Were Creek Indians from West Mexico?

Many of the cultural traditions and artifacts discovered in Mississippian period archaeological sites in Georgia have strong similarities to cultural traditions in the west Mexican states of Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima. These traditions include the creation of circular pyramids, shaft tombs, dog effigy pots, human ancestral pair sculptures, and tree of life symbolism. Other artifacts discovered in Georgia have strong similarities to Olmec artifacts from the west Mexican states of Guerrero and Jalisco including bird man masks, three-pronged ceremonial maces, and jaguar deities. Migration legends of historic Muskogee Creek Indian tribes living in Georgia also suggest an origin in west Mexico.

Two of the most famous artifacts discovered in Georgia are the male and female human effigy statues found at the Etowah Mounds site. Carved from local marble and discovered buried in a log-lined tomb in the Funeral Mound (Mound C) at Etowah, they are believed to represent venerated ancestors. It is theorized that these statues were part of an ancestor worship cult that existed throughout the Mississippian time period.

A similar tradition of ancestor pair ceramic sculptures buried in specialized tombs is known from west Mexico. These sculptures were part of what is referred to as the Western Mexico Shaft Tomb Tradition.[i] Such tombs and their associated artifacts are distributed across the states of Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima in west Mexico. It should be noted that in Colima by 600 AD the ceramic figures had become solid and they also integrated stone elements with their gods’ representations.[ii]

Etowah Mounds Human Effigy Statues Human Effigy Pair from Nayarit Mexico
Male and Female Human Effigies from Mound C at Etowah Mounds “Ancestral Pair” from Chinesco culture of western Mexico state of Nayarit (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Notice the face painting is very similar to the Mississippian styles.

In addition to the ancestral pair sculptures, dog effigy pots were also found buried in these shaft tombs. The most famous of the canine effigy pots are the Colima dog pots. These pots are thought to represent the Techichi breed. The Techichi was a small, mute dog that was fattened up to eat[iii]. The pots show the “fattened up” version of these dogs. The Techichi is the breed from which the Chihuahua is derived.

Colima dog pot Colima dog pot w/ spout
Colima Dog Pot Colima Dog Pot with spout

In Georgia a similar dog effigy pot showing a fat little dog was discovered at the Bull Creek site in Muskogee County. The pot includes a swirling design painted on its surface that suggests it was associated with the Creek Indian Wind Clan. Creek tradition holds that the Wind Clan was the most ancient clan among the tribe and the “aristocracy of all the clans.”[iv]

The breed of dog represented on the pot appears to be the Chihuahua. It has an upturned snout, bulbous forehead, erect ears and curved tail all consistent with the Chihuahua breed. The pot has been dated to 1325 AD.

Bull Creek Dog Effigy Pot from Muscogee County, Georgia chihuahua
Dog Effigy Pot from Bull Creek Site Modern-day Chihuahua for comparison

Historical eye-witness accounts of Chihuahuas or Techichis in Georgia exist in the journal entries of Spaniards that were part of the Hernando de Soto expedition. This expedition travelled through Georgia in the 1530s. In several entries the Spanish mentioned that Georgia tribes raised a “little dog” to eat which they kept very fat for that purpose. Like the Techichi, the Spanish noted that this dog could not bark.[v] Later historians thought the Spanish accounts could have referred to opossums instead of dogs.[vi] Yet the eye-witness descriptions of these “little dogs” along with the Dog Effigy Pot from Bull Creek seem to confirm they were Chihuahuas.

In addition to ancestral pair statues and dog effigy pots another type of artifact found in west Mexican shaft tombs were tableaux. One such tableau from Nayarit shows a “multi-layered tree with birds.”[vii] The tree is uniquely stylized. A similar uniquely stylized tree with birds was found engraved on a marine shell in Craig Mound at Spiro, Oklahoma. The object, known as Tree of Life with Birds, is the only such design known to exist throughout the southeast.[viii]

Tree of Life with Birds from Spiro Mounds Tableau featuring cedar tree with birds from west Mexico shaft tomb tradition
Tree of Life with Birds, A.D. 1200-1450, Spiro, Oklahoma A Nayarit tableau showing a multi-layered tree with birds.

