Timeline . . . The evolving facts of the “Olmec” Civilization
Throughout the latter half of the 20th century students were taught that the Olmecs suddenly created the first advanced culture in the Americas in a region that only recently had been occupied by hunter-gatherers. All concepts of public architecture and town planning emanated from the Olmecs to the remainder of the Americas. I was also taught in Mexico that maize (Indian corn) was first domesticated around 2500 BC in the Tehuacan Valley of Puebla State (not the same place as Teotihuacan) near the border with the states of Oaxaca and Veracruz. The Tehuacan Valley farmers had eventually migrated eastward past Orizaba Volcano and then down into the Tropical Lowlands of Vera Cruz and Tabasco to create the Olmec Civilization. These “facts” are what I was taught in the United States and in Mexico. I stated these inaccurate facts on my Barrett Fellowship Thesis and got an “A.”
The Chontal, Tamau-te (Trade People) or Putan Maya were never mentioned to me by Dr. Román Piña-Chan. No one told me that they were the direct descendants of the Olmec Civilization or that they were the master mariners of the Mesoamerican world. The Tama-te originated in the islands in the tidal marshes near Villahermosa and seemed to have called themselves the Tamaute or Tamaule, since those words pop up as a place name and indigenous word in the Southeastern United States. Tamaulipas (a Mexican State) means “Trade People – place of” in the Chontal Maya language. Their name is spelled today in Spanish as Tamulte.
I visited some of these islands where the Chontal Mayas once lived for a day, because I was curious as to why they looked so much like the region on the coast of Georgia and southern South Carolina. There were many mounds and some shell middens, but absolutely no evidence of archaeological studies in the past. I didn’t see any mention of the Chontal Mayas in the Villahermosa Archaeological Museum . . . just the Olmecs and the Mayas. I assumed that the mounds I saw were not significant because the Mexican archaeologists thought them not significant at that time, so I didn’t photograph them.
How important were the Tama-te? The Altamaha River in Georgia and the towns of Tamatla in North Carolina and Tamasee in South Carolina get their names from the Tama-te. The Spanish derived the name, Timucua, from a tribe on the Altamaha River, named the Tamakoa. Ironically, they moved to Northeast Georgia (Commerce, GA) to get away from the Spaniards. The Tamau-te also introduced to the ancestors of the Creeks the Green Corn Festival, Summer Solstice-based calendar, corn on the cob, grits and tamales, plus several dances. The Potano People of NE Florida and SE Georgia were also obviously descendants of the Putan Maya.
Chronology of investigations into the Olmec Civilization
1880s through the 1920s: European and some amateur Mexican archaeologists poked around in the mounds of Tabasco and southern Vera Cruz. They found few trophy artifacts, which could be shipped to museums or to wealthy donors in Europe. The Europeans lost interest in the region and labeled it a tertiary culture on the frontier of the Maya Civilization. Pioneer professional archaeologist, Alfonso Caso, thought differently and continued to dig deeper.
1929 through 1947: Caso began finding “Olmec” artifacts underneath artifacts that had been created in Maya cities to the east. Mathew Stirling arrived in the region in 1929 from California and continued to excavate Olmec sites periodically until 1946. He took credit for excavating 10 Olmec heads, but most had been originally noted on a map by Caso. By the mid-1930s, Caso was labeling the Olmec sites, La Madre Cultura . . . the first civilization in the Americas. However, Caso’s work was little known outside of Mexico. In general, people in the United States were contemptuous of anyone in Latin America and gave little credence to anything said by Latin American scholars.
