The watercraft of the Chontal and Itza Mayas
Linguistics can be as important time machine into the past as genetics
The Oklahoma Muskogee word for a canoe is now written as pila, but it was pira in the Southeast. Pira is also the Panoan (eastern Peru) word for canoe. When at age six, I foolishly paddled into the Okefenokee Swamp, I was in a square ended, shallow-draft canoe that swampers called a pireau . . . obviously the French version of pira. However, all the other Southeastern Creek words associated with navigation and trade are pure Itza Maya words.
The Cho’i-te (Chontal Maya) of the Tabasco coastal marshes were the supreme mariners of the Pre-Columbian Americas. Their homeland is identical to the tidal marshes of the South Atlantic Coast between Charleston and Jacksonville or the mouth of the Apalachicola River on the Gulf of Mexico. As the established colonies elsewhere in Mesoamerica, they also were called the Tamate, Tamauli, Tamahiti, Potan, Potafa and if mixed with Nahua Peoples, the Tamatli. Guess what? All six of those words can be found among Native American towns in the Lower Southeastern United States.
The Itza-te (Itza Maya) were originally the same people as the Cho’i-te and Tama-te, but lived in the highlands of Chiapas and Guatemala. As indicated by their “te” suffix for “people”, they were not ethnic Mayas, but over the past 1400 years have absorbed many ethnic Maya words. During the Classic Period (200 AD – 900 AD) they were considered illiterate barbarians by the true Mayas living to the east and north. They only built earthen mounds and stone-walled terrace complexes during that era. As can be seen below, a Chontal Maya town was virtually identical to a Muskogean town. Itza terrace complexes were identical in every detail to those in northern Georgia and east-central Alabama.
There is little doubt that both the Cho’i-te and Itza-te came to the Southern Highlands. At the beginning of the 18th century, the two principal towns in the Nacoochee Valley of northeastern Georgia were Chote and Itsate. Near the mouth of the Little Tennessee River, the Cherokees took over a town named Itsate during the early 1720s. According to Cherokee tradition, Itsate’s “nickname” was Chote. Over time that became its better known name. When the Cherokees established a new capital on the site of a Kansa town on the Oostanaula River, they called it, E-chote. The E prefix is pure Itza grammar, now also used much more extensively by Creek languages. Its use means “principal town” of a province named Chote. Thus, when De Soto’s chroniclers stated that they entered the town of Ychiaha, they meant the capital of the province of Chiaha. Chiaha is an Itza word which means “Salvia River.” In 16th century Castilian, the letter Y indicated a long E sound.
Canoes and boats built from lumber
At some point in the past, the Chontal and Itza Mayas began to build canoes and boats out of wooden boards, rather than hollowed logs. These canoes and boats were much lighter, plus had higher side walls, thus could cross ocean water with larger cargoes. Just like Scandinavian boats and ships, these craft were “sewn” together with ropes dipped in pitch, plus wooden pegs. They had exactly the same nautical qualities as Viking longships. Another change was that they were designed with high prows and sterns so that ocean waves were less likely to splash into the interior of the boat. Indigenous Americans never developed the technology of a steerable rudder. Interestingly enough, Itsate (Proto-Creeks) living near Lake Okeechobee, Florida and in Georgia constructed high bows and sterns like the Maya canoes, but they were carved out of solid logs, not assembled from boards.
Latest posts by Richard Thornton (see all)
- Teotihuacan’s suburbs at ground level - February 14, 2019
- Professor say the darndest things! . . . Parte Trois - February 12, 2019
- Traveling back in time along the Unicoi Trail - February 12, 2019
- Protection and documentation of Native American heritage sites - February 11, 2019
- Snapshot: Creek cousin in the audience - February 7, 2019