The Spiro site, part of the Caddoan Mississippian Culture, is known to have had trade contacts with the Etowah Mounds site in Georgia. In fact, the population of Spiro moved away around 1250 AD[ix], the same time that a new population arrived at Etowah Mounds[x]. Is this a coincidence or did people from Spiro move to Etowah at this time? In fact, the funeral mound at Etowah was constructed after this 1250 AD repopulation of the site. It is in this funeral mound that we find the ancestral pair statues and other objects that seem to reflect the same west Mexican tradition as exemplified by the Tree of Life with Birds artifact found at Spiro.

Additionally, other artifacts at Spiro have shown it had trade connections with both Mexico and the Ancestral Puebloan peoples of the southwest. For instance, a single obsidian scraper unearthed at Spiro was shown to have come from Pachuca in central Mexico.[xi] Also pottery from the Ancestral Puebloan peoples of the American southwest has also been found at Spiro. Turquoise and pottery from the Ancestral Puebloan cultures of the southwest have been found in other Caddoan areas of Texas as well.[xii] It should be noted that the Ancestral Puebloans are known to have had trade contacts with the people of west Mexico and thus it is possible that these west Mexican cultural traditions arrived in the southeast via the southwest.

The Caddoans also produced unique pottery featuring human faces with distinctive scarring. The people in the western Mexican state of Colima also created such pottery showing distinctive scarring not only on human faces but also the afore-mentioned dog pots.

Hamilton Caddoan Head Pot Caddoan head pot with Puebloan sun symbol
This famous Caddoan human effigy pot shows distinctive scarring on its face. This head pot includes a Puebloan sun symbol on its forehead.
Colima hunchback pot with facial scarring Colima dog pot with facial scarring
This hunchback pot from Colima in west Mexico also shows facial scarring. This Colima dog pot also shows facial scarring.

Another artifact from the west Mexican state of Nayarit shows a model of a mortuary temple constructed on a mound covering a tomb. Similarly, a temple topped the funeral mound constructed at Etowah and within the mound were specialized log-lined tombs. (Continues…)

House of Living over House of Dead from West Mexico shaft tomb tradition
A ceramic model of a mortuary temple constructed over a shaft tomb from western Mexico. It is thought to represent the house of the living above the house of the dead.

Kolomoki Mounds (500 AD)

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Kolomoki Mounds are the next great accomplishment of Georgia’s Native Americans.(Watch Video) The Kolomoki Mounds site is believed to have been the most populous Native American community north of Mexico during its time period. The site consists of nine earthen mounds built between the years A.D. 350 and 750. The largest of Kolomoki’s nine mounds is Mound A and it rises to a height of 57 feet. (View QTVR) Its base is larger than a football field thus making it the Indian mound with the largest land base in the state of Georgia. The mound takes the form of a truncated or flat-topped pyramid. Although today the mound is covered with grass and a few trees, it originally would have been swept clear of any vegetation and covered with different colored clays. The final capping layer was made from red clay. Years before this red capping layer was added the mound had been completely covered with white clay. (Watch Animation) These clay capping layers are so thick and hard that early archaeologists joked it would take an earthquake and dynamite to ever break through them.

The southern half of the summit of Mound A is elevated three feet higher than the northern half. No


View larger map

evidence of structures has been found on the summit of the mound thus it may have served solely as a ceremonial platform or stage for public rituals. It also could have served as a platform for astronomical observations since pottery from this time period suggests such observations were being made and accurate calendars were being produced.

It is also not certain how people reached the summit of the mound since no ramp led to the top. It is possible that steps were incorporated into the plaza-side of the mound’s steep face but this has not been investigated.

In the center of the Kolomoki site is a conical mound rising to a height of 20 feet at its apex. (View QTVR) Known as Mound D, this mound contained 77 burials and a cache of exquisite ceremonial pottery. In fact, it is the unique nature of these mortuary pottery vessels that the Kolomoki site has become noted. This cache consisted of effigy pottery in the shapes of various animals including deer, quail and owls.

Mounds D & Mound A at Kolomoki Mounds in Blakely, Georgia
This computer reconstruction shows how Mound D & Mound A might have appeared in 600 AD. This artwork is available on t-shirts, stickers, mugs, and other items in our LostWorlds Gift Store. (Click the image to shop now and help support LostWorlds.org.)

