The Michoacan Connection . . . at Chaco Canyon and in the Southeast
The architectural and cultural connections between the indigenous peoples of western Michoacan State, Mexico and Chaco Canyon, New Mexico are profound. It is obvious that the hybrid Mesoamerica-Polynesian people, who became the elite of Chaco Canyon originated on the Pacific Coast of Michoacan.
More subtle however, is the evidence that several hundred years earlier, bands of indigenous peoples from Michoacan and Guerrero ended up in the Appalachian Mountains and Southern Piedmont in the United States . . . or was it the other way around? . . . Did peoples, who built stone cairns and stone effigies migrate from North America to southwestern Mexico.
The readers should understand that most of the modern “tribes” of Mexico, began . . . just like the Creek Confederacy . . . as the assimilation of numerous small, distinct bands of people. There were many tribes and bands in both regions, whose memories consist solely of geographical place names or perhaps, they are completely forgotten.
It was around 900 AD that . . .
- Two clusters of culturally advanced towns on Lake Patzcuaro and Lake Cuitzio in Michoacan joined together many aboriginal ethnic groups in the region to form a kingdom. Very soon thereafter, trade treaties are made with dozens of Chichimaca tribes in northern Mexico to create an enormous trade network, reaching across a modern national boundary to obtain raw materials for their civilization. The Purapeche Trade Empire thrived until the 1520s, when the population is devastated by a smallpox epidemic.
- The Toltecs founded the city of Tula on the site of an existing town in what is now the State of Hidalgo, Mexico. Tula will grow to enormous size then be abandoned around 1150 AD.
- Itza Mayas, who had been displaced by the 800 AD eruption of the El Chichon Caldera Volcano in Chiapas occupied Chichen in Northwest Yucatan and in conjunction with the Putan Maya mariners established a regional trade network. Around 1000 AD, Chichen Itza was be captured by Mayapan. After the seizure of their city, most of the Itza Commoners dispersed into North America and the Caribbean Basin, while Chichen Itza becomes much more Toltec in character.
- Newcomers arrived on the Ocmulgee River in what is now central Georgia and establish a regional trading market center on a natural terrace overlooking the river. It grew into a megapolis, which stretched for 38 miles along the Ocmulgee River. Distinct ethnic groups occupied individual neighborhoods and suburbs. The market center thrived from 900 AD to 1150 AD. Its suburban towns eventually became tribal towns within the Creek Confederacy.
- Newcomers arrived in Chaco Canyon in what is now northwestern New Mexico to establish a highly sophisticated town and regional trading center. The town and market center thrived from 900 AD to 1150 AD, Chaco Canyon was then permanently abandoned.
So what happened around 900 AD and 1150 AD in both Mexico and the Southeastern United States? It’s an unanswered question.
First , a word to you future explorers in the frontier of knowledge out there . . .
Never do what I did! In general, Creek and Seminole kids tend to explore the countryside as soon as they are old enough to walk, but I carried this habit to the extreme in Mexico. Armed only with the K-bar knife issued to Navy SEALs and Navy/Marine Recon Squads (still have it) I wandered (often alone) across the mountains and jungles of Mesoamerica with no regard to private property lines or dangers on the other side of stone walls. In this particular case, I climbed up a pasture on the side of a mountain to get a panoramic view of Lake Patzcuaro.
Just as I was making the “perfect shot,” I heard the sound of BIG animals snorting and stopping the ground. I turned around to see the biggest, meanest looking bulls, one could imagine, with horns that were four feet across. They charged me.
Only having time to say, “Oh s-t,” I dived over an ancient fieldstone wall, where I had been propping my camera. The lead bull crashed into the wall a second later.
