by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner
One Summer in Mexico – Part Three
Tuesday, June 30, 1970
Museo Nacional de Antropologia de México
Despite what most TV documentaries tell you, the Olmecs had nothing to do with the Olmec Civilization. In fact, they arrived on the southern Gulf Coast of Mexico about 1,500 years after the end of the “Olmec” Civilization. The depredations by the Olmecs caused bands of descendants of the so-called Olmec Civilization to migrate northward into the present-day Southeastern United States.
Oh, there is something else . . . according the Kaushete Migration Legend (aka Creek Migration Legend), the Sacred Fires on Dance Grounds of the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma today, were first kindled at the top of the Orizaba Volcano in Veracruz State, Mexico.
The Tabasco Connection
Prior to the orientation meeting with Dr. Román Piña-Chan, I had already gone through the Sala Olmeca or Olmec Room of the national museum on an earlier visit. I thought that the stone sculptures and ceramics of the Olmec Civilization were really interesting. Their architecture looked no different than the architecture of Mississippian Culture in the Southeastern United States. What Mexican archaeologists called earthen pyramids; Gringo archaeologists called “mounds.” However, in his lunch session with me, Dr. Piña-Chan had discerned a strong cultural connection between the culturally advanced peoples living on the Gulf Coast of Mexico and the ancestors of the Creeks in Georgia.
Dr. Piña-Chan also told me that Mexican archaeologists now knew that the Olmecs were nowhere around when the Olmec Civilization was flowering. The civilization had actually been discovered around 1910 by pioneer Mexican archaeologist, Leopoldo Batres, and presented to an international archaeological conference in Paris in 1914. However, this was at the height of the Mexican Revolution and just before the beginning of World War I. Batres labeled his sites, La Cultura Madre (Mother Culture) and did not assign in ethnicity to it, but assumed that these people were the ancestors of the Mayas.
Dr. Piña-Chan stated that the Zoque had always claimed to have been the progenitors of the first civilization in Mexico – first in Tepotzlan, Morelos and then in southern Mexico. He thought perhaps they were right, but North American archaeologists seemed to know little about them. The Gringos called the mysterious civilization, Olmec. That’s where my notes end on that subject.
I did go back into the Sala Olmeca and look more closely at the not-really-Olmec art. Knowing very little about my own heritage in Georgia, I didn’t really see a connection. However, in passing through the hallway that connected the Sala Olmeca with other Gulf Coast cultures, I noticed an ethnological exhibit that explained the origin the Mexican pyramids. Most of the Mesoamerican cultures believed that their gods lived on high mountains, in particular, volcanoes. The Zoque believed that most of their deities lived on top of the Orizaba Volcano. Mexican archaeologists theorized that the ancient ones put the houses and temples of their priests on man-made mountains to symbolize their closeness to being gods.
Putting the pieces together in the 21st century
When Dr. Piña-Chan wrote his landmark book on this ancient civilization in 1964, he called it, Los Olmecas: La Cultura Madre, so both Mexicans and people of other nations would know who he was talking about. Ignacio Bernal produced a slicker, coffee-table type book, full of large format photos, for sale in both Spanish and English, before and during the 1968 Olympics. It was called, El Mundo Olmeca, which means “The Olmec World.” In the English version, he didn’t tell readers that the Olmecs had nothing to do with the Olmec Civilization. Another chapter of false Native American history was carved into stone, from there on.
Batres died in 1926 then a North American archaeologist continued his work in Vera Cruz in 1928. He was Marshall Saville, but his name was not in my notes from that day. Saville called his sites, Olmec, not La Cultura Madre, because Olmec Indians still lived in the region and they were known as rubber farmers. Another archaeologist, Mathew Stirling, who was with the Smithsonian Institute, started digging at these sites in 1938.
Stirling was unable to return to La Venta until 1942, due to World War II. When he did, he was to excavate several important artifacts. He then left for Tuxtla Gutiérrez to attend a conference on the Maya and Olmec cultures, one that was to become a defining moment in modern ideas about the Olmec. It was here that Miguel Covarrubias and Dr. Alfonso Caso presented the case for the Olmec Civilization as being the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica, pre-dating even the Maya. Stirling followed in the speaking order and endorsed the hypothesis that Caso and Covarrubias had presented.
However, when Stirling got to the states, he minimized the decades of research by Mexican archaeologists and increasingly presented himself as “the discoverer of the Olmec Civilization.” He even distributed publicity photos of him standing next to large stone altars and “Olmec Heads,” that actually had been excavated by Mexican archaeologists. Stirling had excavated some altars and heads, but not all of them. Nevertheless, the ploy worked, he received funding to work in MesoAmerica for the next three decades. He died of cancer in 1975.
The Creek Connection
After finding the “lost” original copy of the “Kaushete (Creek) Migration Legend” in April 2015, I began transcribing it and soon was astonished. The story begins on the slopes of one of the highest volcanoes in Mexico, which is near the Gulf Coast. A red-tinted river flowed off this volcano to the Gulf of Mexico. That could only be the Orizaba Volcano and the Yamapo River. I suspect that the original name of this peoples was the Tekesta. The Tekesta were a tall Toltec tribe that was persecuted by Teotihuacan and sacrificed to the point of extermination by the Mexica (Aztecs).
The ancestors of the Kaushete were persecuted by an aggressive people from the north, who liked to sacrifice children on a mountain and then fed their “gods” the flesh of the children. That was probably Teotihuacan. They then migrated to the Mississippi River Basin where they lived among the ancestors of the Choctaw. They missed their mountainous homeland and so eventually migrated eastward until they arrived at the Appalachians. The Migration Legend describes the formation of the first People of One Fire or Creek Confederacy. It was composed of four peoples migrating eastward, the Kaushete, the Chickasaw, the Alabama and the Apeke (Abeika). The four allies chose the fire of the Kaushete as the source of their sacred, ceremonial fire. It began on the slopes of Orizaba.
The Kusa allowed them to settle in southeast Tennessee, where they stayed until a drought drove them into the Southern Appalachians in search of food. They eventually migrated southward into the Georgia Mountains, where there was more rain and food. At this point, they became the sister tribe for the Cowetas.
Archaeology seems to bear out the Kaushete legend. Archaeologists, working at Hiwassee Island, Tennessee were surprised to find a style of pottery unlike any other in North America. It was a checker board pattern, called “Red-on-buff. The only other place where this style of pottery is found in the western borderlands of Veracruz, near the Orizaba volcano!
The Miccosukee (Soque) Migration Legend begins in Tabasco State, Mexico and specifically states that they were the descendants of the first civilization in Mexico. Most of their gods lived on the Orizaba or El Chichon Volcanoes. Their ancestors fled from the region when a powerful people from the north, probably the Nahua-speaking Olmecs, conquered their land and began sacrificing their children.
The Soque fled along the edge of the Gulf of Mexico taking the Great White Path that was used by the Kaushete a couple of centuries earlier. With them went bands of the Itzate and Cho’i-te Mayas. Eventually, their priests were told by their gods to head north up the Chattahoochee River until they reached its headwaters. Here their gods were waiting for them on a high cone-shaped mountain that had smoke coming out of it, but not much fire. At the foot of this mountain, they built their new capital. The location is now called Batesville, GA.
Now you know!