The burial mound itself was constructed over a long period of time and consists of several stages. The first stage was a rectangular platform mound about six feet high created from yellow clay. A cache of 60 pottery vessels, including the aforementioned effigy pottery, was placed against the eastern side of this mound. Many burials later, the mound evolved into a circular platform mound about 10 feet high, still covered in yellow clay. After the final burial activity, the mound was completely covered with red clay and took its present form. These final burials were all placed in the east side of the mound with the skulls facing eastward. Burial objects made from copper and iron as well as pearl beads were included with these burials.

Between the burial mound and Mound A lay a central plaza of red clay. The people of the village most likely lived in houses surrounding this plaza. Their houses were of wattle-and-daub construction with thatched roofs made from local grasses.

Kolomoki Mounds: Burial Mound

Swift Creek Burial Mound at Kolomoki Mounds
This burial mound on the western side of the Kolomoki Mounds complex was filled with burials and Swift Creek pottery.

At the far western end of the site is located a circular, dome shaped burial mound known as Mound E. The mound is about 11 feet high and constructed from soil and rocks with a final capping layer of red clay and rocks. Within it was found the graves of several people along with their grave goods. Some of these grave goods included a copper-covered wooden ornament and a mass of fifty-four complete pottery vessels. One individual was interred with a mass of shell beads and copper ear ornaments with pearls at their centers.

Another mound, Mound B, located at the southeastern end of the central plaza near Mound A, has perplexed archaeologists since its discovery. It seems to have been created solely to hold up very large posts. Some have suggested that these posts were the goal posts of an Indian ball game while others suggested they were possibly totem poles. A more likely explanation, though, comes from written observations during the historic era of Hitchiti Indian practices in this same region. Hitchiti (or lower Creek) towns were divided into “White (peace) Towns” and “Red (war) Towns.” At every public assembly, each town would erect either a white “Peace Post” or red “War Post” at the southeast corner of their central plaza to indicate their present political orientation. Thus, it is likely that Kolomoki’s “mysterious” mound reflects an earlier Woodland version of this same ritual or is a later addition by the Lamar culture.

Astronomical alignments have been noted for several mounds at the Kolomoki site. Mounds A, D, and E which form the central axis of the site form an alignment with the sun at the spring equinox. Mounds F and D form an alignment with the sun at the summer solstice. Other mounds were thought to have been aligned in order to predict the arrival of these solar events.

As was noted previously during the Fort Mountain discussion, pottery manufactured during this time period seems to reflect a detailed knowledge of astronomical events. This pottery, called Weeden Island sacred pottery, includes designs that have been interpreted as being:

  • a solar calendar divided into twelve months including indicators for equinoxes and solstices
  • a star map of the night sky including constellations
  • representations of the paths of Mercury and Venus in the eastern predawn sky
Weeden Island pot thought to be a calendar This Weeden Island pot is thought to have representations of the night sky. This Weeden Island pottery is thought to represent the paths of Venus and Mercury in the night sky.

 

Thus clearly the people who built Kolomoki Mounds were a sophisticated people with knowledge of astronomy.

Who built Kolomoki?

Map of Swift Creek culture area
Map showing the distribution of Swift Creek (purple) and Santa Rosa Swift Creek (orange) culture areas. (Courtesy Herb Roe.)

The primary evidence comes from the two types of pottery that have been found at the site: Swift Creek pottery and Weeden Island pottery. The Swift Creek culture is the older and more wide-spread of the two and it is believed that the Weeden Island culture evolved directly from the Swift Creek. A map of the Swift Creek culture area shows that it was once spread across most of the state of Georgia. The distribution of this culture and its pottery seems to match the distribution of the Hitchiti Native American language family thus it is likely that Hitchiti was the language of the Swift Creek Culture.

