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Rise and fall of American civilizations linked to hurricane frequency

Rise and fall of American civilizations linked to hurricane frequency

 

Between 800 AD and 900 AD, when the Maya civilization collapsed, there were 250% more hurricanes each year than today.

In ongoing studies funded by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Science Foundation, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), National Geographic Society, United States Navy and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, scientists have been able to pinpoint the locations and chronology of major hurricanes as far back as 400 AD.  The researchers have also been able to determine changes in the temperature of the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.  Ocean temperatures currently are the highest they have been since before the Ice Age.

The current status of this fascinating research is being presented by the Nova Series on PBS.  The program is entitled, Major Hurricanes and is also being streamed online.

Major Hurricanes only makes a brief reference to the impact of hurricane activity and ocean water temperature on American indigenous civilizations.  However, the chronological syncopation between Mesoamerica, the Southeastern cultures and the Desert Southwest cultures is patently obvious in the chart above.

When the People of One Fire was founded in 2006, one of the major questions that we sought to answer was “What caused apparently sudden changes in the cultural development of the indigenous peoples of Southeastern North America?”  Academic anthropology had shifted to the micro-scale, seldom looking a regional populations or migration of ethnic groups.  They ignored the migration legends of the various branches of the Creek Confederacy.  

Meanwhile, the bulk of actual archaeological investigations had shifted to private consulting firms, who were primarily working at archaeological sites about to be destroyed by construction. More recently,  many archaeological firms have been gobbled up by national engineering firms. There are no incentives for private consultants to address the issues, which are of concern to Native Americans.  The pressure is on the archaeologists to get in and get out without causing controversies or even attaching special significance to the site they are working on.

Current status of research

In contrast, these studies of historic hurricane activity and changes in ocean water temperature are definitely on the track to answering the questions of Native American researchers about the “whys” of past civilizations.  There is an obvious chronological connections between the rise and fall of indigenous civilizations and climatic changes.  However . . .  here is the big surprise . . . the impact of climatic change can be diametrically opposite between individual regions of Mesoamerica and North America.

A major breakthrough in climatological research occurred when marine scientists realized that the beds of under-ocean cenotes or sink holes contained precise records of major hurricane strikes. Particles of wood within the varying sand strata can be radiocarbon dated.  During major hurricanes, much coarser sand is pushed by underwater currents into the bottom of the cenote.

The research by NOAA sponsored scientists, which were featured in the PBS program are augmented by an ongoing research project at the University of Massachusetts. Professors Jeffrey P. Donnelly and Jonathan D. Woodruff have successfully taken the hurricane record back at least 5,000 years, using the same techniques featured on the PBS program. Using locations on the Atlantic Coast with far higher contents of woody materials, they have obtained precise dates for monster hurricanes, which struck eastern North America.

One of the many fascinating discoveries made so far by the scientific teams is that the predominant paths of major hurricanes wobble northward and southward through the decades.   Currently, the researchers do not understand why.  In the early 1990s, major hurricanes tended to strike southern Florida and then turn northward into the heart of the Southeast.  In the late 1990s, large hurricanes tended to travel westward, south of the Leeward Islands and strike Central America.  In the first decade of the 21st century, several major hurricanes traveled northward of the Leeward Islands then entered the Gulf of Mexico.  We are now entering a period when huge hurricanes are actually forming in the Gulf of Mexico.  It is possible that in the near future they will form in the Gulf then be carried up the Atlantic Coast by the Gulf Stream.  Alternatively, they could travel across the Lower Southeast.

The temperature of the water in the Atlantic Ocean did not have as much effect on indigenous peoples of the Americas as originally theorized.

Climatologists initially theorized that the fluctuations in the size and frequency of major hurricanes were due to the temperatures of the Atlantic Ocean.  There seems to be some relationship between warming of ocean waters and hurricanes, but the scientists are still not sure what exactly it is.  Nevertheless, the climatologists are convinced that the radical heating of the North Atlantic Ocean now occurring will radically change the climatic patterns of both North America and Western Europe.

Mesoamerica

Formative Period  (1600 BC-200 AD) – Until around 800 BC, Mesoamerican cultures trailed behind those in northern Louisiana and Georgia, except in regard to the domestication of indigenous crops.  Mounds in Louisiana and Georgia predate those in Mexico by at least 2,500 years.  Pottery in Georgia predates the appearance of pottery in Mesoamerica by about 2,800 years.  During the period between 3500 BC and 200 AD, there were relatively few hurricanes in Mesoamerica. 

 

Maya city-states boomed as the frequency of hurricanes was rapidly increasing, but crashed, when they reached their peak.

