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 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.
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.
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
The 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.
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.
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