by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner
One Summer In Mexico ~ Part 64
Image Above: This engraving was created in 1876 as one of many illustrations of a booklet that promoted tourism in Mexico. It portrays the clothing of the Indian tribes living in Chiapas State. Notice that in 1876, their clothing was identical to that worn by the Creeks living around Savannah in 1735, who were painted by German artist, George Von Reck. Actually, the clothing is almost identical to that worn by the Creeks until the mid-1800s and the appearance of the Seminole Peoples of Florida until the late 20th century!
The men are wearing “Creek” long shirts. Two of the women and one of the men are wearing “Creek turbans.” One man is wearing the mustache that was typical of Itsate, Highland Apalache, Soque, Uchee and Oconee men, who have been warriors. One man is wearing a “Highland Apalache conical hat.
From 200 to 600 AD, they were the vassals and probably, a source of protein for the people of Teotihuacan. From 600 to 800 AD, they were the vassals and food-producers for powerful Maya city states. Yet from 900 AD onward the Itzas and their cousins, the Chontal Mayas, dominated what was left of the Maya Civilization. The human-flesh-eating Nahuas (future Aztecs) struck southern Mexico around 1250 AD. That unleashed another wave of refugees from southern Mesoamerica into Southeastern North America. When these oppressed peoples fled the volcanoes, droughts, slavery and cannibalism of the Mesoamerican world, however, they carried the brilliance of Mesoamerican agriculture to other parts of the Americas.
The impact of the Itza, Tamale and Soque on Eastern North America, even today, was astounding. As was described in Part 63, their words dot the maps of the Southeastern United States. However, it was the agricultural technology, seeds and roots that they brought with them have changed the diets of most humans throughout the Earth. Today, Mexico and Peru have many more varieties of indigenous American vegetables and fruits than are grown in the United States, but it was the United States that first became an independent country and then began exporting its vast production of farm products to the world.
Arrival of the Itzas, en masse, between 800 AD and 1000 AD to the Southeast caused an immediate change in the public architecture of the Creek’s ancestors. Construction began on five-sided mounds, dedicated to the Sun God and oriented to the Winter Solstice Sunset . . . marking the introduction of the Maya calendar.
The Itza and the Soque lived in regions of Tabasco and Chiapas, which only had volcanic rocks. No limestone or lime was available. Elsewhere in Mesoamerica, nixtamalization of corn kernels was achieved by boiling them in lime water. Nixtamalization removes almost all the mycotoxins from corn kernels, which are deposited by fungi. It also increases the nutritional value and flavor of corn. The Itzas and Soque learned how to make lye from wood ashes. Corn kernels boiled in lye water were actually more completely nixtamalized than with lime. Knowledge of this process accompanied the Itza and Soque refugees to the Georgia Mountains, then spread to other regions. Lye is also a key ingredient for make hominy and grits.
The Tamulte of Tabasco and Tamaulipas (Tamale Mayas) are the only indigenous people in Mexico, who eat corn on the cob, celebrate the Green Corn Festival and start their calendar on the Summer Solstice. Their arrival in the Southeast around 1250 AD after fleeing the Aztecs, resulted in construction of mounds oriented to the Summer Solstice, not the Maya Calendar’s Winter Solstice Sunset.
The Creeks introduced corn on the cob, hominy and grits to the colonists of Savannah at a banquet on June 6, 1735. Growing a smaller variety of corn, high in fructose, was limited to the southeastern part of Georgia in the early 1700s. The Tamale originally settled on the Altamaha River. One Muskogee-speaking Creek leader from west Georgia remarked at the banquet that he did not like sweet corn. Paintings which show Pilgrims eating corn on the cob “at the first Thanksgiving” or in the houses of Jamestown, VA in the 1600s are not accurate. Sweet corn cultivation at that time was limited to warmer areas of the Kingdom of Apalache, forerunner of the Creek Confederacy. Even the sweet corn grown in central Mexico is descended from Creek sweet corn. The original sweet corn of the Tamale is a tropical plant that requires a long, hot growing season, frequent rainfall and black soils, like found in Tabasco and the Altamaha Basin of Georgia.
Eating corn on the cob spread throughout the colonies from the young Province of Georgia in the 1700s as the original semi-tropical variety was adapted to cooler climates. Now it is as “American” as apple pie and the Fourth of July. However, until very recently, eating corn on the cob was virtually unknown in Latin America, except in the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas. In eastern Chiapas, small corn on the cobs were a key ingredient of a pork-vegetable stew served at a Zapatista guerilla camp that I visited.
We should emphasize that the advanced knowledge of agricultural technology was equally important as the valuable seeds, which accompanied these refugees. Indigenous farmers in the Southeast had to alter the plants brought from Mexico to very different growing conditions. The Mexican immigrants taught the Chickasaws, proto-Creeks and Uchees in Georgia how to more scientifically accelerate the evolution of a wild plant to a domesticated plant with desired traits.