Well, on the other side of the wall was a mud puddle. I landed in it face first. I was coated in mud from head to foot. I was able to sort of wash the mud off my arms and face in Lake Patzcuaro, but I had to take a 10 mile ride in a Third Class bus to get back to my hotel room in Patzcuaro. My pants and shirt were saturated in mud. The bus driver probably would have not let me on, if I had been wearing long hippie hair and hippie clothes. The Third Class bus was crowded with camposinos (rural folk) chattering away in Purepeche, chickens and baby pigs. The senoritas giggled at me the entire ten mile trip. The hotel clerks nearly fell off their stools laughing, when I walked in the lobby. Not a good day!
Michoacan and Guerrero are located on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. They are very mountainous states, but not arid like northern Mexico. Despite being south of the Tropic of Cancer, the forests of Michoacan look very similar to those in the Talladega Mountains of Alabama. They are contain a mixture of oak and conifer trees. Michoacan’s mountain ranges do not have the dense under story of foliage as seen in the forests of the mountains of Chiapas State, Mexico or northern Georgia, because they receive less rainfall. The area around Patzcuaro and Morelia averages about 40 inches of rainfall a year . . . most of it falling during the summer growing season. This is typical of central and southern Mexico. Michoacan receives more rain than Pacific Coast states to the north and south. As a comparison, the northern Shenandoah Valley of Virginia receives about 38 inches a year, but much of it comes in the form of 25 inches of snow in the winter time.
The climate of Michoacan is more temperate in character than one would expect in its latitude. Temperatures on summer days range from the high 50s to the low 80s F. . . . mostly in the 70s. Temperatures in the valleys rarely drop below freezing in the winter, but the highest elevations will have temperatures comparable to the mountains in North Carolina. Michoacan is officially classified as Highland Mediterranean climate, but the abundance of rainfall in the summer and the cool winters makes it possible for farmers to grow an incredible variety of crops on a commercial scale. The author visited a farm near Uruapan, Michoacan, which cultivated avocados, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, bananas, strawberries, apples, peaches and mangos. Most of the autumn and early winter strawberries in the supermarkets of the United States come from Michoacan. Thus, the indigenous peoples of Michoacan enjoyed an almost ideal climate, while being able to cultivate an extremely wide variety of crops much of the year, if they used irrigation in the spring and fall.
Massive wave of undocumented aliens emigrate from Michoacan
A couple of months ago, several million undocumented aliens sneaked through the defenses of Homeland Security and dispersed into the countryside of Dixie. No . . . terrorists didn’t sabotage the NORAD radar defense network. The undocumented aliens have been pulling this stunt for eons. All of the Monarch butterflies in the Southeast spend their winter months in the mountain forests of Michoacan. How long and why they have been doing this is unknown. How such fragile insects are able to navigate across the Gulf of Mexico is also unknown.
The Purepeche People
The primary indigenous people of Michoacan are the Purepeche or Tarascans. The latter word is a name given them by the Spanish. The Purepeche were master metal workers and the only civilization in the Americas to enter the Bronze Age. They perfected bronze weapons about about 40 years before the arrival of Hernan Cortez’s conquistadors in Mexico during 1521. Because they had metal weapons, they were also the only nation, which was able to defeat the Aztecs. They probably would have eventually conquered the Aztecs had not the Spanish arrived on the scene. The Purepeche Empire surrendered without a fight to Cortez, with the stimulation that they become an autonomous vassal of the King of Spain. However, once the population of the Purepeche had been catastrophically reduced by smallpox, the Spaniards invaded Michoacan and slaughtered its nobility.
The Purepeche always had a reputation for being an exceptionally intelligent and self-disciplined people. Even today, the State of Michoacan seems like a nation, separate from Mexico, because the landscape and architecture is so different. Along with the Mayas, the Purepeche maintain a strong self-identity and refuse to be treated as second-class citizens. Many historic houses are brick rather than being stuccoed. There is widespread used of carved wood details and structural elements on buildings, because wood is in abundance. The arts and crafts at the markets in Patzcuaro and Zamora are extraordinary. Purepeche wool blankets are the most ornate and best crafted in all of the Americas. Their copper and gold creations are world class.