Classic Period  (200 AD – 900 AD)

Although Teotihuacan began booming around 0 AD, the appearance of the earliest Maya writing system is the official beginning of the Classic Period.  Notice that the steep rise in cultural advancements in Mesoamerica parallels the steep rise in the number of major hurricanes.  By 800 AD, the number of major hurricanes each year exceeded what we are experiencing today.  By 900 AD, there were at least 25 major hurricanes in the region and all Classic Mesoamerican civilizations had collapsed.

Cultural History: So . . . the period between 800 AD and 900 AD when Maya civilization collapsed was also a period when there were 250% more catastrophic hurricanes each year than today.  This is a causative factor for the collapse of Maya civilization that has never been considered by anthropologists.  

In 1998, Hurricane Mitch hit Central American as a Category 5 storm.   The damage it did, would have killed thousands of Mayas 1100 years earlier.  The hurricane’s impact would have been sufficient to wipe out the Lowland Maya Civilization, already weakened by wars and drought.   Cities in the northern Yucatan Peninsula continued to thrive after the Lowland cities were abandoned.  This is a fact that cannot be explained by droughts or war.  All of the Yucatan was experiencing a drought and there are no surface streams in the Northern Yucatan . . . only cenotes or natural wells.

Post-Classic Period  (900 AD – 1520 AD)

Between 900 AD and 1400 AD, the number of major hurricanes in the Caribbean each year dropped, but were much more numerous than today.  Between years and decades there were wide variations in the number of major hurricanes. Evidence developed by the scientists in Massachusetts suggests that the paths of major hurricanes tended to shift away from Mesoamerica and toward Cuba, Dominica, Puerto Rico and the Atlantic Coast of North America.  There was an extremely catastrophic hurricane, which hit the Yucatan Peninsula around 1000 AD.

Cultural History: The year, 1000 AD is highly significant.  There was a temporary abandonment of Chichen Itza, with many of its suburbs, where the commoners and slaves lived, being permanently abandoned. There were also stark changes in the Southeast, which will be discussed in the next section. Suddenly, the type of corner door houses, built by Itza Commoners in Chichen Itza, appeared in at several locations in North and Central Georgia.

During the period between 1000 AD and 1200 AD, much of northeastern, central and Gulf Coast Mexico experienced major population growth and cultural advancement.  Southern Mexico and Central America stagnated, but still contained some cities and a very advanced culture . . . at least for the Americas.

Around 1250 AD, the Tamauli almost completely abandoned Tamaulipas on the Gulf Coast.  Most Tamauli ended up in Alabama and Georgia.  Some may have settled in Louisiana and Mississippi.  One band definitely canoed back to their homeland in Tabasco.

After around 1400 AD, the center of advanced civilization in Mexico was the Valley of Mexico. It was here that the Mexica joined an alliance with two other city states to create the Aztec Empire.

Southeastern North America

Late Archaic Period and Early Woodland Period  (3500 BC-0 AD)

Cultural advancements such as public architecture and ceramics came much earlier to the Southeast than in Mexico.  Like in the Caribbean Basin and Gulf of Mexico, evidence discovered so far suggests that there were very few major hurricanes during these centuries. 

Cultural History: There were two centers of advanced culture in the Late Archaic Period – Northeast Louisiana and the Savannah, GA area.   The Bilbo Mound in Savannah dates from 3545 BC.  It was originally a man-made island within a large round harbor and connecting canal to the Savannah River.  The Watson Brake Earthworks date from around 3450 BC.  They consist of a circular earth berm with mounds built on top of it.

Between around 3200 BC and 1600 BC, there were major mound centers clustered around the Bilbo Mound and shell mound – shell midden complexes in southwest Florida.  Around 2500 BC both pottery and shell rings appeared on the South Atlantic Coast between Charleston, SC and St. Augustine, FL.  The oldest shell rings are near the mouth of the Altamaha River in Georgia.  Most of the surviving, early mounds on the South Atlantic Coast are near the Bilbo Mound, but some may have been destroyed by hurricanes that occurred later.

The cultural avant garde returned to northeastern Louisiana around 1600 BC and 1000 BC, with the construction of both Poverty Point type platform villages and dome-shaped mounds.   Beginning around 1000 BC, the Deptford Culture spread out from Savannah and became most substantive in the lower North Georgia Mountains and Upper Chattahoochee River Basin.  Some villages established on the Upper Chattahoochee and Upper Etowah Rivers maintained almost continually occupied until the 1700s.  They were abandoned due to the Creek-Cherokee War.

