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When did the Mayas come to the North American Mainland?

That is a very good question, which really can’t be answered with certainty . . . Few contemporary archaeologists have dared to ask it.

Using attapulgite as a measuring stick

The mineral attapulgite or palygorskite is the active ingredient in Maya blue pigment, which is renowned for its ability to resist deterioration over time.   Attpulgite was also mixed with red ocher to make a red stucco pigment and copper oxide to make a light green pigment.

The only significant source of attapulgite in the Western Hemisphere is in Southwestern Georgia.  There is a minuscule amount in Yucatan . . . not nearly enough to stucco even one of the major cities.

Several years ago, a cluster of highly publicized studies by American universities located attapulgite in a couple of cenotes in Yucatan.  After the newness of the press releases died out, fact checking revealed that these studies were merely finding decomposed Maya Blue that had been applied to sacrificial victims.   The University of Minnesota is the only university that has dared to compare attapulgite in Georgia to blue stucco in Mexico, and it was a 100% match at Lakamha (Palenque in Spanish.)

Obviously,  for vast quantities of attapulgite to be imported to the Highland Maya city of Lakamha along with the yaupon holly bush, Maya traders must have been fairly familiar with the geological resources of the Lower Southeast for a long time.   They would have needed a chain of safe harbors along the Florida Gulf Coast to pull their big freight canoes into at night and during storms.  That, in turn, would have required a chain of treaties or military actions.

Maya Blue was being used at the massive cities of Teotihuacan and Cholula long before the Mayas made it.  Teotihuacan was occupied between around 250 BC and 750 AD.  It is quite possible that the Olmec Civilization (1500 BC – 500 BC)  used it before Teotihuacan.  There are no sources of attapulgite in the main portion of Mexico.  Thus, it is quite possible that the traders of the Olmec or Central Mexico traveled to SW Georgia long before the Mayas did.

Lakamha was founded at some point in the Late Formative Period (400 BC –  250 AD).  Its early stages have never been excavated.  Its written history dates from around 450 AD.  Its existence as a major city dates from around 580 AD to 800 AD.  Thus, we can be certain that Maya traders were coming to the Southeast as early as 580 AD.  Around 800 AD the mega-volcano El Chichon erupted in Chiapas, causing the abandonment of Lakamaha and a massive diaspora of the Itza People.

Mexican anthropologists have never been able to determine where most of the Itza went.  The Itza capture of Chichen about 100 years later does not account for most of the population loss.  Thus,  around 800 AD is a likely time when the first significant bands of Itza refugees began arriving in North America.  The Kennimer Mound in Northeast Georgia is the earliest structure to display Itza architectural traditions.  It has not been radiocarbon dated, but there are Napier Culture potsherds on the surface, which suggests a 750-850 AD construction date.

There was a wave of towns with Mesoamerican characteristics being founded in the Southeast between around 900 AD and 1050 AD.   The region around Lake Okeechobee, Florida exploded with population around 900 AD.  The first settlement on the Ocmulgee Acropolis was about that time.  Around 990 AD,  towns with Mesoamerican-Mississippian traits were founded  on the Etowah River in NW Georgia,  at Ichese on the Ocmulgee River and in Bessemer, Alabama.

What archaeologists will need to determine is the precise date when shell tempered, plain redware pottery first appeared in the Southeast.  This is what Maya commoners made exclusively.  It has been precisely dated at Ocmulgee National Monument at 900 AD.  My suspicion is that older redware will be found in the vicinity of Savannah, if someone can find an undisturbed town site from that era.

There was a second wave of towns being abandoned and founded in the Lower Southeast between 1150 AD and 1200 AD.  This coincides with widespread attacks by Chichimec barbarians in Central Mexico and the defeat of Chichen Itza by Mayapan in the Yucatan Peninsula.  The hybrid Maya population of Tamaulipas was completely driven out of Mexico.  Tamualipas is an Itza word.  This period seems to mark the final large scale immigration from Mesoamerica and the Caribbean Basin into southeastern North America.

The last and perhaps, smallest wave of Mesoamerican immigration into the Southeast would have occurred around 1300-1400 AD.  This is the migration described in the Migration Legend of the Kaushita People.   Aztec armies launched multiple invasions of the descendants of the Toltec Civilization in East-Central Mexico. At least some of the survivors headed northward to the Mississippi River Valley and the Southeastern United States.

Using corn as a measuring stick

An alternative approach would be to assume the arrival of maize (American corn) as a datum point for Mesoamerican contacts with North America.  Primitive maize pollen was found in southeastern Alabama that was radiocarbon dated to around 1200 BC.

Archaeologist William Sears calculated the radiocarbon date of the initial cultivation of improved corn varieties at Fort Center to be around 850 BC or earlier.   It was cultivated in raised beds composed of improved soil.   Corn does not grow well in the natural soils of Southern Florida.  The Seminole Tribe must grow its feed corn in northwestern Florida or buy it from elsewhere.

Large scale corn cultivation appeared at Ocmulgee National Monument at least as early as 900 AD, but surprisingly few radiocarbon dates have been taken there.  Researchers may find older dates farther down stream on the Ocmulgee River or near Savannah.


