Who actually lived on the South Atlantic Coast?
The South Atlantic Coast is the ONLY location in North America in which detailed and multiple descriptions of ethnic names, village names and customs in the 16th century survive. Beginning with the slave raid in 1521 by Francisco Gordillo and Pedro de Quejo, and continuing with the nautical log of Verrazano, the detailed observations of Captain René de Laudonnière, the journal of Captain Juan Pardo and the a voluminous book by Richard Hakluyt in 1588, there is a treasure trove of ethnological evidence.
And yet . . . late 20th century anthropologists were content to give English names to some pottery styles and “cultural phases” then move on. There has been no effort by archaeologists since then to find the village sites mentioned by Gordillo, de Laudonnière, Pedro Menendez, Juan Pardo and Sir Francis Drake or even the ruins of large Native American towns, visited by William Bartram in 1776 on the Georgia coast. Until POOF came along, no one seems to even thought about translating the hundreds of words that René de Laudonnière and Juan Pardo’s secretary left us.
This is the first of a series of articles on the peoples who occupied the South Atlantic Coast, when contact was first made with Europeans in the 1500s. We will begin in the next article at the mouths of the Pee Dee and Santee Rivers then work our way south to Key West, Florida.
All translations in this series are from published dictionaries, most of which are available online to the public.
The answers to our question will often fly in the face of orthodox history. During the 20th century, academicians defined the Pre-European past of the South Atlantic Coast in a framework defined by modern, federally-recognized tribes. Discrete sections of the coast were labeled tribal names, as often as not originally created by the Spanish conquerors. The presumption was that one ethnic group, speaking one language, inhabited each district. René de Laudonnière’s description of many provinces, speaking several languages was forgotten. William Bartram’s description of seeing the ruins of several large Native American towns with mounds, plazas and ball courts was forgotten. In general, the cultures of the region were “dumbed down” to that of primitive hunter-gatherers.
There is one question that cannot be answered finitely at this time: “Were there European colonists on the South Atlantic Coast before Columbus?” We have eyewitness accounts from the 1500s and 1600s that say, yes. We have the discovery by archaeologist, James Ford, of bronze weapons and tools deep beneath the surface of the banks of the Altamaha River in Georgia. We have the map from the Verrazano voyage, which labels two towns with Nordic names somewhere in the vicinity of the Georgia or northern Florida coast. However, without professional archaeologists confirming a European settlement in the region, the answer must remain, “possible, but not proven.”
There are two bits of linguistic evidence that are particular troubling. The Savannah River Uchee, the Muskogee Creeks and the pre-Celtic Bronze Age people of northwestern Europe all used the same word for water . . . roughly “oue”. Why?
Then there’s the fact that the Panoans of the Amazon headwaters in South America and Scandinavians have similar meanings for the word, “bo” . . . meaning living or living location. How could that be?
Using linguistics as an analytical tool
Most of the indigenous languages of the Americas are agglutinative, which means that many complex thoughts and proper nouns were originally assembled from two or more other words. About ten years ago, I figured out that most ethnic names in the Lower Southeast were agglutinative and ended either with the word for people in various languages or the Northeast Mexican/Muskogean suffix for “offspring of” – se/si – which most Europeans wrote down as “che.” Even today, there are quite a few old villages in Tamaulipas State, Mexico, whose name was composed of a Muskogean root word combined with “che.”
Word of warning . . . there are dozens of Arawak dialects, most of whom are not mutually intelligible.
The common South Atlantic suffixes for “people” are”:
- Te – Itsate Maya, Itsate Creek, Koasati, Miccosukee
- Le or tli – Northeastern Mexico, Coastal Muskogean
- Qui or ke – Southern Arawak, Muskogee
- Kau – Amazon Arawaks
- Go, Goa, Coa – Tupi, Amazon Arawaks
- Cora, cola, curo – Peruvian, Apalache
- Joni – Shipibo
- Ara – Taino Arawak
- Aro – Carib
- Ye – Catawba, Southern Siouan
- Ya – Uchee
The common South Atlantic suffixes for “living place of” are:
- Bo – Panoan
- Hica, haica – Arawak
- Pa, Po & Pas – Itza and Tabasco Maya
- Yara – Taino Arawak
Other common suffixes were:
- Haw (Itza Maya) – River
- Aha, Ahaw (Itza Maya, Itsate Creek) – Lord
- Hatchee, hachee (Muskogean) – river or stream
- Iswa (Catabaw) – River
- Hi (Totonac, Itza Maya, Itsate Creek) – added to root verb to make a noun, especially a proper noun
- Chiki (Totonac, Itza Maya, Itsate Creek) – house
- Mako (Totonac, Itza Maya, Itsate Creek) – king
- Meko (Muskogee) – king
- T’ulamako & Ulamako (Itza Maya, Itsate Creek) – capital
- Talwameko & Talimeko (Muskogee) – capital
- Si, Se or Che (Muskogean) – Off spring of, satellite village of
Common prefixes were:
- Oue, Ue or We (Uchee, Muskogee, pre-Celtic Europe) – Water
- Oka (Itsate Creek) – Water
- A (Panoan, Highland Apalache) – From
- Para or pala (Panoan, Highland Apalache) – ocean, water
- Ana (Southern Arawak, Florida Apalache) – elite, rulers
- Ye (Southern Souian) – People
This is a very powerful tool for determining ethnicity of a word. Once you know from which language the suffix is, it is much easier to pinpoint the right dictionary for looking up the root word.
One also has to watch out for Anglicized consonant shifts. I am forever running into people, who start with Anglicized Native American words and then use them in an attempt to prove that someone other than indigenous Americans built the mounds. Europeans typically wrote down a Southeastern indigenous V and B as a P, plus an indigenous T as a D. The Spanish and English could interpret a Muskogean V sound (sounds like Ah! in English) as either a U, A, O or I.
One of many surprises
Here is an example of the many surprises that you will learn in future articles of this series: Southeastern anthropologists and historians have, for unknown reasons, placed the Province of Chicora in the northeastern corner of South Carolina and labeled them “Siouans.” Guess what the South Carolina Siouan word is for the Uchee living along the Lower Savannah River? Chicora!
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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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