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What your teachers never told you about the “Olmec” Civilization

What your teachers never told you about the “Olmec” Civilization


The Olmecs had nothing to do with Olmec Civilization, but the Miccosukee did!

My Mexican textbook for the Olmec Civilization!

If you ever get the chance to go to the La Venta Archaeological Zone in Tabasco State, Mexico . . . don’t bother.  It is awful.  August was when they scheduled me for the boonies of southern Mexico, British Honduras (now Belize) and Guatemala . . . because my command of Spanish would be better by then.  However, I had to get vaccinations for yellow fever, cholera and hepatitis from the CDC in May before flying to Mexico in order to get a permit to visit La Venta from the INAH.  Then I had to take malaria preventive pills, the whole time I was in Tabasco, upon recommendation of the CDC.

It was pure torture, once I got away from the urban area, where they sprayed for mosquitoes twice a day.  I could hardly take a photograph.  Massive swarms of black mosquitoes patrolled the site.  Despite my liberal use of insect repellent, the mosquitoes would cover my arm when I stood still to focus the camera.  The air quality was wretched because of nearby PEMEX oil refineries.  My first question to Dr. Piña-Chan, when I got back to Mexico City was, “Why would anybody in their right mind want to build a civilization there?” The site is on a former island in the backwaters of tidal marshes, almost identical to those on the coast of Georgia . . . but without the steady Atlantic Ocean breezes.  The famous archaeologist just smiled and told me in Spanish, “Maybe the Spanish brought their mosquitoes and diseases with them.”



Romàn Piña-Chan in 1970.

There is many more shocks coming your way in this article. Even though I was based at the inner sanctum of the institution that supposedly knew more about the Olmec Civilization than anyone in the world . . .  both Ignacio Bernal and Romàn Piña-Chan had written landmark books about it . . . NO ONE ever told me that the Olmecs had NOTHING to do with the Olmec Civilization. 

Exhibits at the national museum and a legion of TV documentaries since then in the United States have misrepresented the chronology of “Olmec” cultural achievements and the relationships of that civilization to other civilizations . . . in particular the rise of early “Maya” civilization in the Chiapas Highlands.  Well, the Mayas didn’t call themselves the Mayas either.   In truth, most of the factual information I now have on this civilization has been obtained during the last 15 years of diligent research on the internet!  The Wikipedia article on the subject is not quite accurate.  You have to dig deeper.

Tidal marshes near La Venta – There was no difference in appearance between the Tabasco tidal  marshes and the Georgia tidal marshes.

I was based at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia when the oldest known “Maya Long Count” calendar date was confirmed. The lower half of Stela C at the Olmec city of Tres Zapotes had been excavated in 1939 by Mathew Stirling.  In 1970, the upper half of Stela C was discovered, which contained the rest of the date of, or 32 BCE.   I got to see the new discovery.

Something should be made very clear from the start of this article.  There is absolutely NO evidence that an advanced people from the Old World “created” the Olmec Civilization as has been chronically proclaimed by a string of cult historians for the past 50 years.   What archaeologists have found is that around 2200 BC,  agriculture began to become increasingly sophisticated in southern Mexico.  For the next 2,000 years the cultural sophistication of the region steadily advanced in conjunction with the increasing ability of its farmers to feed urban populations.  There was no sudden change but rather a steady evolution over many centuries, based on the domestication of indigenous plants and animals.

There are many people of indigenous ancestry in Mexico and among the Thlophlokko Creeks in Oklahoma, who have identical facial features to those of the famous Olmec stone heads.  My host in Mexico, José Angel Soto, was part Yaqui, but had “Olmec Stone Head” facial features.  His daughter, Ruth, also has the same “jaguar” lips of those stone heads.


Mathew Stirling (1896-1975)

In 1918, while still an anthropology student at the University of California,  Mathew Stirling became interested in the enigmatic stone art coming out of a region of Tabasco and Vera Cruz, which had virtually no surface rocks.  They were labeled Olmec because many of the indigenous peoples living in southern Vera Cruz and western Tabasco at that time were Nahua-speaking Olmecs.  In 1929, the National Geographical Society began funding a 16 year long exploration of archaeological sites in this region by Stirling, plus the Itza Maya city of Itzapa in Chiapas.