Both their prehistoric and modern ceramics are considered some of the finest in the world. The painted motifs on their pottery is exceedingly fine-grained. The Purepeche were one of very few indigenous American cultures, who developed refined processes for glazing ceramics. The ceramics at left are over 500 years old.
Purepeche was originally the name of the commoners in this advanced civilization. Much updated anthropological information is not given in references originating in the United States, so one has to know some Spanish to get the anthropological facts. While those north of the border state that the Purepecha language is an isolate, with no known relatives, Mexican references tell you that it was a Peruvian language. Purepeche is the Hispanization of “Offspring from the Ocean.” The elite, apparently a different ethnic group, called themselves Achéecha (Offspring from Corn).
Muskogee Creek readers will immediately notice that the Purepeche used the same word for corn that they do . . . ache’. Itza Mayas and Itsate Creeks use the word Iche for corn. Apalache (a branch of the Creeks in North Georgia and NE Alabama) is the Anglicization of Aparache, which means . . . would you believe . . . Offspring from the Ocean.
There is another key word which was shared between the indigenous peoples of Michoacan and the Apalache branch of the Creeks. It appears to be a word of the aboriginal people of Michoacan before the Acheecha elite came on the scene. You see this suffix in many village names in Michoacan and the coastal plain of Georgia and South Carolina before the 1700s. In Michoacan, the Spanish wrote the suffix as “cuero” or “curo.” It means “people,” “tribe” or “living place.” On the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, this suffix was written down by Europeans as “cora”or “cura” . . . very close.
There is an interesting story from my fellowship in Mexico. On the first day, I was being given a orientation tour of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia by Ignacio Bernal and Román Piña Chán. Bernal exclaimed, “Idiotas” and walked off, when he realized that I was not from a wealthy Gringo family, who would be donated money for an archaeological dig. So Dr. Piña Chán got both books from me that were a traditional academic propina in Mexico. He called me back into his office, when he realized that the indigenous art of the Southeastern United States was far more sophisticated than he had been taught in college.
Dr. Piña Chán was particularly impressed by the copper art and tools found at Etowah Mounds. He told me that they was far superior to anything made in Mexico out of copper, except perhaps in Michoacan. He couldn’t understand why the ancestors of the Creeks didn’t make gold art. Actually, we now know that they did, but the gold chains and foils have all been melted down. After lunch, while looking at the course syllabus prepared by the Georgia Tech professors, he became angry and asked me if I wanted to be a typical Gringo tourist or learn how to restore ancient architecture. I opted for the latter. He tossed the Georgia Tech syllabus in the trash can and told me to come back the next day with the one he would prepare.
One of the most important additions to the travel schedule was an extensive study of Michoacan. This is because Piña Chán saw the copper art, tools and weapons from Etowah Mounds. However, it was not until just recently that I realized that there was probably a direct ethnological connection between Michoacan and the Lower Southeastern United States. Michoacan seemed so far away and not directly connected by ocean water. Well, if the butterflies could travel the distance, so could humans.
Román Piña Chán was surprisingly modest to be at that time, one of the most famous archaeologists in the world. He never told me that it was HE, who pioneered modern archaeological work in Michoacan. The excavation of Tzintzuntzan (see below) was the first project in which he functioned as the supervising archaeologist. It established his reputation in Latin America, but as evidenced by the ignorance of my Georgia Tech architecture professors, several decades would pass before the world knew about the Purepeche Civilization.
While I was doing research on this article last night I realized another connection between North Georgia and Michoacan. The evidence would have meant nothing to me until learning about the Apalache – Creeks in a French language ethnology book, published in 1658 by Charles de Rochefort. Both the male and female Apalache elite wore (for lack of a better term) sombreros with cone shaped tops. This was also the traditional hat of the Purepeche commoners. It was eventually adopted by camposinos (rural folk) throughout all Mexico. Over time the hat top became more rounded, but you can still see the traditional style hat on the Purepecha doll at right. On the left are some members of the Apalache elite as engraved by Charles de Rochefort.