Mathew and Marion Stirling were highly competent archaeologists, who were also excellent administrators and skilled filmmakers. She started out as his secretary at the Smithsonian Institute, while going to college, but in fact, was the person who actually first translated the Olmec calendar system. In 1942, they attended a conference in Mexico City in which Caso presented his discoveries at the Olmec sites and also his theory that the Olmecs were the “mother civilization” of the Americas. Caso’s evidence convinced Stirling
In particular, Stirling’s performance in the Smithsonian Institute’s film, Exploring Hidden Mexico (1943) which documented his excavations at La Venta and Cerro de las Mesas, cemented his reputation in the United States as the “discoverer” of the Olmec Civilization. He presented Caso’s theory that the Olmecs were the first American civilization, as his own. From then on, his premier reputation was set. Although Alfonso Caso, Ignacio Bernal and Román Piña-Chan were famous in Europe, particularly in France and Spain, people in the United States did not even realize that there was such a thing as Mexican archaeologists until the 1960s. That is when the Mexican government began publishing lavishly illustrated English translations of their books in order to attract tourists from the United States and Canada.
OMG Moment! I just discovered in her obituary that I knew the widow of Archaeologist Mathew Stirling, when I lived in Virginia. She had remarried and then went by the name of Marion Pugh. She and her new husband lived in the 1770 Pugh Stone House, just down the road from our 1770 Tipton heavy timber frame farmhouse. I did some architecture work for one of her daughters, who had just returned from a project in Tasmania.
1947 through 1968 – Radiocarbon dating: Most of the excavations done at the major Olmec sites occurred before the invention of radio-carbon dating in 1947 or at least before its widespread application in the late 1950s. Thus, orthodoxies created by Alfonso Caso, Mathew Stirling, Ignacio Bernal and Román Piña-Chan remained in publication long after a new generation of archaeologists “knew better.” At least by 1968, the INAH knew that the Olmecs did not create the Olmec Civilization. The Zoque and Tamaulte claimed to be its descendants, but this was not publicized. Indeed, the Olmec Civilization could not even be called a civilization until around 700 BC and they had been telling people that it “mysteriously collapsed” around 500 BC.
Keep in mind that this “civilization” did not even have pottery until around 900 BC. The “Olmec” writing and calendar systems had appeared after the civilization supposedly “collapsed” and when several Maya cities were thriving. The then earliest known calendar date, translated by Marion Stirling, was 31 BC. However, the evidence is increasing that two of the most important Maya cities, Izapa and El Mirador did not even speak a Maya language, but rather an early form of Itza, more akin to the Panoan languages in Peru, mixed with Totonac words. Nevertheless, books and documentary films continued to churn out the impression that the great cultural achievements of the “Olmecs” occurred around 1200 BC. I found websites this morning that gave that date or even 1300 BC as the time of the apogee of Olmec Civilization.
TV documentaries on the Olmec and Maya civilizations treat them as separate entities and always begin with the question, “Why did they collapse?” I have to admit that my thesis contained these same questions, because I was young and assumed that just because an educational authority figure said something, it was true. We now know that a natural event, probably a volcanic eruption caused a stark population drop in the eastern portion of the Olmec Culture, but actually the Maya Culture was merely a continuation of the Olmec Culture. During this period, no one called themselves either Olmec or Maya! For many centuries the “Olmec” or “Maya Civilization” were composed of distinct ethnic groups, speaking dozens of languages and dialects.
There was a further cultural divide between southern Mexico and Yucatan, which was created around 200 AD, when armies from Teotihuacan suddenly swept through the region. The elite of Teotihuacan were Proto-Totonacs. Cultures in southern Mexico absorbed many Totonac words and cultural traditions, which were ultimately became the “Mississippian Culture” of the present day Southeastern United States. Ironically, the first manifestations of the Mississippian Culture were in southern Florida and central Georgia. It would be more appropriate to label these advanced provinces in the Southeast, an extension of Mesoamerican and Amazonian Cultures.
1968 through 2006 – Stagnation: There was a general attitude in this period among archaeologists that they knew all there was to know about the Olmec Civilization. Meanwhile, archaeological research exploded in the conventional Maya regions. Many universities in the United States established ongoing archaeological digs, botanical studies and geospatial analysis projects near or at the ruins of known Maya cities as a means of providing their anthropology professors something to do and to attract anthropology students. Because of the general decline in jobs requiring an anthropology degree, increasingly fewer students saw anthropology as a viable career path.
