How to identify Maya place names in North America

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

Image Above: A Chontal Maya ocean-going sailboat was about the same construction and size as a Scandinavian långbåt. These sea crafts were capable of going anywhere a långbåt could go, but had the advantage that the sails, woven from split river cane, would never rot like the Vikings’ woolen sail cloth or rip, when struck by fierce winds.

There was at least one tribe in Canada with an easily translatable Mesoamerican name. There may have been more.

There are many misconceptions about the Maya civilization floating around these days . . . even among academicians. For starters . . . most of the Mayas did not call themselves Mayas, until their Spanish overlords told them that was their name. The real Mayas originally lived in southern Florida then some of them migrated down into northern Yucatan after the Classic “Mayan” civilization collapsed . . . maybe a little earlier.

Maiapan . . . Capital of Maiam

Fernando Colon, brother of Cristobal Colon (Columbus) gets the blame for this one. His ship was sailing off the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, when it encountered a massive, plank-built trade canoe plying the same waters. A Native American translator on the Spanish ship yelled to the men and women in the trade canoe, words that meant “Where are you from?” They answered back “Maiam,” which meant, “Lake People – place of,” then pointed southward to the Yucatan Peninsula. They meant a single province in north central Yucatan, whose capital was “Maiapa or Maiapan.

Fernando wrote down in his log that the land to the south was known as Mayam (Ma-e-am). That was soon shorted to Maya and applied to all peoples, speaking similar languages, in extreme southern Mexico. However, several of the “Maya” provinces spoke mutually unintelligible languages.

A Chontal Maya trade canoe

Miami is the Anglicization of Maiami, which means “Lake (People) – place of – principal” in both their language and Itza. By the way, the correct pronunciation is Mä : ē : ä. The letter Y in Spanish is pronounced like an English (ē).

Okay, you now know that the real Mayas were from Florida, but went big-time when they also settled in northern Yucatan. So, we have proof that there was a “Florida-Maya” Connection. We will next tell you about some of the other “Maya” peoples, who left their words on North America’s landscape. Keep in mind, though, that it is unlikely that many literate Maya elite settled permanently in North America. Ninety-five percent or more of their populations could not fluently read, write or carve in stone, their writing system.

Mayas, who were not afraid of the ocean

We know from the writings of 16th century Spanish priests that most of the peoples, whom we call “Mayas” today, were terrified of the ocean.  The oceans were the realm of the One-Legged God, Hunrakan (Hurican in Spanish) who repeated launched whirling storms from the ocean that could destroy everything in their paths. 

In my new three-part video series on Campeche*,  Ana Rojas, my guide, immediately told me this fact, when explaining why there was no “real Maya,” towns in Campeche closer than 26 mi (41.8 km) from the ocean.  Other peoples settled along the coast and coastal plain.  Over time, the languages they spoke, became increasingly similar to Maya languages, but their cultural traditions and physical appearance were different. Most history text books, magazine articles and internet references never tell you this.

*The Maya Cities of Campeche-Part One

The Chontal “Mayas” were a non-Maya people, who originated farther south in Central America, probably Trujillo Bay, Honduras . . . where they always maintained large port, even after establishing their main province in the tidal marshes and lagoons of Tabasco.  Their oral history states that they arrived in the region during the period of the Olmec Civilization (1000 BC-500 BC) and participated in that civilization.  The Chontal refer to themselves as the Yokot’anob or the Yokot’an, meaning “the speakers of Yoko Ochoco.”  The Spanish named the Yucatan Peninsula after them because their ports and trading towns ringed the coastal regions of the peninsula.

The Yokot’anob elite never became literate during the Maya Classic Period.  As a result, they were considered barbarians by the elite of the large Maya city states. However, because of the chronic wars between the “civilized” Maya city states, the Yokot’anob came to dominate both maritime and inland trade in southern Mesoamerica.  During the Post-Classic Period (900 AD-1520 AD) they became wealthy and militarily powerful.

The Sjoke (Zoque or Soque) arrived by sea craft on the Gulf Coast of western Tabasco and southern  during the early stages of the Olmec Civilization. They continued to maintain maritime skills even after spreading inland to the mountains.  Their name is Gamla Norse and means, “Sea People.” 

The Itza were another people, who arrived from a homeland farther south. Both they and most of the Creeks in northern Georgia and western North Carolina, during the early Colonial Period, called themselves, Itzate. The word means “Itza People” in the Itza language.