Around 400 BC, the Deptford Culture began evolving into the Kellogg and Cartersville Cultures.  Villages  and towns in this culture eventually built large platform mounds that were truncated ovals.  Truncated ovals are an architectural tradition indigenous to Georgia . . . not Mesoamerica or Peru.  This is important to remember.

By 200 AD, some of these towns such as the Mandeville Site on the Chattahoochee River, the Booger Bottom Mound Village and Leake’s Mound village were quite large.  The principal Mandeville Mound was a square truncated pyramid, typical of Mesoamerica.  The Deptford Mounds in North Georgia were truncated ovals.

Middle and Late Woodland Period  (0 AD – 900 AD)

Almost imperceptibly at first, but then after 400 AD at astonishing rate of increase, major hurricanes began striking the Caribbean Basin and Atlantic Coast.  By 900 AD, 25 major hurricanes a year were striking the region.  As always, the Georgia Coast was the least effected section of the Atlantic Coast.

Around 539 AD, an asteroid or comet struck the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Cape Canaveral.  Its tsunami obliterated the barrier islands of Florida and left a massive debris ridge on the Georgia coast, which is still 85 feet high and several hundred feet wide in some places.  Afterward, the debris ridge protected the Georgia Coastal Plain from 11 to 16 miles inland from hurricane winds and tidal surges.

Cultural History: The Early Woodland cultures in Louisiana and Georgia evolved into the Marksville, Swift Creek and Weeden Island Cultures.  Swift Creek villages in southeast Georgia disappeared after the tsunami.  The Swift Creek Culture began declining rapidly, while Swift Creek populations began appearing in the Georgia Mountains and Upper Savannah River Basin . . . very likely to evade the worst effects of hurricanes.

The Napier Culture began developing from the Fall Line to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Georgia around 600 AD.  Its villages and towns were anywhere from 170 t0 300 miles from the Atlantic Coast.  Perhaps around 700 AD, the massive Kenimer Mound was constructed in the Nacoochee Valley of Northeast Georgia.  It was identical to the sculpted pentagonal mounds, built by the Kekchi Maya of Belize and Quintana Roo.   Repeated hurricane strikes on the coast of Belize and Quintana Roo may have spurred refugees to flee north out of range of direct hurricane strikes.

Ocmulgee Mounds was founded between around 800 AD and 900 AD by a people, who built supersized teepee shaped houses typical of the Tekesta in southeast Florida, the coastal peoples of Cuba and northern Colombia.  Intense hurricane activity in the Caribbean Basin may have also spurred them to move north and inland out of harm’s way.

Early and Middle Mississippian (Hierarchal) Periods  (900 AD-1375 AD)

The advanced peoples of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina clearly developed from cultural influences from the south, not the west so the label adopted by the archaeological profession nationally really does not apply here.  It is quite obvious that the peoples of the Lower Southeast began making major cultural advances at the same time that southern Mexico was in a state of cultural stagnation.

University of Massachusetts researchers have found evidence of many major hurricane strikes on the Atlantic Coast between around 1100 and 1400 AD.  One or more Category 5 or perhaps Category 6 hurricanes around 1150 AD devastated the Atlantic Coast. 

In addition, an asteroid, cluster of asteroid fragments or comet struck the North Atlantic Ocean in 1014 AD, causing at least 30,000 deaths in England alone and probably just as many on the coast of North America.   Stone engravings and Maya script at Chichen Itza describe a large object coming across the sky to the north.  It was assumed to be the Sky Serpent God.  This would explain the numerous stone serpents on the mountain tops of Georgia and perhaps the motivation for bands of Itza refugees to head north to the “Land of the Sky Serpent.”  

There was another peak of major hurricane activity around 1200 AD.  Geologists have identified the effects of massive floods on Georgia’s inland rivers about this time.  Until the hurricane research by climatologists, the geologists could not figure out what type of weather event would create something approaching “Noah’s Flood.”

The floods caused stark changes in the locations of several rivers. The Etowah River changed path and cut right through the heart of the town, cutting a vast gash through the landscape. A later of mud was deposited on top of the entire town.  

The Ocmulgee River also deposited a layer of mud on Ichesi (Lamar Village) plus turned its horseshoe bend into an island.  This weather event is what made archaeologists in the 1930s think that the Lamar Village was founded “200 years after the abandonment of Ocmulgee Mounds.”  The archaeologists stopped digging, when they ran into a layer of mud not containing artifacts.

