by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner
One Summer In Mexico – Part 47
What’s your guess? Are the photos from the coastal region of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana or Texas? Actually, these are the tidal marshes of Tabasco State in southern Mexico, where Mesoamerica’s first large scale civilization appeared. I was astounded the first time I saw them. I had taken a third class bus to get to them from the ruins of the city of La Venta . . . just to get a glimpse of the Gulf of Mexico. Instead, I saw a landscape identical to where I had been born . . . in Southeast Georgia.
This started me wondering. If the landscape was so similar between the South Atlantic Coast of the US and the Gulf Coast of Mexico, could not have this been a natural attraction for bands of Mesoamericans wanting to migrate to new lands?
In the revised research syllabus that Dr. Román Piña Chán had prepared for me, he allocated only one week for all of the states of Tabasco, Chiapas and southern tip of Veracruz. That included the city of Palenque in Chiapas, which we now know looms extremely important in the appearance of advanced culture in the Southeastern United States. Fortunately, I lingered a day longer in Chiapas than allocated, in order to visit the ruins of Tonina . . . in the process seeing agricultural terrace complexes that are identical to those in Georgia.
We have already published in this series three articles on the so-called Olmec Civilization. The remainder of the articles on southern Mexico will be a little different than those on other sections of Mexico. Dr. Piña Chán wrote the landmark book on the Olmec Civilization . . . La Cultura Madre. It is the only major publication on this subject that tells the truth. The Olmecas had no connection with the Olmec Civilization. The name was the result of a misinterpretation of archaeological data by North American archaeologist, Mathew Stirling.
I now have a far greater understanding of the origins and peoples of the “Olmec” Civilization than Dr. Piña Chán had, but that understanding has only been reached since 2012. So, this portion of the series on Mexico, will be based primarily on recent research, not what I was taught on the fellowship in Mexico.
We now know that the indigenous peoples of Louisiana and Georgia were far more advanced than those in Mexico, until the arrival of newcomers from afar in southern Mexico. Georgia had pottery for 1500 years before it appeared in eastern Mexico. The impetus for civilization in southern Mexico came from a band of Paracusa coneheads from Peru and Bronze Age explorers from northwestern Europe. The development of these initial sparks was due to the skills of the local indigenous peoples in agriculture.
Life goes in circles
Before diving into the indigenous Mesoamerican cultures, which spawned the Creek Indian Confederacy and gave me indigenous DNA, we will look back at a timeline of the key events of the past five decades. A great deal of information has been passed on in the previous 46 articles.
My interest in Mesoamerica arose from the series of articles on the Maya Civilization, published by National Geographic Magazine, while I was in high school. Most of the photos and many of the articles were by archaeologist-photographer George Stuart. As a high school student, Stuart had worked at the Etowah Mounds dig one summer, under the direction of archaeologist Arthur Kelly.
My interest in Southeastern archaeology began when as a sophomore architecture student, I prepared a site plan of a Native village on the Chattahoochee River for Arthur Kelly. Eight months later, Kelly was forced out of the University of Georgia because he publicly announced the discovery of Mesoamerican style artifacts on the Chattahoochee River. Nine months later, his endorsement clinched me being awarded a fellowship to study Pre-Columbian architecture in Mexico under one of the world’s most respected archaeologists, Dr. Roman Piña Chán.
August 1970 was probably the most emotionally and intellectually intensive month in my entire life. I was repeatedly exposed to large amounts of information and moral dilemmas. Seemingly insignificant events would have great importance later on.
For example, a young couple from Mobile, AL and I hung out together at Palenque in the Chiapas Highlands. They were David and Linda Schele. It was the first time at Palenque for all of us. David was an architecture professor, who had been awarded a grant to photograph Maya architecture. Linda was an art student. David took the only surviving photo of me in the Maya country. I held Linda as she leaned over to photograph the ornate stone lid on the tomb of a Maya king . . . deep at the base of a Maya pyramid. We briefly chatted with George Stuart, who was photographing bas relief stone tablets in the courtyard of the palace. He never mentioned to us that he was the man, who wrote all those famous articles in National Geo.
Linda was so impressed by Palenque that she shifted to getting a degree in Anthropology. She developed a friendship with George Stuart and his son, David. David and Linda were the principal scholars, who cracked the Maya writing system. So, today Wikipedia provides a list of Palenque’s kings and a detailed account of the city’s history.
George Stuart purchased a farm near Barnardsville, NC, which was just over the mountain from our farm. In 1983, he stopped by our farm to make photos for a book on the Appalachian Mountains. He never even mentioned that he was a National Geo archaeologist, when we chatted for hours about my experiences in Mexico. We went on to become friends. It was George who persuaded me to move my architecture practice and goat cheese creamery to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Life had gone full circle.
Being part of a social revolution
Throughout that first time in Mexico, I was caught up in social change . . . specifically, the rapidly evolving norms for young women. At the time, all of the world’s birth control pills were being made from the Mexican wild sweet potato, which is almost identical to the Southeastern wild sweet potato. For perhaps 2000, years both Creek and Maya women had used an extract of this plant for a very effective birth control potion and in stronger doses. to induce spontaneous abortions.
My girl friend, Alicia was almost 20, but was treated by her extended family like she was 16. Nevertheless, she pitched a major bruhaha just before my 21st birthday, because she said I was treating her like a Barbie Doll instead of a “real” woman. Specifically, she was having trouble sleeping at night, because I was making out with her and leaving her “unfinished,” after I left her house at curfew time. The reality was that it was illegal for a doctor in Mexico to prescribe birth control for an unmarried woman under 21 and she could not be alone with me after curfew time anyway. In her family, women were expected to be virgins until married, while young men were expected to begin patronizing brothels at age 16.