One of the oldest “Maya cities” is Itzapa, (Itza-place of) Chiapas.  The originally language of the Itza was entirely different than Maya, but was maintained as the language spoken by their priests in rituals.  From around 200 AD to 600 AD, the Itzas were vassals of the Totonacs in Teotihuacan.  The dialect of Maya spoke day-to-day by the Itzas absorbed many Totonac words during this era.  These same words appear in the Creek languages . . . to a lesser extent in Chickasaw, Alabama and Choctaw. During this period and the Post-Classic Period, the Itza had close relations with both the Zoque and the Chontal Mayas. Although originally a mountain people, the Itza evidently had little fear of ocean travel and apparently accompanied the Yokot’anob on maritime journeys.

The Cho’ite were another tribe that migrated into the coastal regions of Tabasco. Most of them, however, now live in the highlands of Chiapas.  They apparently moved into Chiapas after most of the Itza migrated elsewhere.  They speak a language similar to Itza and were once closely allied to them.

The Tamate, Tamale, Tamatli and Tamahiti were Itza-speaking traders, who establishing trading ports or stations in Veracruz and Tamaulipas.  They intermarried with locals and spoke dialects that mixed Itza with other indigenous languages of eastern Mexico, such as Nahua, Totonac and Wastek.

Because of the extraordinary economic, political and military power of the Itza capital of Palenque (actually named Lakamha) between 600 and 800 AD – then Chichen Itza between 850 and 1000 AD – the languages of several western Maya peoples became essentially dialects of Itza.  The eruption of Chichon Super-Volcano in 800 AD caused the abandonment of Lakamha and the diaspora of many thousand Itzas.

The Maritime Mayas only built earthen mounds identical to those in the Southeast.

Maritime Maya market towns

During my first two days in Campeche, I visited three Chontal Maya ports along a stretch of the Campeche coast that never gets direct hurricane strikes from the Gulf of Mexico.  They consisted of small, manmade harbors, situated near the edge of coastal tidal marshes and connected to the Gulf via man-made canals.

The next week, I was in the state of Tabasco. South of Campeche, in the heartland of Chontalpa . . . the Tabasco Tidal Marshes . . . the trading towns were on islands, several miles/kilometers from the edge of the ocean. There were also some Chontal Maya trading towns on the landward edge of large natural lagoons and estuaries.  Hurricanes do occasionally curve southward in the Gulf of Mexico and strike the coast of Tabasco.

The following week, I was in Veracruz State, north of Tabasco.  Veracruz is more likely to be struck by hurricanes, but not nearly as frequently as Texas and Louisiana.  Here the Chontal ports tended to be where the Great White Path (mentioned in the Creek Migration Legends) crossed rivers.  Typically, the Great White Path’s route was slightly inland to avoid tidal surges from hurricanes.

The Itza and Chontal Maya traders also established fortified towns in mountain gaps (like Track Rock Gap in Georgia) or where shoals, rapids or water falls blocked canoe traffic (such as Etowah Mounds and Ocmulgee National Historic Park in Georgia).

Key Itza and Tamatli words in eastern North America

1. River – By far, the most common Itza words seen on the maps today are haw (river) and hawche (small, shallow river or creek) Both words are also utilized by Itsate Creek and Miccosukee, but Muskogee now only uses hawche for all rivers and creeks.  Anglicized versions of these words include ha, hatchee, hachee and hoochee.

2. TradeTama is the Totonac word meaning “to trade,” which was absorbed into the Itza and Creek languages and appears a root word in several place names and rivers.  In Georgia, the Altamaha River’s name means, “Place of – Trade – River” in English.  Tamasi means “a satellite town or colony of the Tama province in Georgia.”  It is seen in Anglicized forms in South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee – Tamasee and Tomasee. 

The name of famous Creek friend of the Colony of Georgia, Tamachichi became Tomachichi in English.  His name means “Trade Dog” or “itinerate trader” in Totonac, Itza and Itsate Creek

Tama became the word for “town” in Chickasaw and Kansa.  The Kansa formerly lived in NW Georgia and NE Alabama, in close association with Chickasaw trading towns.  Tama is the word for Indian corn among Shawnee tribes that had direct contact with Itza-speaking traders.

3. Trader or merchant – Tamahi is the Totonac and Itza word for a trader.  Tamahiti is the Itza and Itsate Creek word for “trader people.”  The plural of Tamahiti in Itza and Creek is Tamahiten. That was Anglicized to Tomohitan in Virginia.

3. Town – Tula is the Totonac, Itza and Eastern Creek word for town. It is derived from the Maya word for “stacked stone construction” – tauli.  Tula has become talwa in Muskogee Creek.  Tullahoma, Tennessee means “Town-Red” in English.  

The Alabama word for town is oola or ula . . . derived from tula.  It is found in several town and place names. There was a town on the Tennessee River, visited by the Hernando de Soto Expedition, which was named Olamikko (Town of the King). It appears to have been on Hiawassee Island. That means Alabama People were up in Tennessee, also . . . at least back then.