In 1257 AD the Samalas Supervolcano exploded with 13 times the volume of pollutants, produced by Mount Saint Helens.  This initiated the Little Ice Age.  The first effect in Northwestern Europe was not especially cold weather, but endless rains, which flooded the fields.  It is probable that heavy rainfall also fell on eastern North America . . . but not western North America.  See the POOF article:  Super Volcano

Cultural History: Around 900 AD three culturally advanced provinces in southern Florida apparently merged together and formed a single state in which the two on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts began making pottery like those of the province near Lake Okeechobee.  Canals and raised causeways were constructed to interconnect the many towns and villages of this state.

Also around 900 AD, more newcomers arrived at Waka (Ocmulgee Mounds).  They started construction of a square, truncated pyramidal mound, typical of Mesoamerica. 

During the 990s AD, a people with different cultural traits that the people living on the acropolis at Ocmulgee, established  the village of Ichesi on a horseshoe bend in the Ocmulgee River, two miles south of the acropolis (Lamar Site) and the town of Etula at a horseshoe bend on the Etowah River (Etowah Mounds).

The only agricultural terrace to be radiocarbon dated at Track Rock Gap came in at 1018 AD.  This was four years after the tsunami

Around 1150 AD, both the towns of the Lake Ocheechobee Region and the acropolis at Ocmulgee were abandoned.  We finally know what happened.  One or more incredibly powerful hurricanes devastated the Lower Southeast.

Around 1200 AD, Etula (Etowah Mounds) was abandoned. Archaeologists do not know why.  Geologists do.  An incredibly destructive flood cut through the town.  Now the geologists know what caused the flood.

Also, around 1200 AD, a flood severely damaged Ichesi.  We now know that probably the same hurricane, which hit Etula, also devastated Ichesi.

In 2017, archaeologists learned that it was not drought that drove the population out of Cahokia, but floods.  Many an anthropological book has been written that assumed droughts caused a failure of crops then starvation and then famine.  Au contraire, it was devastating floods that depopulated the Middle Mississippi River Basin.  Perhaps they did result in plagues though.

It is ironic, and probably significant that while the eastern half of the North American Sunbelt was inundated by violent floods, the Southwest Desert Plateau was fried by one of the worst droughts in the region’s history . . . causing Chaco Canyon to be completely abandoned. 

The frequency of major hurricanes dropped precipitously between 1200 AD and 1375 AD.  This was the Golden Times of Etula (Etowah Mounds), Ichesi and many other towns in North Georgia, but was when Cahokia in southern Illinois and Moundville in northwestern Alabama lost most or all of their populations.  Clearly, the cooling of the Atlantic Ocean and the stark reduction of hurricanes on the Atlantic Ocean were good for Georgia, but bad for peoples living in the Mississippi River Basin, northwestern Alabama and western Tennessee.

 

In 1540, towns in the Southern Appalachians were thriving despite the heavy winter snowfalls. Apparently, their summers were ideal.

Late Mississippian Period  (1375 AD – 1600 AD)

Note both the stark drop in hurricanes and the commensurate drop in the water temperature of the Atlantic Ocean on the charts. This is the Little Ice Age.  It was initially a time of endless rains, but by 1375 AD had become a time of short growing seasons and bitter cold winter weather, but somewhat fewer major hurricanes than today.  The Southern Appalachian Mountains became known as the Snowy Mountains.  During the winter moist air from the Gulf of Mexico was constant pumped up into the sub-freezing air of the Blue Ridge Mountain escarpment.  The result was annual snowfalls equivalent to what one sees now near Buffalo, NY and northern West Virginia.

Forensic botanists have examined tree rings for the 1300s and 1400s in the Southern Appalachians and Upper Tennessee River Valley.  They have determined that around  1350 AD – 1375 AD the climate was extremely dry and cold, after exceptionally heavy rainfall in the previous century.  This drought coincides with the 25-35 year long abandonment of the large town of Etula (Etowah Mounds) and the relegation of Moundville from being a large town to being only a ceremonial center.  Yet at the same time, the Province of Kaushe (Kusa~Coosa) was thriving about 32 miles north of Etula.  It could be that the people of Kaushe had superior agricultural skills.  

Cultural history:  

After the shock of a period of cold dry weather, apparently the climate was ideal in eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, the Florida Panhandle and South Carolina for the large scale cultivation of corn, beans, squash, pumpkin, sunflowers and chia (salvia grain).  Chiaha’s location on the Little Tennessee, Oconaluftee and Nantahala Rivers, would have been subject to massive snow melt water in the spring.  This apparently was an ideal situation for chia.

