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The Toltec Mounds in Arkansas – Part One

The Toltec Mounds in Arkansas – Part One

A 19th century owner of this town site speculated that “Toltecs” from Mexico built its pyramidal mounds.  Late 19th and 20th century archaeologists proved how ridiculous this folktale was . . . or did they?   Mexican archaeologists have come to realize that there was much diversity among the commoners of Mesoamerican civilizations and that their lifestyle was far more akin to that of the Muskogeans in North America than their own elite.   However, the explanation of Toltec Mounds is going to be quite a bit more complex than saying that any one ethnic group built them.

The site plan of Toltec Mounds inserted on a satellite image/

The site plan of Toltec Mounds inserted on a satellite image.

The region around the Toltec Mounds Site was occupied by indigenous peoples of the Americas from around 400 BC to around 1750 AD. The actual town site was occupied by a relative small group of political and religious leaders between 600 AD and 1050 AD. Its identification with the Toltecs of Mexico was made in 19th-century by Mrs. Gilbert Knapp, owner of the land from 1857 to 1900.  This was when most Americans were first becoming aware of the great civilizations in Mexico.   They noticed the obvious similarity of earthen and stone-veneered pyramids.

Many folks in Arkansas initially agreed with Mrs. Knapp, while others stuck to the earlier belief that these mounds were built by the Lost Tribes of Israel. Beginning in 1883 with an expedition, sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute, a series of archaeological studies proved that (quoting Wikipedia) “the indigenous ancestors of regional Native Americans had built these mounds and all other mounds within the present-day United States.” Of course, the this determination was based on a comparison with the 5% elite of the most sophisticated Mesoamerican civilizations, not with the cultural practices of the commoners or peripheral societies.

Okay . . . so why did “Keyhole style” houses appear at Toltec Mounds about 50 years after they ceased to be built at Kolomoki Mounds in SW Georgia? Why did the town at Toltec Mounds suddenly appear immediately after there was an uprising by commoners at Teotihuacan in Mexico, which drove out the Totonac priests and governing elite? Why are there figurines upstream at Spiro Mounds that portray Mesoamericans? How did all the Mesoamerican and South American crops, words, DNA, architecture and cultural traditions get into the southern half of the United States? Why did the abandonment of Toltec Mounds coincide exactly with the sudden appearance of mound-building and other stark changes at Cahokia? These are very relevant questions that contradict the flat statement made in Wikipedia and on-so-many other North American archaeological publications.

ToltecMounds-2016-Site2

Plan of Tollan, capital of the Toltec kingdom. Note that the Temple of the Warriors (photo) was sculpted from a hill, not originally a free-standing structure. Actually, we do not even know what the Toltecs called themselves. That was their Aztec name.

Plan of Tollan, capital of the Toltec kingdom. Note that the Temple of the Warriors was sculpted from a hill, not originally a free-standing structure. Actually, we do not even know what the Toltecs called themselves. That was their Aztec name.

As can be seen above, there is very little similarity between the architecture of the capital of the Toltec Empire in Central Mexico, Tullan (Tula in Totonac), and Toltec Mounds. Unlike the situation in Georgia, where we are identifying multiple examples of stone architecture, there is none at Toltec Mounds. There are also no large stone sculptures or decorative friezes at Toltec Mounds. The site plans of the two urban centers are also quite different. There is no evidence that the Toltecs, whoever they were, built Toltec Mounds.

On the other hand, the arrangement of buildings and the shape of the pyramidal mounds at Toltec Mounds are quite similar to that of cities and towns built by the Totonacs. In addition, as can be seen below, the site planning of Toltec Mounds was quite similar to the Bottle Creek Mounds site, north of Mobile, AL.

Tajin was capital of the Totonacs at the exact same time that Toltec Mounds were being built.

Tajin was capital of the Totonacs at the exact same time that Toltec Mounds were being built.

Bottle Creek Mounds, north of Mobile, Alabama are very similar to Toltech mounds.

The architecture and site plan of Bottle Creek Mounds, north of Mobile, Alabama are very similar to those of  Toltec  Mounds in Arkansas.

 

The Itza and Chontal Mayas, who we have linked so strongly to the ancestral culture of the Creek Indians, were vassals of the Totonacs for at least four centuries. Totonac words, such as chiki (house), tula (town), tama (trade) and tamahi (merchant) permeate the Itza and Creek languages. Below is the site plan for El Tajin, the Late Classic Period (600 AD – 1200 AD) capital of the Totonacs in northern Vera Cruz State, Mexico near Pozo Rico. It is quite significant that Hernando de Soto visited a town named Tula in present day Arkansas. The occupants of this town were described as being culturally different than other indigenous peoples in the region and being more sophisticated.