4. House –  The Totonac, Itza Maya and Florida Seminole word for house is chiki.  Choctaw, Itsate Creek, Muskogee Creek and Alabama use, choko, the Itza word for “warm,” for a winter house and chiki, for a summer house.

5. Stone – The word for stone in Itza Maya, Yokot’anob,  Itsate Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Alabama and Koasate is tali

6. Stone stela or carved stone – The Itza word for a Maya stela or carved stone is Cha’ta. The word can also mean an “ancient town”  . . . as an ancient Maya city containing many carved stones.  Chattahoochee (River) means “Carved Stone – shallow river” or perhaps, “Ancient town – shallow river.”

7. Maize (Indian corn) – Ichi is the word for maize in Itza Maya and Itstate Creek.  It became achi in Muskogee Creek.

8. People or tribe – The Itza Maya, Itsate Creek and Miccosukee suffix for  “tribe or people” is te.  It appears in many place names, but is often written in English as “tee.”

9. Salvia – This is a plant, native to central and southern Mexico, which was domesticated to produce a highly nutritious seed.  In Itza Maya it is called, chia

Chiaha (Salvia River) was a powerful province in western North Carolina, which moved southward to join the Creek Confederacy.  It is a common place name, which often appears as Chehaw or Cheoah. 

The Mexican state of Chiapas is an Itza word that means “Salvia-Place of.” Palenque was the capital of the Itzas and located in Chiapas. In 2012, scientists at the University of Minnesota found a 100% match between attapulgite mined in Georgia and the Maya Blue stucco at Palenque.

10. Small – The Itza Maya suffix for small, che, is also used in both Itsate Creek and Muskogee Creek. One must be careful on this one, because an extreme common Muskogean suffix was “si”, pronounced like “jzhē”.   English speakers typically wrote the sound as “chee.”

11. Great or king – The Itza Maya adjective for great, mako, was also used for king.  It was used for a leader of a large town or small province by the Itsate Creeks.  Muskogee Creeks altered the word to mekko.

12. Lord or nobility – The word used for nobility throughout most Maya languages was ahaw.  This word appears as part of several Creek political titles such as hene-ahaw (Sun Lord or sibling of the High King). Heneha is now the official title of the Second Chief of the Muscogee-Creek Nation.

13. Prefixes meaning “place of” –  Both “al” and “am” were used, but “am” is more common with Chontal Maya place names.  The Altamaha (river) means “Place of – trade – river.”  Amichel, the original name of the region around Mobile Bay to Apalachicola Bay, means, “Place of – (the goddess) – Ixchel.  Ixchel was the patron goddess of the Chontal Mayas.

14. Principal or important – The Itza prefix meaning “principal or important” was “I or e”.  In Itza Maya and Itsate Creek, it is placed in front of a common noun or the name of a province to label the capital of a province.  Etula means “principal town” and was the original name of Etowah Mounds.  Ichiaha was the capital of the Chiaha province.

15. Suffixes for “Place of” – Various branches of the Itza and Chontal Mayas used pa, po or pas at the ends of some words to denote a location. Today, we don’t know enough about their grammar 500 to 1000 years ago to discern why different, but similar words were used. Itsate Creek uses “pa.” The Muskogee Creeks changed the syllable to “fa.” The Mexican State of Tamaulipas is an Itza Maya word than means, “Trade People – Place of.”

16. Jaguar –  The Itza word for jaguar is baam. Plural is baama.  Sixteenth, seventeenth and early eighteenth European explorers stated that there was a large “tiger like” cat living between the Chattahoochee and Mississippi Rivers, until the large herds of Woodland Bison and Elk disappeared. It an a now extinct lion, which lived in Georgia, were described as being much bigger than a Mountain Lion, which was then confined to the Appalachians.  Florida was occupied by a black panther, which was slightly larger than a Mountain Lion, but had the same physique. 

The original name for the Alabama River was the Alibaamaha.  That is a pure Itza Maya word meaning, “Principal Place of the Jaguars – River.”

Don’t mess with Alabama!

Now you know!

4 Comments

  1. You know a long time ago, I couldn’t figure why the US Navy wanted me to be a intelligence officer rather than a SeaBee (construction) officer. We were constantly having to take tests. Evidently, the US Navy figured out that I had a real knack for linguistics and cryptology. I am just now realizing that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well Rita, you know for the entire period from age 18 to age 61 in 2010, my sole activity was involved with three dimensional spatial cognation . . . an architect and city planner. Something just happened after I started writing a lot and was constantly doing research on the internet.

    Liked by 2 people

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