MesoAmerican/Mayan influence on Mississippian Culture


Recently, claims of Maya migrations to Georgia have gotten a lot of attention. A long-standing pattern interprets North America as a backwater that absorbed influences from Mesoamerica, repeatedly assumed to be more advanced. in “America’s Lost City,” Andrew Lawler lays out a body of archaeological evidence for major mound complexes in Louisiana and Illinois that predate the Maya and even Olmec ceremonial complexes. (Sorry, link does not give the full article:


First, the great ceremonial center of Cahokia was even larger than first imagined. They started excavating East St Louis in a big rush before the building of a bridge and road, and found out that Cahokia extended to that area ten km to its east. It was a vast metropolis, home to tens of thousands of people. They traded extensively with faraway places, and settlements closely linked to Cahokia have been found in places like Trempeauleau, Wisconsin. “As recently as the 1950s, a popular scientific theory touted ancient Mayans rather than Native Americans as the mounds’ creators.” But Lawler says scholars are reevaluating things in the light of evidence that the roots of the mound-building cultures “stretch back even earlier than the grand civilizations of Mesoamerica.” Cahokia itself, if it had been found in the Maya country, “would be a top 10 of all Mesoamerican cities,” in the words of John Clark.


It’s well known that the largest mound there equates in footprint to the Great Pyramid, in circumference to the Pyramid of the Sun in Mexico. Scholars have authenticated mound alignments with sunrise at solstices and equinoxes. Archaeologists are excavating another ceremonial settlement 64 km to the south of Cahokia, with its own plaza and mounds. They are finding that people came from all over the Midwest to settle here. There were workshops making ornaments from pipestone, red jasper, copper, and other materials. They’ve also investigated why the city collapsed around 1300, with extensive evidence of floods, droughts, and other changes in weather.

The curved rows of mounds at Poverty Point, circa 1400 bceThe curved rows of mounds at Poverty Point, circa 1400 bce

But Cahokia is fairly well known. The more significant information in this article is the demonstration of the antiquity of mound-building cultures in the Mississippi and Ohio river basins. I’ve posted images here before from Poverty Point, Louisiana, which was another ceremonial complex far older than Cahokia. These northern lands of Louisiana are rich in mounds and ancient villages with radiocarbon dates back to the Middle Archaic period “which ended at about 3000 BCE.”  Lawler contextualizes this for us: “That’s nearly 2 millennia before the first cities appeared in Mexico, before the Giza periods, and about the same time that the world’s first major urban centers evolved in ancient Mesopotamia [Iraq]. Most researchers dismissed the dates as erroneous.” Yes, they often do when evidence contradicts their expectations. Archaeologist Joseph Saunders began to study the mounds in northern Louisiana: the six mounds at Hedgepeth, another six at Frenchman’s Bend, along with village remains, and Watson Brake with eleven mounds, and dates going back to 3500 bce. Saunders lays out three major cultural waves of mound-creation. The first emerged in the lower Mississippi valley, 3700-2700 bce. The second, in the same region, centered on Pottery Point, 1600-1000 bce, with a gigantic flying bird mound, 22 m tall and 200m long. It lies atop another set of concentric hemispherical earthworks that covers three hectares, along with other conical and platform mounds. The people here had a vast trade network reaching to the Great Lakes. They made female figurines of clay, carved animals of jasper and other fine stones, and large numbers of bone awls show that they were working leather.

Clay figurines from Poverty Point, LousianaClay figurines from Poverty Point, Lousiana

Even more intriguingly, archaeologists are discovering, “The proportions used at the Louisiana sites closely match those found in Mesoamerica.” They are now considering the possibility that Louisiana may have influenced the Mexican civilization rather than vice versa.  The third period of mound construction started in the early centuries CE, in the Ohio river network of the Adena and “Hopewell” cultures, and culminated with Cahokia, Moundville, Alabama, and other medieval American temple complexes.


After the European conquests, many mounds became overgrown and no longer even recognizable as made by humans. “Mostly, the mounds were ignored and then destroyed.” Farmers leveled them, treasure hunters ransacked them, as they did to Spiro Mound in Oklahoma, and cities bulldozed them. The shellmounds in California were similarly destroyed, the burials taken away by the tens of thousands, and still held captive in museums like the Lowie at UC – Berkeley. In Peru, treasure-seekers went so far as to divert streams in the attempt of laying open the adobe pyramids of the Moche. This process of destruction continues today. These historical monuments of immeasurable value are subject to the whims of property owners. The article describes how developers planned to destroy the mounds at Frenchman’s Bend, some of the oldest known, so that they could make a golf course on the site. State and federal law offer no protections for these heritage sites. The archaeologists scramble to talk owners into preserving them, and sometimes even buy up the land to protect the mounds.



