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The Hiwassee River Valley . . . a forgotten Shangri-la

The Hiwassee River Valley . . . a forgotten Shangri-la


The secret Native American history of Towns County, Georgia

Flowing through the frontier between the world views of archaeologists in three states, the beautiful Hiwassee River is barely mentioned, if at all, in literature, which describes the Pre-British history of the United States.  Despite being flooded in three sections by Tennessee Valley Authority reservoirs, much of the remaining sections of the Hiwassee Valley could be one of the most important locales for understanding the complex cultural heritage of the Southeast.

The Hiwassee River begins at the crest of Unicoi Gap, Georgia . . . only a short hike from the source of the Chattahoochee River.  It then flows northward down the slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Towns County, GA.  It creates one of the most beautiful valleys in the Appalachians, but also passes a dense corridor of unexplored Native American town sites, which extends all the way to Hiawassee, GA (slightly different spelling).

There is something else.  Genetic testing of the “Towns County Indians” has revealed that they are the descendants of Peruvian and Itza Maya immigrants.  They are a unique indigenous population, well deserving of separate Federal recognition.



Hiwassee/Hiawassee – Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia have adopted the spelling of Hiwassee for this river, while Georgia retains the name, Hiawassee, for the town named after it.

On 18th century maps, the Cherokee name of the river was Anglicized to Euphasee.  Cherokee sources state that their name for the river came from the Cherokee word Ayuhwasi, which means a meadow or savanna. Creeks in Georgia traditionally state the river’s modern name is an Itsate (Hitchiti) Creek word. Given the Itza Maya DNA carried by Town County, GA Natives, this is likely.  It could be derived from the Itstate word for copperhead snake, Hiwasi. The river is known for its many copperheads, even today, but also follows a serpentine channel for most of its length. Another possibility is that its name is derived from the Itsate Creek word for highlanders, Hiwalsi

Hightower Creek – Hightower was also the English name that early settlers gave to the Etowah River in Northwest Georgia.  It is the Anglicization of the Muskogee-Creek word Etalwa, which means “principal town.”

Unicoi Trail – Unicoi is the Anglicization of the Cherokee-nization of the Muskogee Creek word ue-nenekaw, which means a major trade path that parallels a stream or river.  The Unicoi Trail was first mentioned in 1658, by French ethnologist, Charles de Rochefort.  He stated that its construction was directed by an Apalache-Creek queen in Northeast Georgia, who wanted to improve trade access to the Tennessee River Valley.  The Early History of Jackson County, Georgia (1911) also describes the Unicoi Trail as a trade path, constructed by Creeks living in Northeast Georgia.  It connected with the La Cota Trail, which was constructed by the Spanish.


A lost world revealed

June 2, 2010 – This was the last straw.  After three months of being incessantly harassed by state and federal law enforcement in western North Carolina and my camp sites being intermittently attacked at night by local neo-Nazi’s,  I had gotten a hair cut then rented a room at a nice motel on Hwy. 64 in Hayesville, NC.  I took a long shower, put on clean clothes and went out to eat at a top notch restaurant.  I watched television for the first time in almost six months and then slept like a babe.

HOWEVER, I woke in the morning to find my motel room surrounded by the Clay County, NC SWAT squad.  What the %$#!  

I opened the motel room door normally, but left it open so they would see that I had not kidnapped anyone.  I took my dogs out of the Ford Explorer, one at a time, to pee on an nearby lawn then asked the SWAT team members, if they could move their patrol cars out of the way, so I could leave.  The deputies did so without uttering a word.   You go figure?

I first drove to the county library in order to send an email to former National Park Service director, Roger Kennedy.  I told him that there was not a snow ball’s chance in hell of me spending another night in North Carolina, looking for Hernando de Soto’s and Juan Pardo’s routes through its mountains.  I was headed back to Georgia. I then went back to my camp site on Fires Creek and packed up the tent.  Much of the remaining part of the day was spent looking for an available primitive camp site on the northern edge of Georgia, to no avail.  There were torrential rains all day, which flooded small streams and blocked access to many of the primitive camp sites.