One of the Creeks’ greatest agricultural achievements was the domestication of a wild strawberry vine, growing in the Georgia Piedmont. As a result, virtually all the commercial strawberries in the WORLD are at least partially descended from the Creek strawberry. Of course, there are many other wild and domesticate strawberry varieties in the world, but they lack the traits needed for the modern food industry.
In 1600, a small company of Spanish soldiers were sent up the Rio Mayo (May River = Altamaha River) from St. Catherines Island, GA to investigate rumors of white men living in the Apalachen (Georgia) Mountains. Their progress was stopped at Tama, the capital of the Tamale province near the Fall Line. The leaders of Tama said that the soldiers could stay briefly at Tama, but would be killed if they progressed farther toward the capital of the Apalache Kingdom.
A chronicler among the band of Spaniards were astonished to see mature peach and plum trees, bearing fruit along with several types of melons. These were all crops from Andalusia in southwestern Spain that had been planted at a short-lived Jesuit mission on St. Catherines three decades earlier. The Tamale had somehow contained seeds for these plants and then developed them into plants that could withstand the much colder climate of Middle Georgia. By the 1700s, virtually all Creek towns and villages had large peach orchards and melon patches. In the 1800s, these Creek hybrid melons were developed into the commercial water melon, musk melon (from Muskogee) and cantaloupe. The peach tree developed by the Tamale became the famous Georgia Belle Peach.
Cultural history of the Itza People
The Itza Mayas were not originally speakers of a Maya dialect. There are similarities between some of the basic words of Itza and the Panoan languages of eastern Peru. The Itza immigrated northward from South America during the Formative Period (2500 BC-200 AD) and settled around natural lakes in the Chiapas and Guatemalan Highlands. Here they constructed massive agricultural terrace complexes, which were capable of feeding much of the Maya world. Their priests continued to secretly speak the original language in liturgies for many centuries, so that the ethnic Mayas would not understand them. It is not known when this language was lost, but may have occurred during the catastrophic smallpox plague from 1500 to 1520 AD . . . or during the century of brutal Spanish subjugation for the next century.
The principal deity of the Itza was the Sky Serpent God. The Itzas constructed super-sized serpents out of earth or stone as his primary worship sites. Such effigies can also be found in southern Florida, northern Georgia and southeastern Ohio. Eventually, the Sky Serpent tradition was merged with the central Mexican tradition of Quetzalcoatl, but was called Kukulkan.
The Itzas were conquered by an army from Teotihuacan around 200 AD. From then until around 600 AD, they were ruled by princes dispatched from Teotihuacan. This is the reason that numerous Totonac words appear in the Itza language and to a lesser extent in the Creek languages.
In 800 AD the “El Chichon” super-volcano erupted in western Chiapas, incinerating Palenque and many smaller communities in Chiapas and western Tabasco with superheated volcanic ash. The Itza farmers were forced to abandon their agricultural terrace complexes in the highlands and settle elsewhere. Many settled in northwestern Yucatan. Possibly, even more settled near Lake Okeechobee in southern Florida. That is where Tamachichi’s ancestors fled to.
Tamachichi led a band of Creeks, which moved to the proposed site of Savannah a few months before the English settlers arrived. He sold the land for Savannah to James Oglethorpe then befriended the newly arrived settlers of Georgia. A tribe of Mayas in western Belize, migrated to northeastern Yucatan.
Chichen Itza was a major market center in the northern Yucatan Peninsula from the Late Classic (c. AD 600–900) through the Terminal Classic (c. AD 800–900) and into the early portion of the Postclassic period (c. AD 900–1200). Its official history according to academicians seems to change every few years. When I was studying Chichen Itza in the summer of 1970, we were told that it was a somewhat egalitarian city, dominated by the Itzas until around 1000 AD. Around 1000 AD, Toltecs began to dominate Chichen Itza and migrated in large numbers to northeastern Yucatan, causing many or most of the Itza Commoners to migrate to some unknown region. The large pyramid in the heart of Chichen Itza was then called the Pyramid of the Sun. It is now called the Pyramid of Kukulkan (Quetzalcoatl).
The current version of Chichen Itza’s history describes Chichen Itza as a multi-ethnic metropolis that became increasingly dominated by the Toltec portion of its population. That theory ignores the substantial emigration from the Itza suburbs and almost simultaneous appearance of Itza public architecture in the Southeastern United States . . . arriving at the Lamar Village site around 990 AD and Etula (Etowah Mounds) around 996-1000 AD. Corner door houses dominated the suburbs of Chichen Itza until 1000 AD. Afterward they are primarily seen in the Southeastern United States . . . first at the Lamar village in Macon, GA then a few years later at Etowah Mounds in northwest Georgia. The arrival of these unusual houses was accompanied by the use of crushed shells to temper pottery.
Chichen Itza contains a multitude of architectural styles, reminiscent of styles seen in central Mexico and of the Puuc, Rio Bec and Chenes styles of the Northern Maya lowlands. Whether or not it was militarily conquered by a Toltec army remains debated, but there is no doubt that until around 990 AD, the majority of its commoners were Itzas then afterward many residents were descended from a wide range of ethnic groups, while few Itza-style houses were built.