the Ichese, built their towns near mountain gaps in the Georgia Mountains that controlled major trade routes. After the Creek-Cherokee War began in 1715, most Itsate moved southward to the Oconee and Ocmulgee Rivers, eventually becoming members of the Creek Confederacy.
Tamachichi (Tomochichi in English) was the mako (mikko) of the Ichese Alliance until 1717, when he was banished by the town of Coweta as it was fomenting a new Creek Confederacy. In 1732, Tamachichi moved with a small band of followers to an old village site on Yamacraw Bluff, where the northern section of Downtown Savannah is located today. The following winter, he gave a walking tour to General James Oglethorpe of the planned site of Savannah. While walking, he pointed to some small burial mounds on the edge of Yamacraw Bluff and said that his ancestors’ bones were buried there.
The Itsate (Hitchiti) Migration Legend states that their ancestors came by water from the south. This statement by a people with an Itza Maya name should have long ago made anthropologists assume a Mayan connection, but it didn’t. They never bothered to translate their name!
The Ichese first settled in a swamp landscape near a great lake (Lake Okeechobee). They then moved to a location where many reeds grew (the Everglades.) They then paddled northward along the coast until they arrived at the mouth of the Savannah River. They established a village where Tamachichi’s village was located about 500 years later. This location is now the northern end of Downtown Savannah. The burial mounds are long gone.
Around 990 AD they established a village on a horseshoe bend in the Ocmulgee River, about two miles south of the Ocmulgee Acropolis. It grew slowly at first, but after the Ocmulgee Acropolis was abandoned, it grew into the most important town of the region and had at least two large mounds.
About the same time, the Ichesi established a village on the Etowah River (Etowah Mounds.) That village grew into a large town, but did not have large mounds. The large mounds were constructed by a related people, who occupied the town site around 1250 AD.
2. Tamate (Tamale, Tamatli, Tama, Altamaha)
Tamate is the Itza Maya word for “Trade People.” This branch of the Creek Confederacy was probably descended from Chontal Maya traders, who originated in the tidal marshes of Tabasco State, Mexico. Their homeland is virtually identical to the South Atlantic Coast between Charleston, SC and St. Marys, GA.
3. Oconee (Okvte, Okate, Okoni, Ocute)
Oconee is the Anglicization of the Itstate Creek word, Okvni, which means “born of water.” Okvte (Ocute) their name recorded by Hernando de Soto’s chroniclers, means “Water People.”
The Oconee Migration Legend describes their ancestors as paddling from the south to reach North America and then entering the continent via the St. Marys River between present day Georgia and Florida. Their culture flourished within and on the edges of the Okefenokee Swamp, which in earlier times was like Lake Okeechobee. In 1776, botanist William Bartram stated that after the snow melted in the Georgia Mountains, the Okefenokee would swell three times its normal size and cover much of Southeast Georgia.
The original capital of the Oconee was on Billy’s Island. Here they establish a Temple of the Sun that was staffed by Sun Priestesses. Even after most of the Oconee had moved northward to the Oconee River in NE Georgia, the temple remained and was considered a sacred site by the Creek Confederacy. There was also branches of the Oconee (Okate) in Beaufort County, SC on the coast, on the Upper Savannah River and where the North Carolina Cherokee Reservation now is. The main river in this reservation is the Oconaluftee. Its name is the Anglicization of “Oconee People – Cut Off.” “Cut Off” is an 18th century Native American term that means “to be sacked or massacred.”
4. Kiale (Kiokee, Kiake, Kialegi, Keowee, Kiawah)
The Kiale were a branch of the Oconee Creeks, who established their capital on the Upper Oconee River in present day Watkinsville, GA. They established colonies on Kiawah Island, SC and along the Keowee River in northwestern South Carolina.
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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.
Latest posts by Richard Thornton (see all)
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