Books, published in Mexico after around 1990, no longer claimed that the Olmec Civilization was the oldest in the Americas. Too many, much earlier radiocarbon dates had been obtained for city sites in Peru. Now the civilization in the Amazon Basin has been found to be much older than the Olmec Civilization.
1998 through 2006 – The Cascajal Block: Construction workers at the village of Lomas de Tacamichapan, Vera Cruz, encountered a band of potsherds and an engraved stone block. Archaeologists Carmen Rodriguez and Ponciano Ortiz of INAH examined and registered it with government historical authorities. The glyphs on the block eventually came to the attention of anthropologists in the United States. It weighs about 11.5 kg (25 lb) and measures 36 cm × 21 cm × 13 cm. Details of the find were published by researchers in the 15 September 2006 issue of the journal Science. The authors of the article could not translate the glyphs, but described it as an artifact from around 900 BC and proof that the “Olmecs” had a unique writing system, prior to the introduction of a system similar to that of the Mayas around 100 AD.
The article was immediately supported by some archaeologists and bitterly attacked by many others. The two principal complaints was that the stone slab was not originally found by archaeologists and that the writing system was very different than others in Mesoamerica. Several years of academic bickering have reduced the significance of the artifact to that of a curiosity. It is seldom discussed anymore.
I immediately became interested in the slab because it contained many symbols that are found in the Proto-Creek writing system or else artifacts unearthed by archaeologist Warren K. Moorehead at Etowah Mounds in 1925. Both the Cascajal Block glyphs and the Creek system consist of clustered symbols, assembled horizontally. Mesoamerican writing systems were typically organized vertically. Also, symbols that the proponents described as “abstract blobs” were obviously symbols of political positions found on the art of Etowah Mounds. Little more can be said about either the “Olmec” or “Creek” writing systems until we can obtain more examples.
Chontal Maya – Douglas T. Peck: That we even know about the Chontal Maya today is directly due to the research of Douglas T. Peck (1918-2014). Doug was an avid seafarer in Bradenton, FL, who in retirement became the world’s leading expert on the Chontal Maya. He really didn’t know much about the Mesoamerican civilizations, the Southeastern Indians or the languages that all these peoples spoke. There are some glaring inaccuracies in his books on the Mayas and Florida Indians that he wrote for local publishers in Florida. However, he was an expert mariner and navigator, who made four trans-Atlantic voyages in a sailboat to study the voyages of Columbus and Juan Ponce de Leon. He obviously spent many years of study in the 1990s to accumulate all available eye-witness descriptions and sketches from the Spanish Colonial Archives. It was Peck, who discovered that there was a two degree error in all Spanish and Italian navigation equipment in the late 1400s and 1500s. Thus, the latitudes described by Verrazano, Francisco Gordillo (the location of Chicora) and Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón (location of first Spanish colony on mainland) should be moved south two degrees. This information has been accepted as fact by several national historical societies, but NOT found its way to the anthropology profession.
I first communicated with Doug Peck in 2007. Founding POOF member, anthropologist Deborah Clifton, had discovered that the indigenous name for the section of the Gulf Coast between Mobile and Apalachicola Bays was written Amichel in Spanish, but was actually Am Ixchel . . . Place of the Goddess Ixchel in Chontal Maya. I remembered that Am Ixchel was also the name of Tampico Bay in Tamaulipas and a the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Peck read this information in one of our early People of One Fire newsletters and contacted me. He was working on a book on the Goddess Ixchel. She was the “patron saint” of the Chontal Maya mariners. They would construct crescent shaped mounds in her honor, wherever they established a trading station. Peck soon sent me all of his archival information on Chontal Maya boats, which enabled me to create virtual reality models and images of them.
The Chontal Maya still remain a little known entity among Gringo anthropologists, but Peck’s writings had a major impact on the INAH in Mexico. Around 2002, Mexican archaeologists began excavating Chontal Maya ports from Tamaulipas to Yucatan. They even published a Chontal Maya dictionary, which has many shared words with the Creek languages.