It was pioneer Mexican archeologist, Alfonso Caso,  not Stirling, who first excavated the ancient town sites in Tabaso, correctly proposed the early age of “Olmec” cities and coined the term “la cultura madre” (mother civilization).  It was called the Olmec Civilization because Nahua-speaking Olmecas predominated in the region, when the Spanish arrived.  By the time, I was in Mexico (1970)  Mexican archaeologists knew that the Olmeca did not arrive in Tabasco until around 1000 AD. This fact was little publicized and even today most books in the United States and Wikipedia, call the people of this civilization, the Olmecs.

Ignacio Bernal in 1970.

Nevertheless, TV documentaries, produced in the United States, give Stirling 100% of the credit for “discovering” the Olmec Civilization. and the famous Olmec stone art, when in fact most was unearthed by teams led by Caso,  Ignacio Bernal or Romàn Piña-Chan.  Stirling only excavated a couple of the several dozen stone heads and did NOT discover the first stone heads.   Much later in his career, Stirling did prove that the heads were carved from natural stone balls, created by tertiary volcanic activity.  These balls were hauled as much as 200 miles downstream to locales like La Venta.  Thus, the large stone balls found in Northeast Georgia may, in fact, be natural forms, which indigenous people carved motifs on.

Alfonso Caso in 1970

Alfonso Caso was an ailing, elderly old man, when I met him once at a museum event.   He died later that year. As long as he lived and even for decades afterward, his interpretation of the Olmec Civilization being the first in the Americas was sacrosanct in Mexico.  Since that time, several civilizations in Peru and Amazonia have been found to be much older.  Also,  ceremonial earthen pyramids (aka mounds) were being built in Georgia and Louisiana over 2500 years BEFORE they appeared in Mexico.

Radiocarbon dating was not available to Caso and either didn’t exist or was a young science when Bernal did much of his work in Tabasco. However, radiocarbon dating was used extensively by the INAH when Romàn Piña-Chan was working in Tabasco and southern Vera Cruz.  For political and tourism promotion reasons the Mexican government via INAH wanted to promote Mexico as the location of the “Mother Civilization.”  Exhibits at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia and subsequently,  all TV documentaries on the Olmec Civilization produced in the United States give a range of 1200 BC to 500 BC for the Olmec Civilization.  The Gringo TV documentaries go a step further and state that “the Olmecs were the first people in the Americas to build pyramids, create a writing system and develop the Maya calendar.  They mysteriously disappeared around 500 BC.”

Dr. Roman Pina-Chan in the late 1990s. He died in 2001.

The facts your textbook left out


(1) The Watson Brake Earthworks were constructed around 3,450 BC.  The Poverty Point Culture thrived from around 2200 BC to 700 BC.  Mound A at Poverty Point was much larger than any man-made structure in Mexico until around 700 BC.  Poverty Point AND the “Olmec” Civilization did not have pottery until around 900 BC.   So far,  archaeologists have not found evidence of agriculture at Poverty Point.

(2) Agriculture began in Tabasco around 5,100 BC or earlier.  However, large earthen mounds did not appear in Mexico until around 1000 BC or later.  Pottery did not appear in Tabasco (Olmec Civilization) until around 900 AD.  By 1000 BC,  agriculture seems to have provided for a much larger proportion of nutritional needs in Tabasco than in Georgia. 

(3) The Bilbo Mound and man-made port in Savannah, GA was constructed around 3,545 BC.  There are several mounds and shell rings in the Savannah Area, which date from 2,800 BC to 1200 BC.   The cultivation of indigenous plants began around 3,500 BC or earlier in the Southeast.   The earliest pottery in the Savannah River Basin dates from around 2,500 BC.  The Deptford Culture appeared in Savannah around 1200 BC, but somewhat later developed dense strings of villages along the Upper Chattahoochee and Etowah Rivers.  The Deptford village sites on the Chattahoochee were occupied almost continuously by a series of cultures until the early 1700s.

(4)  The Olmec Civilization did not suddenly disappear around 500 BC.  The earliest capital, San Lorenzo, declined long before then.   La Venta was most abandoned between around 500 and 400 BC, but Tres Zapotes remained a major urban center for many centuries afterward. There was a stark drop in population in the eastern portion of the Olmec Civilization after 400 BC.  However, scientists now increasingly believe the cause of this diaspora were a series of volcanic eruptions, which made the landscape difficult to cultivate.