Tzintzuntzan . . . the Place of the Hummingbird
Tzintzuntzan was the capital of the Purepecha Kingdom. Little archaeological work has been done there since the middle of the 20th century, when Román Piña Chán excavated its main platform and yacatas (keyhole shaped pyramid platforms for temples) . . . then supervised its reconstruction. The scale of the yacata platform is beyond description. What appears to be a massive plaza, cut out of the natural terrain is actually a man-made platform for placing temples.
The complex was tilted at about 45 degree angle. This is the wrong angle at that latitude for either the Winter Solstice Sunset or Pleiades Constellation, as typical of Teotihuacan in Mexico, Maya cities or the ancestral Creek towns in Georgia. It is approximately the same latitude as Teotihuacan. If the vector of the Tzintzintzun platform is extended northeastward, one crosses the mouth of the Apalachicola River in the Florida Panhandle. If one extends the vector southwestward, one passes over New Zealand. Now figure that one out! Are some of the indigenous peoples in Michoacan related to the indigenous peoples of Alabama and Georgia? Are they related to the red haired people, who preceded the Maoris in New Zealand or did the Maoris actually come from Michoacan? The Purepeche Kingdom had been thriving for three centuries, when the Maoris arrived in New Zealand.
I can find no published articles in Mexico that indicate the INAH even knows the boundaries of the original city. Part of the archaeological zone is now the town of Tzintzuntzan, while the remainder is very valuable farmland. The last time in Mexico, I glanced at some recently plowed fields there, and noticed that they were chock full of artifacts . . . even today.
Purapecha leaders are demanding that more research be done to expand the knowledge of their heritage around Lakes Patzcuaro and Cuitzo . . . especially at Tzintzuntzan. The very progressive state government of Michoacan is sympathetic, but to date, there have been no substantial changes at the Tzintzuntzan archaeological zone. State leaders have their hands full, trying to quell the ongoing violence in the northern part of the state, which is the headquarters of the Knights Templar—Guard of Michoacán (Spanish: Los Caballeros Templarios Guardia Michoacana). This relatively new cartel has even published a Code of Ethics, which makes them sound like Robbin Hood and his Merry Men . . . but the violence goes on.
Other connections to the Southeastern United States
The Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City does not even mention an indigenous culture that spanned Michoacan and Guerro prior to the rise of the Purapecha Kingdom around 900 AD. In the eyes of both Mexican and North American archaeologists, it was so much more primitive than other contemporary cultures, it is hardly worth mentioning. However, if one looks closely at its cultural traits, these forgotten peoples can answer many questions about enigmatic structures in the Southeastern and Southwestern United States.
Mexican anthropologists think that through the eons, many bands of sea-faring peoples settled on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. There are definitely South American and Polynesian influences west of the Sierra Occidental Mountains not seen elsewhere in Mesoamerica. In fact, they are virtually certain that the people living in Baja California as far north as Santa Catalina Island, California WERE Polynesians. Definite Polynesian DNA was found in an ancient skeleton unearthed on this island.
Like Polynesians, the peoples on the coasts of Michoacan and Guerrero like to build with fieldstones. The earliest structures were cairns, identical to those found in the Talladega Mountains of Alabama and throughout North Georgia. The cairns were used for the desiccation of the deceased. King Vultures would frequent these cairn cemeteries and devour the flesh. Then at certain times of the year, the remaining bones would completely cremated on the stone cairns. The Pacific Coast peoples came to worship the King Vulture. They would sometimes build elaborate cremation piers in the shape of the King Vulture. That is exactly what the two so-called “Rock Eagles” near Eatonton, Georgia are. Virtually identical stone structures can be seen in the mountains of East-Central Alabama and North Georgia.