Sheriff Chris Clinton – Towns County, GA

Very late in the afternoon, the rains stopped. I drove to the Ingles Supermarket in Hiawassee, GA to buy a complete meal to go at its deli. As I was walking into the supermarket, I spotted a Towns County, GA law enforcement officer coming out, who looked friendly.  He turned out to be none other than Sheriff Chris Clinton. I told him that I was studying the early history of the Southern Highlands and was looking for a primitive camp site, where my dogs could go free . . . preferably near a Native American archaeological site. 

Sheriff Clinton dropped whatever he was doing and radioed one of his senior officers to ask if he had seen any primitive campgrounds that still had spaces. The sheriff told me where there was plenty of spaces at a campground on the Upper Hiwassee River along the road to Helen and that the deputy had found lots of Indian pottery there as a teenager.  

Now that folks is Southern Hospitality!

Photo by the North Georgia News            

At the Ingles Supermarket check-out counter were two pretty young women, who looked like they were Indios from the Highlands of southern Mexico. They didn’t look like Cherokees.  They had gracile physiques like Hitchiti Creek and Miccosukee women. When it was my turn to check out, I was shocked to hear them speaking with distinct Southern accents.   I asked them if they were Seminoles from Florida.

They young ladies laughed and one told me, “No, the government calls us Cherokees, but we call ourselves Towns County Indians.  We are real different than the Cherokees and were here long before them.  My brother was married to a Cherokee gal.  She couldn’t get along with our family and was constantly going into rages for no reason. She eventually ran off with a fellow from Atlanta and didn’t even come to the divorce trial.”

Still remember the meal that I guzzled out of a styrofoam plate on top of my car’s hood under the parking lot lights of the Ingles Supermarket.  It was a double helping of barbecue pork ribs with candied yams, green beans and corn bread!

A world was revealed to me that I didn’t know existed.  I noticed a creek entering the Hiwassee on the east side of town, named Hightower.  That’s the frontier English pronunciation of Etowah.  The Creeks were definitely living in Towns County, when English-speaking traders or pioneers arrived.  That was a game-changer.

The Upper Hiwassee River valley along GA Hwy. 17-75 was like a modern day Shangri-la . . . just beautiful.  The highway generally follows the route of the famous Unicoi Trail, which interconnected the Tennessee, Little Tennessee, Hiwassee, Chattahoochee and Savannah River Valleys.  Indeed, all along the corn fields at the edge of the Upper Hiwassee River I found Swift Creek, Woodstock and Mississippian Period potsherds, just as Sheriff Clinton had promised.


Peruvians in the Georgia Mountains

The experiences of my brief stay in Towns County were archived for two years until I received several astounding emails in 2012 from residents there.   In response to all the hype about the Track Rock Terrace Complex, they paid for DNA tests.  Those with Native American heritage received reports that their DNA was from  eastern Peru, the Mayas or a combination of eastern Peruvian and Mayan DNA.

I have a feeling that the DNA labs’ computer assumed that the DNA samples came from recent immigrants to the United States . . . not from families, who where the offspring of new European settlers with families, who had lived there for many centuries.  An executive with the Dave & Busters chain, sent me a DNA report, which stated that he was 25% Peruvian.  His family was on the roles of the Eastern Band of Cherokees, but his family has always lived in Towns County.  They had never intermarried with North Carolina Cherokees.  “Card-carrying” Cherokees in Oklahoma typically run 0-2% Native American. 

The Hiwassee River is mentioned in the “Migration Legend of the Kashite People.”   The Kashite Creeks stayed for awhile on the Talasi (Little Tennessee) River then followed the Great White Path (US 129) through the Andrews Valley and Hiwassee Valley.   They stayed for awhile at a recently abandoned town on the Hiwassee River until realizing that its warriors were waiting on a rock cliff to ambush them.  The Kashete then followed the Great White Path to the Track Rock Terrace Complex, where they claimed to have sacked the town.  The town was occupied by an advanced people, who flattened their foreheads.  That’s the Itsate Creeks (descendants of the Itza Mayas.)