A few days after the tantrum, I found myself in the Hotel Gran in Merida, Yucatan with a maid, who was frantically and repeatedly trying to persuade me to shack up with her 16 year old daughter then take her along on my remaining travels in Mexico. In all fairness, to what would be an illegal and immoral situation in the USA, 16 was the age of consent in Mexico and the girl looked like Miss Universe and about 20 years old. The girl had actually picked me out when I first registered in the hotel and asked her mother to arrange for me to be her “first” man. Afterward, I learned from a retired British professor that it was the norm among Maya girls that they become sexually active at puberty and that societal standards stated that their “man” should be at least five years old than them.
On several occasions in Campeche, Quintana Roo and Guatemala, I stayed in guest huts. At every location I was offered either their daughters, nieces or grand-daughters. In order to avoid conflicts, I lied and said I was married.
A week after leaving Merida, I was astonished to have the Zoque Indian couple, who owned my hotel in Tres Zapotes, urge me to rent their 18 year old daughter at the local brothel. They said that it was very easy to get birth control pills in southern Mexico. Her father even handed me a 100 peso bill to pay the costs of her services for a night then made the reservations on the phone. We were invited to come by early for free cocktails at the hotel bar. Her mother then invited me to come down stairs with their daughter the next morning and join the family for breakfast. In truth, I chickened out because I had never been in a brothel and only become a “real man” the previous December. However, the parents were so insulted by my rejection of their daughter that they barely spoke to me afterward.
I soon learned that it was assumed that Indian gals in southern Mexico would become sexually active as soon as puberty arrived and that it was traditional that South Mexican hosts offer their daughters to male guests in their home. It was only in the past few years that I learned this was exactly the same custom among Muskogean tribes in the Lower Southeastern United States. If the parents liked their male guest, they would offer one of their daughters as a “geisha girl.”
There were actually wars started by Englishmen refusing to sleep with the daughters of important chiefs or war captains. If the sweet potato birth control potion didn’t work, Creek and Uchee girls, who had been temporary companions, would take a stronger dose, which caused an abortion. However, it was quite common for Southeastern Indian girls to want a mixed blood child, since they were more resistant to diseases. There was no social more against being a single mother.
While I was gone for three weeks in the Maya lands, Alicia was supposed to have a serious talk with her mother. The parents of all of her friends at the university far preferred their daughters to go on over-night dates with nice young men from good families, rather than go bar-hopping in the Zona Rosa. Since the Tlatlelolco Massacre in 1968, quite a few university coeds had been drugged, abducted from a bar and hung from highway bridges by a secret society in the federal police. These Nazi’s viewed all university coeds as being “communists” and thus lynched them as a terror tactic against Communism.
Nope! When I got back from Tres Zapotes, both Alicia and I were bursting with hormones from being apart for three weeks – well, and for me also being chaste, while having many offerings otherwise. However, her mother’s response to Alicia’s complaint was that if Alicia would continue to live like a 16 year old girl in her home, she would pay for her to attend post-graduate school in Paris after graduating from the Universidad de Anahuac.
The French Connection: Twelve hours after kissing Alicia goodnight and yet again. leaving her “unfinished,” I was sitting beside Yvette, the unwillingly chaste French conehead – just turned 21 – headed for Oaxaca. On the second day of our adventure, I learned from Yvette’s friend, Claire, that Yvette had picked me out to be her “first man,” not realizing that being an architecture student like herself, I had little time available for developing relationships with the opposite gender. I was barely more experienced than she was.
The stories of both Alicia and Yvette “planning” their ritual ascent into womanhood probably do not seem remarkable in 2020, but our generation took part in a revolution. Heretofore, women were expected to be always passive in their relations with men. Certainly, when I was in high school and the early years of college, women were considered immoral, if they aggressively pursued men with carnal intent. In colloquial English, men were expected “to make all the moves.” This was certainly never the case in southern Mesoamerican and Creek societies.
I did not remember much of what had happened in Oaxaca, while I was camped out with the seven faux coquettes, until a couple of weeks later. Needless to say, I went back to Georgia Tech no longer feeling that I was naive and inexperienced.
The rest of the story
The identical traditions concerning the relationships between young men and women in southern Mexico and among the Creeks is just one example of the many similarities between the two peoples. The more I have compared the architecture, DNA, foods, clothing, political systems and words between the two regions, the more similarity I have found between the southern Mesoamericans and the Creek Peoples.
North American archaeologists have been getting it wrong. They have been comparing the cultural practices of the Mesoamerican elite with the cultural situation of the Creeks in the late 1700s and early 1800s. In recent decades, Mexican anthropologists have discovered that the elite of most Mesoamerican civilizations were originally a different ethnic group than the commoners. The elite families typically composed 2-5% of the population.
So, for the remainder of this series and my Barrett Fellowship videos on Youtube, I will be emphasizing those characteristics in the civilizations and tribes of southern Mexico, which are similar or identical to those of the ancestors of modern Southeastern indigenous tribes. I will draw heavily from what I have learned here in the Nacoochee and Soque River Valleys, which were settled by peoples from Tabasco, Chiapas and Veracruz Particularly, in regard to the Classic Maya cities, you can easily find the other information about the Mayas and their neighbors from such sources as Wikipedia.