The King Vulture of Mesoamerica was held sacred by several civilizations during the Formative and Classic Periods (1600 BC – 200 AD) . . . perhaps till the 1500s in some regions. This tradition was brought to the Southeastern United States with the special status of the Painted Vulture, a close cousin of the King Vulture. Many centuries of being used to devour human flesh converted the bird into at least a semi-domesticated bird. This tendency was further encouraged by the widespread burning of forest under-stories each fall and winter. Botanist William Bartram described Painted Vultures devouring the roasted flesh of animals killed in these fires and in fact, claimed that the Painted Vultures would only eat cooked meat. There are eyewitness accounts of Creek Indians also keeping these beautiful vultures as pets. They were extinct by 1800 AD.
During the Mesoamerican Classic Period (200 AD – 900 AD) Michoaocano masonry skills became increasingly sophisticated, Their shrines, pyramids and enclosed plazas strongly resembled the earliest structures on New Zealand, built before the arrival of the Maori around 1250 AD and those of Hawaii after around 1300 AD. The Michoacanos also learned how to build multi-story fieldstone structures.
The Chaco Canyon Connection
The trade network of the Purepecha Kingdom reached into the Southwestern United States. There is no question that the sudden conversion in 900 AD of small Pueblo Indian bands in present day New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah into urban dwellers was an impact of Purepecha cultural expansion. Chaco Canyon and the “Anasazi” represented a situation in which a relatively small elite lived in the stone apartment complexes. Much of the region’s population lived in small, scattered extended family hamlets. However, in northwestern Mexico, residence in large “apartment complex” like villages were the norm, not the exception.
There seems to be few archaeologists in the United States these days that can think out of the box . . . much less out their home state. The architectural details in the “apartment complexes” in Chaco Canyon are similar to those of the Moche Culture in Peru . . . which collapsed about 800 AD . . . a century before the explosion of the Purepeche Kingdom and the appearance of newcomers in Chaco Canyon. The ashlar stonework at Chaco Canyon was very similar to that of the Purepeche People, and earlier, the Moche Civilization in Peru.
It should be emphasized the the ethnological and architectural history of northwestern Mexico is poorly understood. There are many, many indigenous ethnic groups, probably some of them related to the Muskogeans, who have never been studied by anthropologists. The region has just not had the attention of most of the archaeological profession in the United States, because it was thought not to contain “trophy” artifacts.
During the past 30 years, archaeological work in Northwestern Mexico has also been discouraged by the chronic violence and corruption caused by the drug cartels that control much of the region. So, to date, most of the archaeological investigations have been conducted by the Institutio Nacional de Antropologia E Historia de Mexico. Institutions in the United States are reluctant to work there. They probably have a right to be concerned, but Gringos don’t have a right to be contemptuous.
During 2012 , there was an enormous amount of fictional controversy created around the Track Rock Terrace Complex in Union County, GA. Long time mountain families are very proud of this world class archaeological zone and were delighted to show it off to tourists. However, their county has been under the thumb for some time by transplants from Florida, who made their wealth off of illegal drugs or even are still involved with the illegal drug trade.
The “Gringo Narcos” families don’t want a lot of strangers wandering through “their” national forestland and stumbling upon neo-Nazi bands practicing being rambos, secret bunkers or marijuana patches. Their money and political influence even bought the services of some Georgia archaeologists, who put a put up a pretense being intellectuals, but in fact, were functioning as common hired guns for people, who had a very non-intellectual agenda. To date, that money and political influence has blocked access improvements to this archaeological zone. Can you imagine what it would be like if the home grown Narcos controlled most of the Southeastern United States as is the case now in northern Mexico? So . . . for some time to come, much of what is said about western Mexico will be in the realm of speculation.