One of the few modern-day speakers of this language is the Miccosukee Indian Tribe in south Florida. They were once part of a larger tribe known as the Chiaha who lived in Georgia and Tennessee. As was noted in our previous discussion on Fort Mountain there is mounting evidence that the Chiaha were Maya immigrants from Mexico. According to one Hitchiti migration legend they arrived by boat in the Lake Okeechobee area of Florida before migrating north into Georgia. Archaeologists have found the earliest evidence of corn agriculture in North America in the area around Lake Okeechobee dating to at least 200 AD, the same time period that construction began at Kolomoki. Corn originated in Mexico thus its arrival in Florida suggests Mexican natives brought it there by boat.

This Swift Creek design appears to represent Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent deity from Mexico.
Swift Creek design that appears to show Quetzalcoatl, the “plumed serpent.” (Courtesy David Smith)

Additionally, linguistic connections between Hitchiti and Mayan also exist. For instance, Chiaha is a Mayan word that means “edge water” or “water’s edge.” This is precisely where most Swift Creek villages were constructed and thus a fitting name for this tribe. The Hitchiti word for “house” is chiki, the same as it is for the Totonacs in Mexico.

In both Mayan and Hitchiti chi means “mouth.” These are just a few examples of the linguistic connections.

But further connections can be found in the Swift Creek pottery itself. It appears that Mesoamerican glyphs are represented in many of the design motifs carved and stamped into the surfaces of these pots. The most famous and widespread mythological symbol in Mexico is that of Quetzalcoatl, the plumed or feathered serpent. Images of this mythological being have been discovered on Swift Creek pottery.

Swift Creek design representing the 2 Cane Glyph from Mexico.
Swift Creek design on left is similar to the “2 Cane” glyph from Mexico. (Courtesy David Smith, Atlanta Antiquity, 2009.)

Also, in pre-Hispanic Mexican mythology the year “2 Cane” is associated with the beginning of time. The glyph for “2 Cane” has been found on Swift Creek pottery. Further research will undoubtedly reveal even more such connections.

Is there any evidence for long-distance ocean travel during this time period? In fact, there is. An ocean-going dugout canoe was discovered at Weedon Island, Florida in 2008. Coincidentally, this is the island which gives the aforementioned Weeden Island pottery its name. The canoe was discovered buried on the shore below the high tide mark. Two features immediately suggested to archaeologists that this canoe was used for long distance travel across the open ocean. [Continues...]

Ocmulgee Mounds (1000 AD)

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As impressive as the previously discussed Kolomoki Mounds complex is, the NativeAmerican Mound Builders of Georgia would outdo themselves at the next site in our story: Ocmulgee Mounds. Located in Macon, this ancient civilization consists of seven Indian mounds and associated plazas.

The Great Temple Mound at Ocmulgee was built atop the Macon Plateau and rises 56 feet high from the surface of the plateau. Yet because the mound was ingeniously constructed on the edge of the plateau and the plateau itself was terraced and clay fill added to match the angle of the Temple Mound, the mound rises an impressive 90 feet from the river bank below. It was this imposing view that most visitors to Ocmulgee Indian Mounds saw in prehistoric times since most trade and travel was conducted by dugout canoes along the Ocmulgee river.


View larger map
Map of Ocmulgee Mounds. Zoom in to see individual mounds and other features. Click on the blue tabs  to learn more about each feature. Explore the site in 3D with the Google Earth plugin.

Due to its ingenious construction, the top of the Great Temple Mound is significantly higher than the surrounding tree line thus enabling anyone standing here to have a commanding view of the countryside for miles and miles around as well as an unobstructed view of the entire sky dome for astronomical observations.(View QTVR) From here one could easily see signal fires or smoke signals from outlying villages warning of invaders or other trouble. Likewise traders could light signal fires atop the Great Temple Mound to announce the arrival of new trade goods. As its name suggests the Great Temple Mound was also home to a large temple which likely doubled as the Chief Priest’s home. Here he kept a perpetual fire burning which was an important element of their religion and myths.

This giant ground sloth on display at the University of Georgia was unearthed in Brunswick, GA during construction of I-95.
Giant ground sloth found in southeast Georgia on view at UGA.

The Ocmulgee Mounds site has been occupied for 12,000 years as evidenced by the Clovis spear point found during excavations. (View Image Gallery) The Clovis people lived during the last Ice Age and used these spear points to hunt mastadons, wooly mammoths, giant ground sloths and other giant animals that once roamed Georgia. Around 2000 B.C., the same time period as the Sapelo Shell Rings, the first small shell mounds were constructed at the site but it wasn’t until 900 A.D. that the monumental constructions began.