It is quite probable that Juan Pardo passed through Towns County, GA, Clay County, NC and Cherokee County, NC during 1567 and 1568.    However, it is definite that La Roche Ferrière, an officer at Fort Caroline, spent considerable time in the Nacoochee Valley and Upper Hiwassee River Valley of Georgia.  He listed one of the major towns on the Upper Chattahoochee River as Apalou . . .  which means “From Peru” in the Panoan Language of eastern Peru. 

When the TVA creates reservoirs and nuclear power plants in Tennessee, extensive funds are expended on archaeological studies.  When the TVA created reservoirs in western North Carolina and North Georgia, the agency did not spend a penny on archaeological studies.  Thus, gaping holes have been left in the understanding of the region’s past. No Native American town or village sites have been excavated fully upstream from Lake Chatuge.

Archaeological Site 9To1 was a large town on the Hiwassee River, which had strong cultural ties to Etowah Mounds in NW Georgia.


Today, the town’s ruins are under the waters of Lake Chatuge.  The TVA did not commission archaeological studies for its planned lakes in Georgia.


Chronology of an archaeology profession gone astray

When analyzing archaeological reports from Western North Carolina and the northern edge of Georgia, one has to fact check every little statement made by the authors.  Virtually all of what readers in Wikipedia and most archaeological texts read about this region is based on the speculations of a handful of late 20th century archaeologists with degrees from over 300 miles away at UNCA-Chapel Hill. They based these speculations on limited excavations of three archaeological sites on the at the eastern edge of western North Carolina.  The description of “Qualla Cherokee” Pottery is based on a few mid-18th village sites when the Cherokees were already using muskets and iron kettles.  The description of “Pisgah Mississippian Period Cherokee” pottery is based on a couple of sites with Creek names that were shown as being occupied by the Creeks or Shawnee until around 1717. 


1817 – Yale University Natural Science professor Ellias Cornelius became the first scholar to study Etowah Mounds. The Cherokees told Cornelius that they never lived near the mounds and arrived in the Etowah Valley around 1794.  The professor determined that the trees growing on the mounds were at least 100 years old.

1826 – Cherokee Principal Chief Charles Hicks wrote the history of the Cherokee People in eight letters.  He stated that the Cherokees had arrived on the western edge of the North Carolina Mountains about the same time that Charleston, SC was settled.  He specifically stated that “The mound builders at that time were greatly weakened by a plague.  The Cherokees either killed or drove off the mound builders.”

1859 – Charles C. Jones, Jr., a pioneer archaeologist from Savannah, GA excavated in and around the Nacoochee Mound in White County, GA.  He stated that the artifacts were virtually identical to those made by the ancestors of the Creek Indians that he had excavated near Macon and Columbus in Middle Georgia.

1887 – James Mooney had only a high school degree and two years of an ethnology internship at the Smithsonian Institute under the tutelage of the US Surgeon General, when he was sent to live among the Cherokees on the Qualla Boundary in North Carolina.   Smithsonian archaeologist, Cyrus Thomas was supposed to excavate the Nacoochee Mound in North Georgia, but ran out of time.  He asked Mooney to study the mound.   Mooney did no excavations and ignored Jones’ books because Jones was a former Confederate officer and Southerner.  Mooney wrote in his report that the mound was built by the Cherokees and probably was visited by Hernando de Soto.

1915 – New York City industrialist and amateur archeologist, George Heye, excavated the Nacoochee Mound.  He also ignored the interpretations of a Georgia archaeologist and assumed that since Mooney worked for the Smithsonian, his interpretation must be correct.  Astonishingly,  Heye intentionally misquoted the leading expert on American Indian pottery in the United States.

In 1915, neither Heye nor any of his team had prior experience in either Georgia or the Southern Appalachians, yet Heye made this blanket statement: “This ware is typical Southern Appalachian form and style, in no particular respect different from that of other pottery made by the Cherokee in early times.” Again, let me emphasize that George Heye was an art collector and had never worked at an archaeological site in the Southeast and probably never seen an example of Cherokee pottery.

