Was Mexican archaeologist Román Piña Chán right about a connection between the Creek Indians and the Olmec Civilization?

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner

This is a follow-up article to the introductory article on the “One Summer In Mexico Series, published on June 14, 2020.

The short answer is “Absolutely.” Keep in mind that way back then my only knowledge about my Creek heritage were a few Itsate Creek words for animals and plants that I had learned from my Uncle Hal. They were not Muskogee Creek words (Northeast Mexico & Europe) but, in fact, came from southern Mexico and Peru, but I wouldn’t know that until the 21st century.

Site 9FU14 around 200 BC

Background

When I was a college student the textbooks said that the oldest mounds and pottery were in Ohio. Anthropologists also gave the Hopewell People credit for starting the first gardens.  The same textbooks said that the Hopewell People moved west to Cahokia and became the first people to grow corn on a large scale and also the builders of the first ceremonial mounds.  From Cahokia the “Mississippian Culture” spread southward and southeastward.  Of course, this is all fiction, but any archeologist or anthropology professor, who back then said otherwise faced the wrath of his or her profession.

When Louisiana’s highly respected archaeologist, William C. Haag, obtained a radiocarbon date of 3545 BC for the Bilbo Mound and dates of around 2500-2100 BC for several other nearby mounds in Savannah, his peers made sure that the public didn’t know about it.  That information would totally discredit the anthropology profession’s religious belief that all good things come from the North and then spread southward.

After four decades of working in the Southeast, Harvard graduate, Dr. Arthur Kelly had become convinced that actually, advanced indigenous culture had flowed from south to north, but the scarcity of radiocarbon dates in the Southeast made that theory hard to prove at that time.  

Kelly had also found ceramics in the Chattahoochee River Basin that he believed had been either produced in Mexico or were copies of artifacts produced in Mexico.  When Kelly announced these discoveries via a feature article by Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer, John S. Pennington, his peers in the Southeast were outraged.  There were multiple demands for him to be fired from his position at the University of Georgia.

I prepared an ink on mylar site plan of the 9FU14 village site on the Chattahoochee River for Dr. Kelly in the spring of 1969.   In June of 1969 Kelly asked me to check out reports that Utoy Creek had cut through a previously unknown mound at 9FU14.  Accompanying me was Susan Muse, who was an art student at Young Harris College and also a Creek descendant.  While there, we observed a senior member of the 9FU14 archaeological team plant a stone hoe in the main mound.  The hoe had originally been unearthed by Kelly at the Manville Site, on the Chattahoochee River in southwest Georgia.  It had been stolen covertly from the Laboratory of Archaeology at the University of Georgia. 

The next day, the person who planted the stolen artifact, claimed to unearthed the hoe.  He then held a press conference to announce that he had found proof that 9FU14 was the oldest agricultural village in the United States.  A day later, some UGA archaeology professors miraculously recognized that the hoe was from the Manville Site and demanded that Dr. Kelly be arrested.  Keep in mind that the laboratory stored hundreds of stone hoes!

Testimony from Susan and I protected Dr. Kelly from being arrested.  However, he was forced to resign from the faculty in December 1969 anyway,  exactly six months before I landed in Mexico.  Yes, Dr. Kelly’s endorsement played a major role in me being awarded the fellowship.

The events of July 6, 1970

For several days, I had been visiting the Museo Nacional de Antropologia without official guidance.  On July 6,  Dr. Román Piña Chán and Dr. Ignacio Bernal, Director of the Instituto Nacional de Anthropologia E Historia led me on a tour of all six levels of the museum.  The public only sees one level.  Bernal was only with us for about five minutes, when he realized that I was not from a wealthy family, was just a student and was just beginning to understand Spanish.  He looked at his watch, uttered “idiotas” and walked away, never to be seen again. 

Dr. Piña Chán and his graduate assistant, Alejandra, were very kind and began teaching me the key architectural and archaeological words I would need to know in Spanish. Alexandra had attended a university in Texas and acted as a translator when Dr. Piña Chán didn’t know a particular English word.  I was particularly interested in the model shop, where architecture students were building models of Pre-Columbian and Colonial Period structures. 

At the end of the tour, I presented the famous archaeologist two books on the Southeastern Indians then we sat down briefly in the outer offices of the museum to discuss the research syllabus, prepared by Georgia Tech professors. Dr. Piña Chán asked me if I wanted to be a tourist or learn how to analyze and reconstruct ancient structures.   I answered . . . the latter option.  He then tossed my syllabus into the trash can and told me that Alexandra would prepare a new one that I could pick up the next day.  He wanted me to see sites that had never been excavated, sites under excavation by archaeologists and site under various stages of restoration.

I meandered around the new exhibits in the lobby of the museum for awhile then exited to the entrance plaza to await the next bus headed to the main Metro station in El Centro. 

A couple of minutes later, I heard Alexandra yelling my name as she raced across the plaza.  Dr. Piña Chán had seen some interesting things in those two book I gave him.  He was inviting me to join him for lunch in his office to discuss the books.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was becoming one of the most important days in my life.

Alexandra first took me into the Public Relations Office.  Dr. Piña Chán wanted me to have INAH credentials so I could study areas of archeological zones that were off-limits to tourists.  She then escorted me into the inner sanctum of the museum.  Extraordinary . . . I was entering the office of one of the most famous archaeologists in the world.  A secretary soon rolled in on a cart, three meals from the museum cafeteria.

Piña Chán used the Socratic Method of teaching in which most topics were presented as questions.  He did this so much so that he often appeared to be talking with himself.