I just ran across a reference to dramtic corroborating evidence from Mexican archaeology. Tom Gidwitz in “Cities upon Cities” in Archaeology magazine, Jul/Aug 2010, writes about how new digs in Huastec country “may reveal links between Huasteca settlements and mound-building cultures in the United States.” He continues: “For decades, archaeologists have theorized that North America’s Late Woodland and Mississippian cultures drew inspiration from the Huastecas, but after their excavations at Tamtoc in the 1990s, Dávila and Zaragoza became convinc…ed that cultural influence, and perhaps actual migration, spread from north to south. They unearthed objects that seemed to come from the American Southeast in about AD 900: a fragment of a sheet of hammered copper, a pointed metal hand tool, a piece of engraved shell, a cache of a dozen whole and 20 fragmented Cahokia projectile points, and pottery that could have come from sites to the north such as Etowah [Georgia] and Moundville [Alabama].”I pulled this quote off of a fragmentary jpg on the net. When i track down the article, I’ll post more about it. In the meantime, here are two engraved shells whose stylistic similarity struck me a decade ago. On the right, from the Mound-temple cultures of the Mississippi basin, and on the left, from the Huastecs of eastern Mexico, the very group now being investigated for northern cultural influences. Check out the hatch-marking especially.



Right: Mississippi basin; left: Huastec, Veracruz, Mexico.


reblogged from

In this case it is taken as a given that the Mississippian cultures are a cultural conglomerate: MESOAMERICA IS ONE OF THOSE CULTURAL CENTERS WHICH GOES INTO THAT CONGLOMERATE. We already KNOW that the temple mounds come out of Mesoamerican pyramids and are something new and different when they come into the mound area. Similarly, there are other features which seem to be part of that same package that came with the idea of those temple mounds. So going around saying “No Mayas here, HaHaHaHaHa!” does not automatically make the person that says it sound smart. The whole reasoning on that score seems to be that the presumption is absurd. The presumption is NOT absurd, it is already a given that something along those lines MUST have occurred. These cultures do not exist eternally as unchanging packages that evolved locally and never had any outside input from cultures further off. THAT is the absurd pretense. There is no assumption that the temple mounds simply involved in situ from burial mounds: there was a radical change in what the mounds meant and what they were made for.

We are talking about the Yucatan Mayas. It is known as an established fact that these Mayas traded as far as Puerto Rico and that there are many of their characteristic ball courts there. The location in question in Georgia is as far from Yucatan as Puerto Rico is, by direct measure on the map.

Now then, as to The Examiner. I do not know what kind of intellectual elitism is going on here but conceptually there is little difference between a “content farm” and the Wikipedia. IN THEORY the Wikipedia should be better checked and independently confirmed. In actual practice, I have found all too many time I have put quite valid information up on Wikipedia only to see it repeatedly torn down by some know-nothing that has their own pet theory to push, and they can quite obviously fly in the face of published authority and even mathematical proofs if only they are persistent enough. The end result is that anybody in the world can put something up on Wikipedia and the information can bear little relationship to the truth of the matter. So I would say don’t go around looking to ANY one authority, ALL authorities have flaws. Read all you can from every source you can, and don’t take anything anybody ever tells you at face value. I loved my mom dearly, but when I became an adult I found that all through my childhood she had been giving me misinformation that was deliberately meant to warp my views. And there was no malice to it, she simply believed very firmly in certain wrong things and she would drum those wrong things into me.

But actually, if something is true it will be true no matter who should say it, and if a matter is false it will be false no matter who says it. The whole basic concept of a “Reliable source” can be misleading, nobody is ever 100% correct. After a while you will come to know what is a good idea or a bad idea from your own perspective. And I am not about to try to tell you what you should think is right or wrong for you, all I can do is make some suggestions about what sounds right or wrong from MY perspective.


The first feature to be noted is that a new ethnic element intrudes into the Mississippi Valley area at the beginning of Mississippian times. They show traits of their cranial anatomy which resemble Mexicans and Mayans more than the Eastern Woodlands tribes and they tend to be somewhat shorter. They also deform their skulls in the same way as the Mayans do. Yes, they are coneheads. At some Mississippian sites it is difficult to find skulls which were NOT deformed in infancy.