The large town Paquieme’ was established as a major market center for the Purapecha Regional Trade Network. The heart of the town (photo below on left) is dominated by what appears to be a livestock corral and market. It was originally interpreted as a market for turkeys. Now archaeologists believe that this space was a breeding and marketing area for Scarlet Macaws. The proportion of the town associated with Scarlett Macaw breeding suggests that it was a major economic activity of the community.
This archaeological site is located in central Chihuahua. The town was occupied from 1130 AD to 1450 AD. So it was being founded just before Chaco Canyon was being completely abandoned. Perhaps climate conditions were not as severe farther south. The abandonment of the town may have been caused by climatic changes or military actions. That is another question, which has not been fully answered.
Another “signature architectural feature of the Anasazi Culture in the Southwestern United States was the kiva. It was and is a circular room, recessed the floor of a plaza, in which rituals occurred. Some were also used for sacred object storage or grain storage. Such architectural features appeared at the very beginning of Peruvian civilization around 2600 BC. A recessed, circular ceremonial space is in the plaza in front of the two largest pyramidal mounds at Caral. However, the kiva is not part of the Mesoamerican architectural tradition, but can be seen in the lower right hand corner of the above right photograph. As stated earlier, little is known about the architectural history of Mexico’s Pacific Coast. There may be kivas under the ground on the coast of Michoacan.
An important cultural practice in Northwestern Mexico and at Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico was the sacred status of Scarlet Macaws and Thick-billed Parrots. They were both kept as pets and sacrificed in Spring Equinox fertility rites. The Scarlett Macaw and the Thick-billed Parrot are especially intelligent and beautiful species of parrots that can live up to 70 years in captivity. They also can be easily cross-bred.
The natural range of the Thick-Billed Macaw originally extended into New Mexico and Arizona, but they were made extinct by Anglo-American settlers. The last few survivors were killed off by cotton farmers in those states during the early 20th century, when they saturated the landscape with DDT.
The current northern limits of the Scarlet Macaw on the Pacific Coast is the Chimalapas rain forest between Chiapas and Oaxaca states. Scarlet Macaws have repopulated the rain forests on the Gulf Coasts of Vera Cruz, Tabasco, Chiapas and Campeche . . . and with government protection are thriving.
The Scarlet Macaw’s original northern range included the coastal forests of Michoacan. Since the Purapeche controlled the western trade routes of Mexico, there is little doubt that much of the original breeding stock for Scarlett Macaws in the Southwestern United States and northern Chihuahua came from Michoacan. The Purapeche probably depleted the numbers of Scarlet Macaws in their realm, but there is no way of knowing now. What is known, though, is that after the Spanish arrived with firearms, the Scarlet Macaws were quickly exterminated to make hat decorations for the nobility of Renaissance Europe.
From reading North American archaeological journals, one would think that the sacrifice of one year old Scarlett Macaws was unique to Chaco Canyon. It was not. In fact, the possession and sacrifice of Scarlett Macaws originated in Mexico centuries earlier than when Chaco Canyon was first settled. The sacrifice of Scarlet Macaws and Thick-billed Parrots was merely one more ancient cultural tradition that found its way into what is now the United States.
There is no doubt that during the period between around 1600 BC and 600 AD, indigenous peoples in the Highlands of Michoacan and Guerrero, plus the Highlands and Upper Piedmont in the Eastern United States were building stone cairns, stone enclosure ceremonial sites and stone effigies. Peoples in both regions of the Americas were exposing their deceased to vultures and buzzards then cremating what was left over. The sacred nature of vultures and buzzards was even a major feature of the Hopewell Culture in the Ohio Valley.
Were these peoples the same ethnic groups or was this a case of cultural traditions somehow crossing the Gulf of Mexico and penetrating the interiors of North America and Mexico? The question can only be answered by comparing the DNA of human remains in both regions from areas where the stone structures were located. That is going to be a very difficult proposition, when their shared burial practices typically involved cremation of bones. Perhaps, somewhere, in some day in the future, someone will make a discovery that will make comparison of the two regions a scientific possibility.
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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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