Who Built Ocmulgee Mounds?

At this time newcomers arrived in the region and brought with them corn agriculture, a new style of pottery, new types of arrowheads and a more complex economic, religious and political system. It is thought that these were Muskogean speakers who later were called Creek Indians by Europeans. According to Creek Indian tradition, Ocmulgee Mounds was the site where they “first sat down” after their long migration from the west. Other traditions hold that they originated near “the backbone of the earth” which was their name for the Rocky Mountains. In fact, as we’ll see below, they could have originated as far away as west Mexico and later migrated into the desert southwest before finally arriving at Ocmulgee.

Popocateptl Volcano erupting at nightOne tribe of Creek Indians, the Cussitaw (Cusseta/Kasihta), have a migration legend which might relate to the settlement of Ocmulgee Mounds. It tells how they originated in a place much farther west, a place where the earth would occasionally open up and swallow their children (a possible reference to earthquakes). Part of their tribe decided to leave this place and began an eastward migration in order to find where the sun rose. On their journey they came to a mountain that thundered and had red smoke coming from its summit which they later discovered was actually fire (a possible reference to a volcano.) Here they decided to settle down after meeting people from three nations (Chickasaws, Atilamas, & Obikaws) who taught them about herbs and “many other things.”

From these references one can speculate that these people migrated from Mexico which is west of Georgia and has both earthquakes and active volcanoes. (For a more in-depth analysis of the Creek migration legend, read “Were Georgia’s Muskogee Creek Indians from West Mexico?“) Mexico is also the birthplace of corn agriculture, a defining characteristic of these newcomers. It is also in Mexico where we find cities consisting of flat-topped pyramid mounds arranged around open plazas which is the most noticeable feature of town planning at Ocmulgee.

Archaeologists use the term “Mississippian” to refer to these cultural traits. Mississippian does not refer to a single tribe or people and, in fact, many different tribes across the Southeast and Midwest eventually adopted various aspects of Mississippian culture. “Mississippian” culture is similar to the term “Western” culture in that it describes traits which were shared by many different peoples and cultures speaking many different languages. Just as cultures from Asia to South America have become “westernized,” so did cultures all over the eastern U.S. become “Mississippianized.”

Other evidence also suggests a Mexican origin for the Creek Indians. For instance, the type of tobacco grown in the southeast by the Creek Indians has been shown to have its origins in Central America.

Creek Indian Steeh-tcha-ko-me-co by George Catlin
“Steeh-tcha-ko-me-co” by George Catlin, 1834.
Chontal sculpture from Guerrero, Mexico
Chontal sculpture from Guerrero, Mexico.

Also, an artifact from the Chontal culture discovered in the state of Guerrero in west Mexico reveals a similar dress styles as a Creek Indian chief painted by artist George Catlin in 1834 named Steeh-tcha-ko-me-co. The Chontal are also noted for portable stone human effigy statues that were part of a complex funerary practice. Similar stone human effigy statues were used by Mississippian era Creek Indians such as at the next site in our story: Etowah Mounds. Also, a stela from Guerrero featured a bird-man design similar to a design on a copper breastplate found at Etowah.

Additionally, the Muskogean language spoken by the Creek Indians is believed by some linguists to be distantly related to the Hokan family. This language family has its origin in western Mexico and the western U.S. where the Yuman group is still spoken in western Arizona, southern California, and northwestern Mexico.

Interestingly, the Yumans also constructed earth lodges which is another feature of the Ocmulgee site (discussed below). More specifically, the Yumans were known for constructing square earth lodges. Not far from Ocmulgee at a site known as Brown’s Mount, archaeologists unearthed the remains of a square earth lodge that dates to the same time period as the round earth lodges at Ocmulgee. Thus an idea present in the West was also present in the East and believed to have been built by the same people as those who constructed Ocmulgee Mounds.

It is also appears that Brown’s Mount played a part in the Creek migration legend. The legend states:

They always have, on their journeys, two scouts who go before the main body. These scouts ascended a high mountain and saw a town…Then the Cussitaws became angry, and determined to attack the town, and each one have a house when it was captured. They threw stones into the river until they could cross it, and took the town (the people had flattened heads), and killed all but two persons.