Román Piña Chán

As he thumbed through Sun Circles and Human Hands, the first question he asked me was why the Indians in Georgia made marble statues of Maya slaves?  He was referring to the famous marble statues of Etowah Mounds, but I couldn’t answer.   Actually, I couldn’t answer most of his questions.  That was Piña Chán’s way of telling me what I needed to study . . . like in the 21st century, in my case. LOL

First, before we go any further, let me explain that the predominant pottery made by commoners in southern Mexico was shell-tempered, plain Redware.  Redware shards literally cover the ground in the suburbs of Maya cities.   Plain shell-tempered Redware also became common in Georgia after around 900 AD.  HOWEVER, since these ceramics are plain, they are seldom seen in either Mexican or North American archeology books and museums.  The major exception to this rule is the museum at Ocmulgee National Historical Park.  So, Dr. Piña Chán would not have known what Arthur Kelly knew . . . that shell-tempered pottery first appeared on the Gulf Coast about the same time that pyramidal ceremonial mounds appeared then spread northward into the remainder of the lower Southeast.

In summarizing his questions into statements, Dr. Piña Chán described the tools, weapons, towns and architecture of the Creek Indians as being quite similar to that of the descendants of the Olmec Civilization, who were not actually Olmecs.  Even then, Mexican archaeologists knew that the Olmecs did not arrive in southern Mexico until around 1200 AD.

He stated that the check stamp, Swift Creek, Etowah Stamped and Lamar styles of pottery were not typical of Mexico.   He said that those styles came from very far away, but was not specific.  We now know that the Archaic and Early Woodland pottery styles of Georgia are very similar to those of the Beaker Culture in Bronze Age Europe.  Check Stamp and Complicated Stamp pottery styles came from Peru, but were ultimately introduced by the first advanced Polynesians, the Lapita Culture.  Traditional Conibo clothing today in Peru is identical to Swift Creek pottery designs at Georgia archaeological sites, particularly in northeast Georgia.

Dr. Piña Chán theorized that Creek Culture in Georgia was the result of Mesoamerican males from southern Mexico, but not the “Classical” Maya cities, mixing with women from older arrivals to the Southeast.  The southern Mexican cultures were the descendants of the Olmec Civilization, but were peripheral participants in the Maya Civilization.

He had a very different explanation of Moundville, Alabama and the towns along the Mississippi River Basin.   Amazingly, I still remember the moment when he shifted his discussion to Moundville, stood up then turned around to grab from his bookshelf . . . the landmark book that he wrote on the Toltec Civilization.   It was surrealistic.   Few anthropology students (even in Mexico) get opportunities like that, much less, a Gringo architecture student from Georgia.

He was able to match the artistic traditions in Moundville to the artistic traditions in Tula, the capital of the Toltecs. Symbols on the  Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl in Tula could be found on the pottery of Moundville . . . amazing!  He noticed that the pottery of Moundville was very similar to the pottery made by Toltec commoners. 

Dr. Piña Chán then theorized that bands of male and female Toltec commoners led by priests fled the collapse of the Toltec civilization, sailed across the Gulf of Mexico then paddled up the Mobile River to the Black Warrior River to found villages in northwestern Alabama.  He speculated that bands of both Toltec and Totonac commoners paddled up the Mississippi River to found tribes and towns in the Lower Mississippi River Basin.  We did not discuss Cahokia.

Fact Check!

My research over the past 8 years has supported Dr. Piña Chán’s theories 100%.   All of the Creek and Miccosukee migration legends began in the part of Mexico, where the Olmec Civilization thrived.  Many of the symbols of the original Olmec writing system can be found in the art of Etowah Mounds and in the Apalachete (Creek) writing system. Both the tribes of southern Mexico and the Creeks had a tradition of building a round chokopa (council house) in each village.  Only in the Mexican state of Tabasco do you find tribes that eat corn on the cob, celebrate the New Year at the Summer Solstice, eat grits, hushpuppies and hominy, plus dance the Stomp Dance. The Tamulte People near Villahermosa, Tabasco can carry on conversations with the Miccosukee, even though they have been separated for 800 years. Most of the Creek words having to do with architecture, town planning, government, trade, writing and streams are the same or derived from Itza Maya words.  The Creek words for streams and rivers,  hawche and haw, are the Itza Maya words for the same.   

Yes, Chattahoochee is the Anglicization of two Itza Maya words, T’cha-ta and Hawche.  That was the irony of the crazy events of 2012,  US Forest Service personnel from the Chattahoochee National Forest lavishly funded a propaganda program called, “Maya Myth-busting in the Mountains.”  LOL 

The Revised Syllabus

Dr. Piña Chán and Alejandra set up a syllabus that would totally immerse me in Mexican culture and history.  I was to travel to the various cultural regions in Common Carrier buses, not English-speaking tourist buses for Gringos.  I was to spend my nights in posadas that catered to Mexican clientele.   I was to visit ruins that few, if any, tourists ever saw.   Of course, I saw the big, famous Mesoamerican cities too, but seeing piles of rocks that had not been restored by architects would help me “know one when I found one” in Georgia.  The rest is history. 

When I would return to Mexico City,  Dr. Piña Chán would generally schedule another working lunch and invite other graduate students to attend.  I would show my slides.  Then we would discuss and debate in mixed Spanish and English, what I had seen the previous week.

This extraordinary experience will now be shared with you the readers.  It will not just be archaeology, but humor, romance, the natural environment,  politics, cultural traditions and fiestas all mixed together in a learning process.  Like the time, my hotel maid in Merida tried repeatedly to persuade me to shack up with her 16-year-old daughter-prostitute for free?   Yes, even that.

Oh, did I mention that Román Piña Chán’s mother was full-blooded Maya and that he grew up in the State of Campeche on the Yucatan Peninsula? Now whose opinion on this matter would you trust? One of the world’s greatest archaeologists or Thelma Lu McGillicudy, a US Forest Service Public Relations officer, who grew up in Sodom Hollow, North Carolina?

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