It will be awhile for the Apalache Foundation will be able to carry out significant research into the “Maya Chronology” question.  We still have not begun to understand the Apalache Culture, which began in the Woodland Period, but was synonymous with the “Lower Creeks” by the 1730s.   The Apalache Culture obviously originated with immigration by Panoan peoples from eastern Peru.  Swift Creek Stamped Pottery in Georgia and Late Formative Period Conibo Stamped Pottery  in Peru were pretty much the same. Somewhere in the time after the Swift Creek Culture declined,  Itza Maya cultural traditions began blending with the old traditions.  When is the question.



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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.



    Hi Richard
    I remember an earlier article about the origin of the Maya blue paint pigment coming from along the Chattahoochee River right?
    Also the area along the northwest Florida coast was known as Amixchel place of the Mayan moon goddess so the Mayan traders or some colonists or both definitely were here though there doesn’t seem to have been a physical trace left by them.
    But to change the subject to an exciting announcement on the local Pensacola news last night & on front page of the local newspaper this morning with lots of color pictures (see todays Pensacola News Journal or online at the site of Tristan de Luna’s settlement of 1599 has really finally been found in a local neighborhood overlooking the sites offshore where of two of the wrecks from Luna’s fleet are located. Shards of pottery, majolica, venetian glass beads, pieces of metal, etc. Even broken pieces of Aztec made pottery as Luna brought 500 Aztecs with him along with the Spanish colonists from Veracruz. The colony was hit by a hurricane two weeks after its landing & most of the fleet was destroyed along with food & supplies which pretty much doomed its becoming a long term colony (it ended in 1561). The survivors went back to Veracruz on the ships sent to rescue them but one wonders if some of the Aztecs or Spanish simply drifted off into the woods & joined up with the local tribes. Have fun reading the article, everyone around here is celebrating even the folks in the residential neighborhood where the university’s archaeologists are now starting to dig.

    • I DID NOT know that there were 500 Aztecs with Tristan de Luna! Leaving a group of Aztecs in the Southeast could have had radical effects on local cultures.
      Thanks for telling me this.

      Yes . . . the only major source of attapulgate for Maya Blue is in SW Georgia and just across the state line in Florida. And yes . . . the Native American name for that part of the Gulf Coast was Am Ixchel, which means “Place of the (goddess) Ixchel.


    Richard, It is noted by Columbus (Colon) that the people of the Gulf of Mexico did have very large ships, one carrying over 200 people sited in his second voyage to the Americas. The very large pine trees of North Florida (wider than most cars and over 100 ft. tall) would have been possibly used in making a Catamaran type ship of that size.
    It is believed that the “Tamil” people of India invented that type of sea faring ship long ago. One part of that type of ship was discovered in the Tampa / St Pete. area and is proof that type of ship was used in the Gulf of Mexico before the arrival of the Spanish. The people of Polynesian islands also used that type of ship to sail the vast Pacific Ocean.

    • Yes, for sure they had sailboats the size of Viking longships. They were built out of planks like the longships also. It is conceivable that rafts could have been built too. If I am not mistaken De Soto saw war canoes on the Mississippi River with 60+ crewment


        Clearly the “Itza” of the Yucatan people do appear to have arrived in the Southeast US around 900’s AD but based on carbon tests perhaps the classic “Maya” cites had ended by late 700’s not the 900’s AD as original thought. That would explain the first migrations from Mexico and central America mounds starting in the 850’s in the Southeast. Then perhaps a migration from Peru of the “Chisa” maybe called “Itza/ Itsa” by the Maya and the “Apalacha” who you have noted wore the same style of hat arrived in Georgia later in the 900-1000’s after being pushed out by the Mayapan people of the Yucatan.
        The Itza people arrived by boats according to one of “Maya” codex’s and left by boats and if they controlled the Yucatan, a route around Florida to the Altamaha, Savannah, rivers using the “Gulf steam” would fit with the statements of the Apalacha first arriving on the Atlantic seaboard. Keep up the Great work Richard.

        • The Apalache arrived much earlier than the Itza, but according to the migration legends, the Uchee were long established when the Apalache arrived. Apalache is the Anglicization of a Panoan (Peruvian) word. The Apalache had already moved inland when the Itza arrived, and established a powerful kingdom in the Piedmont.


    Me again,
    I misread the article,, it was 200 Aztec warriors or mercenaries depending on who you read. There were also a number of farmers from Tlaxcala whom De Luna planned to have farming the land & curiously a woman from Coosa is mentioned (how did she get to Mexico?) A number of African slaves who I guess belonged to the Spanish colonists families. At that time the area here was called Ochuse, the expedition arrived in about eleven ships in mid August 1559 & the hurricane that hit was on 19 September 1559. Seven of the ships sank in the bay, 2 have been found. One had already gone back to Veracruz before the hurricane came. Most of the supplies they brought with them from Mexico were destroyed by the hurricane & the locals were already wary of the Spanish so De Luna sent some of his men into the area of Alabama where De Soto had already reported villages with lots of food. The villages they found were deserted, people all gone, & little food to be found so by the time rescue came from Mexico people were dying with a bay full of fish & woods full of game. The Spanish were not good at living off the land apparently. The soil was too sandy to grow corn & other crops. Good soil is many miles inland. So that’s why the colony failed & ended in 1561. Marcie

    • The woman from Kusa was the only survivor of 200 hostages that De Soto abducted in chains as they were leaving the town. De Soto figured that the Kusa soldiers would not attack his little army if so many members of their elite were in its midst.


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