Thus it seems from the legend that the scouts climbed Brown’s Mount (which is down river from Ocmulgee Mounds) and planned the assault on the town. This also reveals that the Ocmulgee Mounds site was already inhabited when the Cussitaws showed up and these inhabitants practiced cranial deformation which resulted in “flattened heads.”

Ocmulgee Mounds Bibb Plain Mississippian pottery
The newcomers arrived at Ocmulgee Mounds with a different style of pottery featuring shouldered bowls with smooth, undecorated surfaces similar to that found among the tribes of the desert Southwest.

The archaeological evidence actually supports this part of the migration legend. The original pottery unearthed by archaeologists at the site is known as Swift Creek pottery and is noticeably different than the style (called Bibb plain) brought by the newcomers. Also, early explorer C. C. Jones, Jr. from Savannah visited the Ocmulgee site in the late 1800s when the Central of Georgia Railroad was cutting a trail through the site. They cut through the burial mound and Mr. Jones noted in his book Antiquities of the Southern Indians Especially the Georgia Tribes that a skull from the lowest part of the mound, thus the oldest part, exhibited cranial deformation giving it a flattened appearance while the later burials in the upper part of the mound did not. All of this evidence suggests two completely different people inhabited the Ocmulgee Mounds site, one replaced (or massacred) by the other.

As noted in the previous article on Kolomoki Mounds, Swift Creek pottery appears to be associated with the Hitchiti-speaking tribes. At least one Hitchiti migration legend suggests they migrated north into Georgia after having first arrived by boat in the Lake Okeechobee area of Florida. It is in this area where archaeologists have found the earliest evidence of corn agriculture, a native crop of Mexico, although this was a much smaller variety of corn than that brought later by the newcomers at Ocmulgee Mounds.

Mayan Cranial Deformation
A Maya skull and statue both showing cranial deformation.

Curiously the Hitchiti language has several Mayan words in it and Mesoamerican symbols have been found on Swift Creek pottery. The Maya were also known for head flattening. Thus all of this evidence suggests the Hitchiti (or at least some portion of them) were possibly descended from the Maya.

It is likely that the Hitchiti/Swift Creek built the first stage of the funeral mound since the skeletons with cranial deformation were found there. Did they also build the first stages of the Greater and Lesser temple mounds? According to another version of the Creek Migration Legend, the first structure the newcomers built upon arrival was “a mound [with a] great chamber in the center” where the warriors could gather– a clear reference to an earth lodge. Yet the legend mentions nothing about constructing the temple mounds and, in fact, their descendants would later tell European settlers they did not know who constructed the mounds.

Ocmulgee Mounds

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The main features of the Ocmulgee Mounds’ site plan are two truncated pyramidal earthen mounds, one larger than the other, flanking and defining an open plaza area. This site plan does not match previous known Swift Creek site plans such as at Kolomoki Mounds. The site plan does match other Mississippian site plans west of Ocmulgee Mounds such as that at Cahokia near St. Louis. Thus this evidence favors the newcomers as the builders of the Greater and Lesser Temple Mounds and central plaza as well as the Earth Lodge, as previously mentioned.

Also as previously mentioned, the migration legend tells how the Cussitaws would always have scouts ahead of the main group.  Ocmulgee is located on the Ocmulgee River which flows into the Altamaha River which flows into the Atlantic Ocean just south of Sapelo Island for a distance of 300 miles. It is about a three week journey from Ocmulgee to the coast by dugout canoe. Thus as the main group rested at Ocmulgee the scouts would have reached the Atlantic Ocean and realized that their journey had ended. They could go no further east and had discovered that the sun rose from a great ocean each morning. They would return and tell the others about their discovery. Ocmulgee thus became the logical place for a permanent settlement. It truly is where they finally “sat down.” Continues….

Etowah Mounds (1250 AD)

Etowah Mounds is one of the final and perhaps the finest accomplishments of the ancient NativeAmerican moundbuilders of Georgia. This is one of the four most important Mississippian sites along with Moundville in Alabama, Spiro in Oklahoma, and Cahokia in Illinois.