The chronicles of the De Soto Expedition mentioned that there were fields of salvia (Chia) along the rivers of the province of Chiaha.   Chiaha means “Salvia River” in Itza Maya and Itsate Creek.  It is not an ancient Cherokee word, whose meaning has been lost.   Chiapas, the homeland of the Itza Maya, means Place of the Chia (Salvia).

De Soto’s entrada entered Florida near Bradenton on the Gulf Coast. There is no mention of either natural disasters or plagues as it passed through what is now the Florida Panhandle.  In fact, the towns along the Ocmulgee and Oconee River seemed to be prospering and well fed. In southern South Carolina he passed though a region, later known as the Saluda Desert, which had few inhabitants.  The climate was exceedingly dry and the soil of low fertility.

However, when Hernando de Soto’s Expedition passed through the South Carolina in the spring of 1540, there had been a plague in the town of Kofitache-ki (Spanish ~ Cofitachequi = “Descendants of Mixed Ethnic Groups-People” in Creek).  Kofitache-ki was described as being two days from the ocean.  Perhaps a European disease had been left behind by a passing ship, which stopped to gather provisions.

When De Soto passed through what is now North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, northwest Georgia and Alabama, there seemed to be plenty of food.  There were several days of heavy rain and a flood on the Etowah River in August 1540.  This was probably the remnants of a hurricane, but apparently it did no serious damage to the town where he was staying.

Such an ideal environment certain not be applied to Alabama, 20 years later when a foraging party for the Cristin de Luna Expedition crossed the length of Alabama in search of food for its starving colonists.  The countryside was described as being almost depopulated and bereft of stored food.  Surviving locals blamed the deaths caused by the De Soto Expedition for this holocaust.  They killed most of the warriors and left behind a legion of European pathogens.   This was not the diabolical work of a hurricane.

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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.

6 Comments

  1. markveale@hotmail.com'

    Richard, a Great cause and effect article. The last Maya classic cities have been carbon dated to have ended around 800 AD and fits well with the data. To much water can be just the cause that would make mass migrations happen… as well as the Volcano eruption in the Maya area you have noted in the 800’s. Do you know if any of the Yuchi native people ever made any statements of living in Mexico in the past? If the Apalacha Kingdom peoples had a road going there the Yuchi could have been the tradesmen along that route from Georgia. I didn’t read any people being called Yuchi in Desoto’s men documents of 1540. Perhaps that road had Yuchi towns as trade towns in Georgia but they were mostly spread out on these trade roads all the way to Mexico. The Yamasee (Omecs?), Tokah, Toltecs (“Toktahn” one of the Maya linage of Kings) might have built roads that traveled as far as Alabama, Georgia…William Bartram seems to imply that he found Maya or Omec’s artwork in Northern Alabama in a very big circular building. (Tuskabatchi?) That same type of building found as far as Eastern Tenn. used by the Cherokees in 1775. The Yuchi were noted as building circular towns.

    Reply
    • The last Lowland Maya cities closed down shop around 900 AD. Palenque was incinerated by a volcano around 800 AD. The cities in northern Yucatan continued to exist.

      Reply
      • markveale@hotmail.com'

        Richard, Thank You for your reply. The Apalacha Kingdom people spoke of a road that went all the way to Mexico but part of this road system would have been out of their Kingdom area. The Yuchi as you have stated were involved in the salt trade network of the South East. They are a likely choice for people that traded with the Maya, Omec’s, Itza of Central America some of which migrated to Georgia.

        Reply
        • I agree. My Uchee/Euchee/Yuchi friends in Oklahoma tell me that they have a tradition of traveling long distances to the south and west to trade.

          Reply
  2. iwg42@hotmail.com'

    Hey Richard ,
    Great article! One thing I thought of when reading it was that if the comet strike off the coast of Florida/Georgia left a debris wall 85+ feet high, if a major hurricane hit that area dumping massive amounts of rain, the debris wall would act as a dam magnifying the flooding in those areas. Could that also be a big factor in the fact that in the past several large lakes were in Georgia that are now swamps? Could the hurricanes have caused such destruction in the forest that the lakes filled with storm debris? Thanks for another thought provoking article!

    Reply
    • Wayne, a few years ago I did some calculating. The tsunami would have sent water into the interior of Georgia as much as a hundred miles inland. However, William Bartram said that the rivers in Georgia flowing from the mountains to the Atlantic Ocean use to have massive floods when the snow melted in the mountains. A major hurricane would have knocked down trees, which could have created natural dams that WOULD have created those large lakes in early maps of the Southeast. Where the maps then showed lakes are now swamps, so I think that the lakes really were there.

      Reply

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