(5) Much of what high school history textbooks and TV documentaries credit to the Classic Olmec Civilization actually did not occur until several centuries after the collapse of La Venta.  That includes both their writing system and their calendar system.   Essentially, the Olmec Civilization evolved into the Maya Civilization.  During the Formative Period (500 BC-200 AD) several ethnic groups, speaking a wide range of languages and dialects composed what is now called Maya Civilization.   Around 200 AD, forces from Tula I (Teotihuacan) conquered most of the region that is called the Olmec Civilization, plus most of Chiapas.  The heart of the Maya Civilization then shifted eastward to Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and Campeche.

A “Maya” town in the Tabasco Marshes around 1000 AD.

Miccosukee Migration Legend

(1)  Clustered around Villahermosa and the site of La Venta are several branches of the “Mayas,” who have cultural traditions very similar to those of the Creek and Seminole Peoples in the Southeast.  They are called Mayas by anthropologists, but do not call themselves Maya.  They are the only indigenous peoples in Mexico who have a solar calendar, which begins on the Summer Solstice. The traditional Maya calendar begins its annual cycle on the Winter Solstice.   They dance the Stomp Dance.  They are the only indigenous peoples in Mexico, who eat corn on the cob,  hominy grits and hush puppies.  They are also fond of tamales, which the Creeks formerly ate.  The languages of these peoples are so close to Itsate (Hitchiti Creek) that the Miccosukee can carry on limited conversations with them.

(2)  Miccosukee is the Anglicization of Mako-Sokee, which means Leaders of the Civilized People in the Zoque and Itza languages of Mexico and the Soque-Creek language of Georgia and South Carolina.  Both Soque and Zoque are correctly pronounced Zjhō : kē.

(3) When South Carolina was first colonized by the British in 1670, the Soque were the most powerful and culturally advanced tribe in the Carolinas.  They practiced forehead deformation and were described as “being like Mexican Indians.”   However, a series of British-sponsored slave raids by the Rikkohockens combined with a series of European plagues quickly decimated the populations of their towns.  By 1700, they had become allies of the Kusabo.  Within a couple of decades, most of their remnants had moved to western Georgia and joined the Creek Confederacy. Some of the Soque commoners joined the Cherokee Alliance.  The Soquee River in Habersham County, GA, the Jocassee River in South Carolina and Soco Gap in North Carolina are named after the Soque.

(4)  Until the late 20th century, the Miccosukee in southern Florida called themselves Mayas.  According to their traditions, they originated in Tabasco and were participants in a great civilization, which pre-dated Maya Civilization, but later were participants in the Maya Civilization.  That civilization went back to simpler ways. However, eventually, an aggressive people invaded their lands.  A Miccosukee Band decided to get the heck out of there.  They traveled northward along the Great White Path, which paralleled the Gulf of Mexico . . . picking up other persecuted ethnic groups as they went. They migrants eventually ended up in the Upper Savannah River Basin.  Their greatest concentration was in what is now Habersham and Rabun Counties in Georgia, plus Oconee County, South Carolina.   The region is characterized by many stone ruins and mounds that have not been analyzed by archaeologists and so do not appear on any official state list of archaeological sites.

(5) The Miccosukee have or had many cultural traditions, which are different than other branches of the Creek Confederacy.The tribe also originally had a religion which was very different than the Creeks’ monotheism.  They worshiped several Mesoamerican gods. Given their origin in Tabasco, it is fairly safe to assume that they, indeed, are descendants of the Olmec Civilization . . . er-r that is, the Zoque Civilization.

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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.



    Richard, domestication of corn (around 8000 BC) would have led to major cities being built around the Gulf of Mexico but because of the rising oceans they would be under the water? I would think by 6000 BC these large cities populations had mining operations for Green stone (Jade) in Georgia…a stone hard enough to cut trees for clearing the land for more corn fields and also for making boats to carry heavy cargo.

    • The earliest evidence of maize being cultivated is 6700 BC in the Balsas Valley of Central Mexico. That region has a dry temperate climate. It took awhile for maize to be adapted to tropical conditions. The earliest evidence for that is around 1200 BC.




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