Again, though, it should be emphasized that the story of Toltec Mounds is far more complex that saying any ethnic group is completely responsible for its final appearance. The town’s cultural characteristics seem to be a mixture of many influences over a period of centuries.

An introduction to Toltec Mounds State Archaeological Park

ArkansasThe park is located near Scott, AK and 12 miles southwest of Downtown Little Rock. The park is a National Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. In the past, the State of Arkansas has funded considerable archaeological research at Toltec Mounds, but since the advent of the 2008 Mega-recession, research activities have declined considerably.

It is in the midst of a 45 mile long labyrinth of wetlands and old channels of the Arkansas River, which are similar in feeling to Southern Florida, but with a temperate climate. If first visited in the summer, the location would have seemed ideal for adapting crops from the Lowlands of the Mexican Gulf Coast. However, winter snows might have proved to be a shock.

Toltec-Satellite2

The town was constructed on a former channel of the Arkansas River that is now an oxbow lake. There are 18 mounds of varying size within a bow-shaped embankment, which was originally about 8-10 feet tall and a 5,298 feet long embankment.  The embankment probably had a timber palisade on top.  The town originally had man-made ponds, which probably had both ceremonial and practical uses. Fish could be raised in the ponds.

Most mounds were used as platforms for temples and the residences of priests, political leaders and military commanders. At least two mounds were used for feasting, as indicated by discarded food remains. The largest two mounds were originally 38 and 49 feet tall. One of these was rectangular. The other was oval. Most mounds were truncated, rectangular pyramids, built of packed earth, clay and sand. Some were dome or cone shaped. The mounds used for feasting were pyramidal, but had the appearance more of platforms, since their height was substantially less than their width and length.

The Arkansas River

The advanced Native American cultures that developed along the eastern half of the Arkansas River Basin receive relatively little attention from the media, outside of their immediate region. They include Toltec Mounds and Spiro Mounds. Yet, if one looks at the carved stone and ceramic artifacts unearthed from this river basin, it is clear that these indigenous peoples were sophisticated artists and were in cultural contact with advanced peoples in other parts of North America.

When examining the Arkansas River Basin from a regional geographic perspective, the river’s role as trade route linking the Rocky Mountains, Great Plains, Ozark Mountains and Mississippi River Basin is obvious. It was the most direct route between the Rockies and the Mississippi. Unlike the Missouri River to the north, it generally stayed navigable by canoes during the coldest of winter weather. Commodities and ideas could have easily flowed in both directions along its channel, which is 1,469 miles (2,364 km) long.

The Arkansas is the sixth-longest river in the United States, the second-longest tributary in the Mississippi-Missouri system, and the 45th longest river in the world. The source of the Arkansas River is a spring on the southeast slope of Mt. Arkansas in Lake County, Colorado. Cities near the headwaters of the Arkansas include Leadville, Castle Rock and Boulder, Colorado. The river generally flows eastward through Colorado, southeastward through Kansas, Oklahoma and east-southeast through Arkansas. Major cities on the Arkansas are Pueblo, CO, Wichita, KA, Tulsa, OK, Fort Smith, AR and Little Rock, AR. The Arkansas River joins the Mississippi River at Napoleon, AR.

Few people outside the Arkansas River Basin are aware that two major tributaries of this river begin at the edge of the region once occupied by the Anasazi Culture in northeastern New Mexico. They are the Canadian River and the Cimarron River. Direct trade between the Anasazi Culture and the Mississippian Culture would have been possible via canoes.

The next part of this series on Toltec Mounds, we will look more closely at the peoples, who occupied the eastern part of the Arkansas River Basin. In particular, we will look at the architecture and cultural traits of the actual town between 600 AD and 1050 AD. The town was later re-occupied, but no mound-building took place after 1050 AD, except perhaps some modest burial mounds.

 

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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.

7 Comments

  1. markveale@hotmail.com'

    Richard, I didn’t know the Ark-ansas river was 1400’s miles long!! The Nile river is also 1400’s mile long. Antarctica is 14 Million Kilometers, circular, and so the word “Pi shon” would apply to that land mass very well. As spoken by some of the Native elders long ago, all people were of the same color and departed from the same location. Genesis 1-2 V10-14 (3.14?)