Heye’s reference citation was for: Holmes, Aboriginal Pottery of Eastern United States, Fifteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Washington, 1903. Yet Holmes actually stated just the opposite, when discussing Southern Appalachian pottery.   He wrote, Of these groups, the Muskogeans (Creek Indians) probably have the best claim to authorship of ceramic ware in the Southern Appalachians.” [Holmes – p. 151]

The Peachtree town plan consisted of a Kusate-Creek oval plaza, superimposed over an older Itsate-Creek town, with a rectangular plaza.

1933-1934 – The Smithsonian Institute sent Jesse Jennings to excavate the Peachtree Mound, which is on the Hiwassee River about 5 ½ miles southeast of Murphy, NC and 5.7 miles north of the Georgia Line.  Jennings had no professional experiences in the Southeast.  He depended heavily on the Heye’s Nacoochee Mound report since there was no other 20th century archaeological report for either the Georgia or Western North Carolina Mountains.

Jennings was told by local Cherokees, living in the Andrews Valley, that the Cherokees did not either build the Peachtree Mound or ever live there.  Nevertheless, since Jennings determined that only one ethnic group had ever lived there, he decided that it had to be Cherokee.  Since he found artifacts similar to those at the nearby Nacoochee Mound and Heye had said that the Nacoochee Mound was Cherokee, Jennings felt that this was further proof of his interpretation.

Jennings was slightly wrong about his interpretation of only one ethnic group occupying the site.  The fact was that he did not excavate the whole village . . . only the plaza area around the largest mound.  By using infrared imagery and architectural analysis, I determined that the original town was built by the Itsate Creeks and had many Mesoamerican traits . . . but it was reoccupied around 1400 AD by the Kusate Creeks with a somewhat different site plan.

There was a fortified Kusate garrison town at the confluence of Coosa Creek and the Nottely River near present day Blairsville, GA, until after the American Revolution.  That is how Coosa Creek got its name.  There are still many Upper Creek (Coosa) descendants in Union County, GA.

1940-1946 – The Tennessee Valley Authority built Lake Hiwassee in Cherokee County, NC, Lake Blue Ridge in Fannin County, GA, Lake Nottely in Union County, GA,  Lake Chatuge in Clay County, NC and Towns County, GA ,  plus Chickamauga Lake, which flooded the confluence of the Tennessee and Hiwassee River.   The TVA spent lavishly to support a major archaeological study of Hiwassee Island, TN, but did not spend a penny for archeological work at the lakes in North Carolina and Georgia.

1964-1971 – From 1964 to 1971, under the direction of Joffre L. Coe, the Research Laboratories of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, conducted an archaeological project that was designed to investigate the antecedents of the historic Cherokees in the Southern Appalachians.  The project ignored Cherokee traditions, the official history of the Cherokees by Principal Chief Hicks, Colonial Period maps and the cultural and linguistic evidence provided in the chronicles of the De Soto and Juan Pardo Expedition.  The preponderance of Creek geographical place names in western North Carolina was explained as “ancient Cherokee words, whose meaning has been lost.”

 The laboratory essentially started out with the theory that the Cherokees were indigenous to North Carolina and then tried to prove it.  The study found an approximately one century gap between the occupants of the eastern part of western North Carolina were living in rectangular houses within large, formally planned towns and when the Cherokees were living in crude round huts randomly placed in small villages.

1976 – If you visited the North Carolina Cherokee Reservation in 1976, you would have been given a brochure stating that the Cherokees arrived in the Southern Mountains about the same time that the British arrived in South Carolina.  The brochure would state that the Cherokees found the region thinly populated and the mounds abandoned.  It would also state that the Cherokees did not build any mounds.

1976 – The North Carolina State Government created the Cherokee History Project.  Academicians hired by the project were instructed to prove that the Cherokees were indigenous to North Carolina.  Behind the scenes, political leaders were preparing for the legalization of Native American gambling casinos.  They thought that if the Cherokees were declared to be indigenous to North Carolina, it would facilitate approval of a gambling casino.  Of course, the academicians met their client’s needs.