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The Etowah Mounds complex consists of six earthen Indian mounds all in the traditional Mississippian truncated pyramid shape. These Indian mounds were built between 950 A.D. and 1450 A.D. although major construction didn’t truly begin until around A.D. 1250. The Etowah Indian Mounds site is surrounded by a deep moat on three sides and the Etowah River on the fourth. A palisade wall stood just inside the moat adding further protection to the site. Just like our previous site, Ocmulgee Indian Mounds, the major structures are believed to have been built by Muskogee Creek Indians. Also like Ocmulgee Mounds, the site appears to have been inhabited by another group of people first who were later displaced. It is possible that after the massacre at Ocmulgee Mounds mentioned in the previous article, the surrounding Hitchiti Creek Indian tribes moved further north and inhabited the Etowah region before once again being forced out. (Watch Video)

The largest structure at the Etowah Mounds site was the Great Temple Mound and it has the distinction of being the tallest Indian mound in Georgia. It rose 67 feet high (over seven stories tall) and was oriented to the cardinal points (as were the other Indian mounds at the site.) (View QTVR)

Etowah Mounds aerial view

The temple mound was probed with ground penetrating radar but nothing worth investigating was found and thus this Indian mound has never been fully excavated. Archaeologists did find evidence of at least one large structure on top of the Great Temple Mound. A log wall or fence surrounded the summit. Curiously, the summit is pentagonal in form.

The Lesser Temple Mound, or Mound B, is a more circular or oval Indian mound. It is possible this temple mound was originally square and later plowing by farmers in the 1800′s and 1900′s softened the edges to create the current rounded form. It also appears to have had a large structure on top. This Indian mound is approximately 30 feet tall.

The Funeral Mound, on the other hand, has been completely excavated and some of North America’s most important Shell gorgets from the Etowah Mounds site in Georgia.NativeAmerican and Mississippian artifacts have been discovered there. (View 3D Animation) Among these were ceremonial copper axes, copper-covered earspools, necklaces and pendants of shell and engraved shell gorgets. These shell gorgets were circular medallions worn around the neck made from large seashells and inscribed or carved with various designs.

Many of these shell gorget designs belong to a complex known as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, once referred to as the Southern Cult or Southern Death Cult. It has been repeatedly noted that many of these Southeastern Ceremonial Complex designs have strong Mesoamerican influences such as the Long Etowah Mounds Bird Man copper plateNosed God and the Bird Man or Eagle Warrior. It should be remembered that if the Creek Indian Migration Legend is correct, the Muskogee Indian tribe did have its origin in west Mexico. Yet by the time of the major construction period at Etowah Mounds these people had not lived in Mexico for over 300 years. The original Mesoamerican ideas would have evolved in that amount of time and would have been influenced by the people they had come into contact with in the eastern woodlands. Thus ideas such as the Feathered Serpent remained but evolved into their own unique expression. Likewise for the Long Nosed God and the Bird Man/Eagle Warrior.

Native American dance demonstrationThese symbols were also portrayed on copper breastplates worn by high status individuals. One such copper breastplate was found buried with an individual in Mound C, the burial mound. It shows a Bird Man or Eagle Warrior dancing. Amazingly, dancers at modern powwows can be seen performing dances that look remarkably similar to the dances portrayed in these copper designs.

Marble human effigy statues from Etowah Mounds in Georgia.The most important artifacts discovered at the Etowah Mounds site are undoubtedly the two carved marble statues of a man and woman. They are each about two feet tall and are in sitting positions. Early Spanish explorers noted that similar statues were part of an ancestor worship cult and were housed in Funerary Temples where offerings were made to them. These particular statues were discovered buried in their own grave at the base of Mound C. It appears that they were hastily buried without a lot of care since they were broken into pieces when discovered.

This hasty burial corresponds with another piece of archaeological evidence: the palisade wall appears to have burned down. Often times Native Americans would bury important objects when they came under attack in order to keep the items out of the hands of their enemies. It is probable that an attack serious enough to burn down the major defensive work of the massive Etowah Mounds site would have been the inspiration for such a hasty burial of these important objects. It is also possible that the attackers smashed the statues, thereby ritually killing them, and buried them to prevent them from ever being used again.