    Reply
    • I thought that y’all would find this interesting. The archaeologists are divided up into geographical sectors, but here is a river that begins in Anasazi country and ends up in the heart of the Mississippian cultural world.

      Reply
      • urisahatu@yahoo.com'

        Very interesting indeed. Mexico and MesoAmerica
        seem to be the homeland of most tribes in Southeast
        North America.

        In my ongoing research on the origin of the Cherokee
        it seems that what is now New Mexico is the homeland
        of atleast a portion of the Cherokees.
        The info that I have gathered points to the Pueblos
        Zuni people in particular.
        To the east of Zuni Pueblos and to the southwest of
        Albuquerque you have the Los Lunas Decalogue Stone
        which is in the mountains next to the Rio Grande river.
        Although it’s not yet determined if the Los Lunas
        Decalogue Stone with its Paleo-Hebrew inscription is authentic, it could be proof of a pre-Columbian Jewish
        presence which in its turn would proof why post-
        Columbian Jews could understand the so-called
        Cherokee since they were speaking a Hebrew dialect/
        language.

        Map of Major Rivers in US:
        https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/09/Map_of_Major_Rivers_in_US.png
        When you look on the map of the major rivers in US,
        You can see that the Rio Grande river starts somewhere
        in the southwest in the Anazasi region/country and
        ends in the Golf of Mexico.
        On the map you can also see that the Arkansas river
        is relatively close to the Rio Grande river.

        Could a possible pre-Columbian Jewish people
        entered the Rio Grande in the Golf of Mexico, settled
        amongst the Pueblo people and joined the migration
        with the Pueblo people to the northeast towards the
        Great Lakes region via the Arkansas river, Mississippi
        river and perhaps Ohio river?

        Whatever may be the case, it is clear that Mexico and
        MesoAmerica plays an important role in populating
        the Southeast North America.

        Reply
          • urisahatu@yahoo.com'

            Hey Lara, Thank you for your information.
            I have to say, I’m a little sceptic about the
            finding.
            There have been many (Ashkenazi) Jews
            migrating to Texas since the early 1800’s.
            Just like the Los Lunas Decalogue Stone,
            it has to be determined how old the artifact/inscription really is.

            Another very interesting thing is that
            Amarillo is close to (or on) the Canadian
            river which starts somewhere in New
            Mexico near the Rio Grande river.

            If both the Los Lunas Decalogue Stone
            and the new stone artifacts of Amarillo
            are authentic and determined to be pre-
            Columbian, it could mean that pre-
            Columbian Jews could have migrated
            further eastwards (northeast) either
            via the Arkansas river or the Canadian
            river to reach the Mississippi river and
            from there migrate furter northeast via
            the Ohio river to the Great Lake region
            which partially could proof the migration
            legend of the Cherokee and explain why
            post-Columbian Jews could understand
            their language since it was a Hebrew
            dialect.

            Map Longest Rivers of the US:
            https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b4/Longest_Rivers_of_the_US_with_labels_fixed_again_2.jpg

  2. nomad1392@hotmail.com'

    Very interesting!!! This site is not far from the Wickliffe Mounds in Ballard county,Kentucky it sits about 3 miles (4.8 km) from the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
    It seems to me that alot of these site`s set along water ways and some how thur time line, trade and culture are interrelated.

    From Wikipedia
    The site was inhabited between 1000 CE and 1350 CE. The site is dominated by two large platform mounds, with at least eight smaller mounds scattered around a central plaza area. Agriculture was based on the cultivation of maize as a staple, which was stored and supported denser populations and stratification of society. The Mississippian culture peoples had trade with societies as far away as North Carolina, Wisconsin, and the Gulf of Mexico. As in most other Mississippian chiefdoms, the community of Wickliffe had a social hierarchy ruled by a hereditary chief.

    Reply
  3. urisahatu@yahoo.com'

    Lara, I have taken a closer look into the Hebrew script.

    It seems to me that the script used in the Amarillo artifact
    is a modern Hebrew script.
    The inscription on the Los Lunas Decalogue Stone is in
    Paleo Hebrew script. This makes it unlikely that both
    artifacts were produced by the same group.
    Meaning, one being (possibly) pre-Columbian and the
    other post-Columbian.
    Having said that, I’m not a linguist and I have no idea
    what time period the modern Hebrew script emerged.

    It’s still a great find and I encourage you to continue to
    search for more artifacts and clues which can help us all
    discover the true history of the Americas.

    Reply

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