2009 – origin of maize (Indian corn): A team of botanists from the United States and Mexico finally found the parent plant for maize in the the Xihuatoxtla Rock Shelter, overlooking the Balsas River in Guerrero State, Mexico. Once thought to be a cultivar of the arid Mexican highlands, molecular data now indicate that maize was domesticated a single time and that a subspecies of teosinte classified as Zea mays ssp. parviglumis . . . native to the tropical Central Balsas River Valley. . . is its wild ancestor. The radiocarbon date for this primitive corn was astounding . . . 8,700 years BP. It was a single mutation that was altered over the many thousands of years. Maize was NOT domesticated in the arid highlands near the Olmec Heartland a thousand years before the rise of the Olmec Civilization rose, as I was taught in school. Maize was originally a tropical plant that was later adopted to arid highland climates.
Pottery was being made in the region, where the aboriginal corn was discovered as early as 2000 BC. That’s about 500 years later than Georgia, but a thousand years before pottery appeared on the eastern side of the Mexican mountains. However, such things as the construction of mounds and planned towns occurred much earlier in the Olmec country than on than in the western coastal plain of Mexico.
2015 through Present time – the Kashite and Miccosukee Migration Legends: Both of these migration legends clearly begin in the region where the Kashite and Miccosukee originally lived. Kashete is the Itsate Creek word for the English words, “Kusa People.” We are never told what the original name of this people was. They came from a region originally occupied by very tall Toltec tribes, who were terribly persecuted by the Aztecs after they resisted invading Aztec armies. The Toltecs, like the Upper Creeks, were extremely tall . . . but just outnumbered by the swarms of Nahuatl peoples pouring southward from northern Mexico. They were called the Tekesta by their neighbors. This is the same name as a tribe in southeastern Florida, but may or may not be the same people. We do know that the bison calf velum given to Jame Oglethorpe by High King Chikili, portrayed the Kashite writing system. The Paracusa-te elite of the Apalache-Creeks in northern Georgia and the Satile in Southeast Georgia were also extremely tall (up to 7 feet). It is quite possible that the Toltecas and these super-sized peoples in the Southeast and Peru, originated from the same ethnic group eons in the past.
The original and complete version of the Kashete Migration Legend, which I discovered at Lambath Palace in 2015, clearly points to southwestern Vera Cruz as the origin of the Kashete or Cusseta Creeks. They originally lived in caves and rock shelters on the slopes of the Orizaba Volcano. After leaving their caves and moving downstream on the Bloody River, now known as the Yamapo or Jamapo River. They were taught how to grow corn by a more advanced people – presumably the creators of the Olmec Civilization. Some time later, an invading people began persecuting them and sacrificing many of their children to their gods. At this point they fled the region along a Great White Path (Maya word for highway) that paralleled the Gulf of Mexico all the way to the Mississippi River. The refugees lived for awhile along the Mississippi River then migrated eastward until they reached eastern Tennessee. Later on, during a severe drought, they followed the Little Tennessee River into the North Carolina Mountains then migrated southward to the most southerly line of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Georgia.
The Miccosukee Migration Legend also speaks of persecution of the Soque or Zoque people by invaders, but begins in the coastal marshes of Tobasco. Their legend specifically states that they were the descendants of a great civilization, which preceded the Maya Civilization. The Soque followed the Great White Path northward, gathering up other tribes as they went, until they reached what is now Northeast Georgia.
There is very little information online about the region where the Kashete originated. The Aztecs did a thorough job of obliterating the Tekesta villages and massacring their population. I did find some archaeological evidence to back up the Kashete Migration Legend in southeastern Tennessee. During the Middle Mississippian Period a large town on Hiwassee Island with cultural characteristics like the people of Etula (Etowah Mounds) was sacked and burned. The people who settled there afterward made a style of pottery, which is unusual for the Southeast. It is called Hiwassee Island Red On Buff ware. This style pottery is identical to that which was made by the Tolteca peoples in the mountains that border southern Vera Cruz and Oaxaca, particularly in the region around the Orizaba Volcano.
The Truth is out there somewhere!
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