Who Built Etowah Mounds?

Human Effigy Pair from Nayarit MexicoAs stated in the previous discussion on Ocmulgee Mounds, it appears that the Muskogee Creek Indian tribe migrated from western Mexico into the southwestern U.S.. From here they ended up at the Spiro Indian Mounds site in Oklahoma and the Cahokia Indian Mounds site in Missouri and Illinois. Many artifacts discovered at Etowah Mounds were from either Cahokia or Spiro and many of these were very similar to artifacts from the Shaft Tomb Tradition in west Mexico such as ancestor pair statues, dog effigy pots and tree of life symbolism. For a more thorough and in-depth analysis of the evidence linking Etowah to the west Mexico shaft tomb tradition please visit our exhibit entitled “Were Georgia’s Muskogee Creek Indians from West Mexcio?” But here’s a quick overview of the evidence.

Tableau featuring cedar tree with birds from west Mexico shaft tomb tradition Tree of Life with Birds from Spiro Mounds
Tableau from shaft tomb in Nayarit, Mexico Shell engraving from Spiro Mounds, Oklahoma features similar tree with birds

As just mentioned, archaeologists have noted that the elite at Etowah Mounds had a trading relationship with another important NativeAmerican Mississippian town known as Spiro Mounds in Oklahoma. Spiro Mounds is known for the amazing cache of artifacts that were unearthed in one of its prominent Indian mounds known as Craig Mound. One such artifact, an engraved marine shell known as the Tree of Life with Birds, is identical to a sculpture by the Nayarit people of west Mexico. (The Nayarit are also responsible for the aforementioned Ancestor Pair statues.)

Why did the elites at Etowah Mounds have contact with the elites at Spiro Mounds in Oklahoma, a distance of over 700 miles? Was this simply a trading relationship or was it something much deeper? Could Spiro Mounds have been ruled over by elites related to the elites at Etowah? There are oral traditions all over the southeast of tribes being ruled over by foreigners and these foreigners seem to be related to each other in some way. Could Spiro have been one of the first places the NativeAmerican Mississippians established themselves before continuing their migration east?

Bull Creek Dog Effigy Pot from Muscogee County, Georgia chihuahua
This side-by-side comparison shows the dog effigy pot found near Bull Creek in Muskogee County, Georgia and a modern Chihuahua. This pot is currently on display at The Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia and dates from around 1350 AD. The pot also features a whirlwind design which likely represents the Wind Clan, one of the oldest and most revered clans of the Muskogee-Creek Indians.

Elsewhere in Georgia archaeologists uncovered another piece of evidence which seems to link these immigrants to west Mexico: dog effigy pots. The dog effigy pot to the left is just one of many such pots discovered throughout Georgia and Tennessee. What is most intriguing is the breed of dog the pot appears to represent: a Chihuahua. (Read: Ancient Chihuahuas in Southeastern U.S.?) Note its short, upturned snout, bulbous forehead, and arching tail. No other dog breed except the Chihuahua has these particular combination of traits. Yet Chihuahuas are a breed that originated in the western Mexico state of Chihuahua so why do they show up on pots in Georgia? Similar pots from west Mexico also appear to show fattened Chihuahuas. Known as Colima Dog Pots, many of these pots also served as vessels with pouring spouts although not all did. The Colima dog pots are thought to represent the original Techichi breed from which modern Chihuahuas are derived. These little dogs were mute and kept fat to be eaten by the elite.

Colima dog pot w/ spout Colima dog pot
Two of the famous Colima Dog Pots found in a shaft tomb in  western Mexico. The dogs are thought to represent the Techichi breed, a small, mute dog from which the modern Chihuahua is derived.

These three facts are important clues that further support a Mexican origin for the Muskogee Creek Indians. Why? Because when the first Spanish explorers with the De Soto expedition traveled through Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the early 1500s they noted that the chiefs in this region would often offer them “little dogs” to eat which had been fattened up for that very purpose. The Spanish also noted that these dogs could not bark. This, along with the Bull Creek Dog Effigy Pot, would seem to support the fact that Indian tribes in this area were raising Techichis and Chihuahuas. [Continues...]