Up to that time, the archaeologists working in Southeastern Tennessee, North Georgia and western North Carolina used the same general nomenclature for cultural periods and classifying Prehistoric pottery . . . for a good reason . . . all of it was made by peoples, who later formed the Creek Confederacy.  They had diverse origins, but eventually shared many cultural traits.   The Late Colonial Period pottery in western North Carolina obviously was made by Cherokees, so it always had a distinct label . . . Qualla Culture or Phase.

As part of the Cherokee History Project, North Carolina academicians changed their nomenclature to suggest that Cherokees or ancestors of the Cherokees were the prehistoric occupants of the western North Carolina Mountains.  They re-labeled Woodland Period pottery styles, Proto-Cherokee Conestee . . . not knowing (as usual) that Conestee is a Creek word and a branch of the Creek Confederacy.  Mississippian Period pottery styles were re-labeled Proto-Cherokee Pisgah.

1976 – That same year archaeologist Roy S. Dickens published Cherokee Prehistory: The Pisgah Phase in the Appalachian Summit Region.  While a student assistant at the Etowah Mounds excavations in Cartersville, GA,  Dickens had constantly pushed his belief that the mounds in North Georgia were built by the Cherokees . . . even though all maps showed most of the region occupied by Creeks until after the American Revolution.

Dickens ignored the Cherokee History by Principal Chief Hicks and placed the Cherokee’s origin at small Mississippian Period villages with rectangular houses and plazas on the Tuckasegee River in eastern Western North Carolina.  He called this culture the “Cherokee Pisgah Phase.”

Dickens should have spent some time in a Creek dictionary and talking with Creeks.  The Tuckabatchee and Kulasi Creeks remembered their origin on the Tuckasegee River.  Tuckabatchee is the Anglicization of the Creek word, Tokahpa-ki, which mean “Freckled –place of-People.  Tuckasegee is the Anglicization of the Creek word, Tokahsi-ki, which mean “Freckled-descendants of – People. Several researchers in the People of One Fire suspect that the Tokah were actually the mixed-race descendants of Bronze Age Irish or Nordic gold miners.

1985-1990 – Archaeologist Jack Wynn of the US Forest Service’s Chattahoochee National Forest carried out small test digs at probable archaeological sites along the Hiwassee River and its tributaries in Georgia.  The University of Georgia Press published Mississippi Period Archaeology of the Georgia Blue Ridge Mountains, a booklet based on his surveys of the Georgia Mountains, which is now used as a lab manual by anthropology students in Georgia.  Wynn linked all pottery styles, he encountered, to those produced by ancestors of the Creek Indians, elsewhere in North and Middle Georgia.

During the early 1990s, the State of Georgia commissioned three archaeological firms to do extensive studies in this area of Towns County.

1990-1993 – Plans began during the administration of President Jimmy Carter (1976-1980) to infuse a massive amount of state and Appalachian Regional Commission funds into the Georgia counties, north of the Blue Ridge in order to stimulate economic development . . . primarily via tourism, new residents and industrial parks.  In the 1980s, a controlled access extension of Interstate 575 was constructed as far as Blairsville.  The two lane highway between Blairsville and Hiawassee was straightened and widened.  The state-owned Brasstown Valley Resort near Young Harris, GA and Brasstown Bald Mountain was under construction.  It had originally been planned when Jimmy Carter was governor, but construction was delayed until there was adequate road access.  

In the meantime, the gambling casino on the North Carolina Cherokee reservation had opened.  Certain “movers and shakers” in the Georgia Mountains dreamed of getting rich, after a Cherokee casino was built at the Brasstown Valley Resort.  Most of the archaeological work authorized by the state was under the control of a white woman, who discovered in her 40s that she was bisexual and a reincarnation of a Cherokee Princess. After living with a woman on the North Carolina Reservation for a year, she came back to Georgia under the manipulative influence of conjurers (shamans) on the reservation.  She went back to college and obtained Bachelor and Masters degrees in Anthropology.