The next thing to be noted is that they represent themselves artistically in a manner reminiscent of the Mayans and other South-Mexican cultures, with similar red-pottery figurines:

Now as to the pottery which is allegedly just like Mayan Pottery: That part is true also but it does not begin to tell the whoile story. In fact this is something which has been known for a long time and is one of the key features to understanding the Mississippian cultures. In 1928, Dr. G. C. Valiant published Resemblances in Ceramics of Central and North America, after doing a series of investigations in Mexico for the American Museum of Natural History. He had discovered a series of ceramic traits which he called the “Q Complex” for convenience’s sake. He introduced his subject with these words:

I shall endeavour to call attention to several curious parallels found mainly in the ceramics of Central America and the Southwestern and Southeastern United States That seem to indicate some sort of a relationship, even taking into account the barrier of five hundred kilometers of archaeologically unknown territory…While the Antillean influence on the far southeastern United States is attributable to direct contact[and known settlements over much of Florida-DD]…The traits existing in the pottery of the Western drainage of the Mississippi and to a lesser degree in Tennessee [and adjoining Georgia and Alabama-DD], however, are of a character that indicates a stronger source of infection than a symbolism brought in perhaps by exiles from another land. In short, in the Western Mississippi valley, there exists apparently some sort of action by one culture upon another. These ceramic traits which are quite foreign to the run of the pottery of the eastern states include:

1. Tripod support of vessels.

2.Funnel-necked jars.

3.Double-bodied jars.

4.Rarely, the shoe form of vessel.

5.the high and low form of annular base for vessels.

6. Spout handles

7.the composite silhouette form of bowl.

8. Vessels modeled in the effigy of animals or humans.

9. Vessels with spouts, in plain and in effigy

10. Vessels with the head or features attached


And ended with the conclusions that:

It does not seem possible to explain away such parallels as these by independent invention of styles since the basis of the ceramic development of the Eastern United States does not seem to contain the germs for this Western Mississippi [ie. Mississippian-DD] complex. Nor from this same lack of transitional steps is it probable that the styles developed there and moved South. Yet to what epoch and to what culture in Central America, on the other hand, do these forms relate?

As an inexplicable residue among the ceramics of Guatemala, Honduras, Salvador and Costa Rica, occur such traits as composite silhouette, decoration by incision [Mississippian example below-DD], support of vessels by legs or cylinders, spouted vessels, pot stands and effigy forms. These elements obtain under such conditions of antiquity as beneath the volcanic ash of Salvador, under the Old Empire Maya remains at Homul and Uaxactun, and are associated with pre-Maya material at the Finca Arevalo in Guatemala. [the traits are also present down to Peru and absent over much of Mexico, Vaillant recounts]…Doctor Lothrop and this writer designated these elements as influence Q, since we know neither their center of distribution nor their makers. This complex occupies in Central America a position analogous to the relation between the primitive cultures in the Valley of Mexico and the Toltec and Aztec cultures.

In other words, we are not only talking Mayan ceramics, we are talking old, basic traditional Mayan ceramics. Something that the country people would remember when their elite rulers had been taken away, and pottery traits which would not have been transmitted by way of Northern Mexico primarily.

As I had mentioned before, the Mississippian houses were built according to the usual Mayan plan. To be frank, these are nothing like the wigwams common in the eastern United States, they are tropical huts.

The high steep-sided roofs are designed to shed heavy tropical rainfall and designs much like this are common in Northern South America and also in Indonesia (They are also used to indicate the possibility of TransPacific diffusion between those other two regions, along with use of the BLOWGUN, which the Mayas also had. The duplication of blowgun technology on both sides of the Pacific is something that is hard for non-diffusionists to explain)

And then of course the most obvious and characteristic feature of the Mississippian cultures is the creation and use of the stepped-pyramid temple mounds, built along parallel principles but using earth instead of stone as the construction material. And this came with a version of Mesoamerican pyramid ceremonialism, placement around a plaza,human sacrifice, headhunting and veneration of human skulls.

And besides building pyramids after a design similar to the Mayan pyramids at Chichen Itza, the people carried a name by which they seem to have called themselves, Itsas. a hundred years ago or more, this was not even questioned, it was taken for granted that these people had come from that part of the Yucatan and that is why they were using that name.


I had begun to develop a very long and involved followup to this article on linguistics, making very involved and complicated arguments, but then I saw how the situation could be represented most easily. In the Wikipedia entry discussing the validity or non-validity of the so-called Amerind linguistic superfamily, a long list of languages is included. I excerpt part of the listing here:


  1. Penutian
  2. Gulf
  3. Atakapa
  4. Chitimacha
  5. Muskogean
  6. Natchez
  7. Tunica
  8. Yukian
  9. Mexican Penutian
  10. Huave
  11. Mayan
  12. Mixe–Zoque
  13. Totonac


Clay figurines discovered on the Mann Hopewell Site show faces with slanted eyes, which were not a Hopewell feature. Some believe the figurines show a connection between Indiana and Central or South America.