 When Native American artifacts were encountered during the construction of roads and a golf course near the resort site, Georgia retained three archaeological consulting firms from the Atlanta Area to excavate village sites.  The three firms were under heavy pressure to label all artifacts Cherokee.  Two of the firms refused, but weaseled out of confirming what archaeologist Jack Wynn had said by claiming that they didn’t know who made the artifacts.

A third firm didn’t quite have this modest level of integrity.  Since their Woodland Period village site was three miles from the North Carolina line, they gave the artifacts North Carolina nomenclature labels.  Then they reasoned that since the artifacts had Cherokee names, they must have been made by Cherokees.  Ironically, just like their peers in North Carolina, they didn’t know that Conestee was a Creek word.

It didn’t matter.  The reincarnated Cherokee Princess coordinated the construction of a $100,000+ archaeological exhibit for the artifacts discovered by the three firms.  The dates of the artifacts spanned from the Ice Age to the 1600s.  The museum was labeled “10,000 years of Cherokee History.”   The reincarnated Cherokee Princess also sent out a national press release, stating that the archeological work proved that the Cherokees had been living in North Georgia for at least 1,000 years.  

The Reincarnated Cherokee Princess also arranged for a house, next to the Brasstown golf course to be converted by the state into a retail shop for selling modern Cherokee art.  It was leased free to a couple, who consisted of a Chippewa man and North Carolina woman.   Sales were minimal at the shop because tourists were looking for Georgia Native American art, not items from North Carolina and the Great Lakes Basin.  The site is now a spa.

The situation today

The headwaters of the Hiwassee River essentially compose a continuous archaeological zone . . .  plus the historic Unicoi Trail.

Unicoi Trail National Historic District?

Georgia’s bureaucrats and archaeologists lost interest in the archaeological treasures of Towns County, after it was clear that no Cherokee casino was going to be built in the state.  Elected officials will not support any gambling enterprise that would take revenue away from the state lottery.

Meanwhile, many pristine archaeological zones dot the countryside of eastern and southwestern part of Towns County. None have ever received comprehensive examination from professional archaeologists.  A considerable number don’t even have official state archaeological site numbers.   There are also two large mounds still visible today in the flood plain of Brasstown Creek, west of the town of Young Harris.

The section of the Hiwassee River from its source near Unicoi Gap to Lake Chatuge is essentially one continuous archaeological zone.  There is no telling what is under its soil.  Footprints of ancient mounds and buildings can be seen in satellite imagery.  Parts of the Unicoi Trail can be seen today.  These vestiges are maintained by volunteers living in Towns County.  The same volunteers played a key role in getting the truth about the nearby Track Rock Terrace Complex out to the public.

The valley created by the Hiwassee River headwaters easily qualifies as a National Historic District.  This would be a major positive step in attracting tourism, which then would support more extensive historic preservation activities such as signage and comprehensive archeological investigations.

The Towns County Indians are a handsome people, who closely resemble some bands of Florida Seminoles and the Shipibo People of Peru.

A Hiwassee Native American Tribe?

Numerous “Town County Indians” are already federally-recognized Native Americans, since they are on the rolls of the Eastern Band of Cherokees.  However, they openly acknowledge that they are not really ethnic Cherokees.  DNA tests tell us that they have one of the most interesting heritages in all of the United States.   They are the descendants of Eastern Peruvian and Itza Maya residents, who came to Georgia over a thousand years ago.  There is a strong possibility that the Peruvians arrived around 100-200 AD or earlier.

Since many of the Towns County Indians are already federally recognized, it would not be an insurmountable task to have them separately recognized as a distinct ethnic group (tribe) by the federal government.  The process should be rather straightforward, if they obtain the support of state officials and Georgia’s Congressional delegation.  Because they neither live on the reservation nor in North Carolina, Town’s County’s  Native residents get few benefits from being on the EBC rolls other than bragging rights.  There is much to be gained for them and for their region, by creating their own tribal government.


Where there is a will, there is a way!



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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.

1 Comment


    Great article! Very well written as always, & also extremely intriguing. I drove up that way last week, & as I passed the road to go to Track Rock I thought about Mr. Thornton’s work revealing the Mayan Connection to this area.


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