Olmec-like Hopewell figure-ens found at Mann Site in Indianna. Other long distance trade goods, like obsidian from Yellowstone and Grizzly Bear teeth from the Rockies were found.

“It’s like Vegas … for archaeologists,” says Mike Linderman, who manages state historic sites in western Indiana. Linderman says the Mann Hopewell Site is bigger than its more famous Hopewell counterparts in Ohio, and it’s filled with even more exotic materials, like obsidian glass that has been traced to the Yellowstone Valley in Wyoming, and grizzly bear incisor teeth.

“Grizzly bears obviously are not from Indiana, never have been,” Linderman says. “There’s a theory out there now that instead of being trade items, these items [were] actually being collected by the people from Mann Site on rite-of-passage trips they [were] taking out to the West. You know, it’s something big if you’ve killed a grizzly bear and you can bring its teeth back to Indiana.”

Jaguars and panthers aren’t from Indiana, either, but they show up at the Mann Hopewell Site as beautifully detailed carvings. Put them together with clay figurines that have slanted eyes — not a Hopewell feature — and Linderman says we could be looking at a connection between Indiana and Central or South America.


Exotic artifacts found at Tamtoc on Mexico’s East Coast

Perhaps the best evidence of north south trade between Mesoamerica and the Eastern United States were a serious of articacts found in Tamtoc, Mexico.

From  (published in the magazine Archaeology dated to 2010)


The results may reveal links between Huasteca settlements and mound building cultures in the United States. For decades, archaeologists have theorized that North America’s Late Woodland and Mississippian cultures drew inspiration from the Huasteca, but Davila and Zaragoza’s excavations at Tamtoc in the 1990s convinced them that cultural influence, and perhaps actual migration, spread from north to south. They unearthed objects that seemed to come from the American Southeast in about A.D. 900—a fragment of a sheet of hammered copper, a pointed metal hand tool, a piece of engraved shell, a cache of a dozen whole and twenty fragmented Cahokia projectile points, and pottery that could have come from sites to the north such as Etowah, and Moundville. When they dug into a terrace beside the site’s western mound, they found that, like the mounds at Cahokia, it had been piled up layer-by-layer in basket-sized loads, with dirt from pits that became the lagoons around the site.

“We dug and dug and dug,” says Davila, “but I understood nothing.” Then he read Garcilaso de la Vega’s La Florida del Inca, an account of the 1539 Hernando de Soto expedition to the Southeast. It describes huge Indian trade and war canoes that plied the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the rivers of the Southeast. “We think there was a migration by sea,” says Davila.

Scholars have long recognized that both the Southeast and Huasteca had towns with artificial lagoons and platform mounds with thatched structures on top, engraved shell jewelry, imagery of feathered dancers, stone pipes, and ghostly pots that represent the dead with closed eyes, open mouths, and filed teeth. They have theorized that the cultural influence flowed from Mesoamerica northward, but the Tamtoc artifacts, other mounds in the Huasteca, and the region’s incised shell gorgets, post-date their earliest North American counterparts.

University of South Florida archaeologist Nancy White says that major cultural influences, as well as people, may well have traveled north to south. “We know other things may have moved from North to South America, things that may be considered less important or equally important, like tobacco.” The Mississippian motifs of the Late Prehistoric period that appear in the Huasteca do indicate that “at this late time people were probably moving around and sharing these ideas, but just a few things.” In the field, Martínez and Córdova want to see for themselves.

Physical anthropologist Carlos Karam has taken bite molds of about thirty contemporary Teenek and is comparing the inherited contours of their molars and bicuspids to Tamtoc skeletons and to ancient and modern Maya. He’s checking the DNA of modern Teenek against that of ancient Tamtoc skeletons; strontium isotopes in Tamtoc teeth, absorbed in telltale amounts from drinking water, might reveal where the city’s dead grew up.

“This is a hypothesis we are testing, and we have not found enough information to confirm it, yet,” Córdova says. Martínez and Córdova think it will take ten years to complete their excavations. But just as important to them is making Tamtoc into an instructive oasis in this disrupted landscape. They plan to stock the restored lagoons with fish, reestablish the fruit trees that once thrived here, and demonstrate how ancient Tamtoc sustained itself. This year they will begin construction on a site museum and teaching center where local students will work side by side with archaeologists, study artifact restoration and conservation, and learn about indigenous people.