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)

Sapelo Shell Ring Complex1.SapeloShellRings Rock Eagle2.RockEagle ancient stone wall atop Fort Mountain3.FortMountain Kolomoki Mounds4.Kolomoki Ocmulgee Mounds5.Ocmulgee Etowah Mounds6.Etowah
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Kolomoki Mounds are the next great accomplishment of Georgia’s Native Americans. 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.  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.  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.

View larger map  Zoom in to see the actual Kolomoki Mounds site. Click on the individual markers to learn more about each feature.

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

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.

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 lies 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. (Continues…)

Ocmulgee Mounds (1000 AD)

Sapelo Shell Ring Complex1.SapeloShellRings Rock Eagle2.RockEagle ancient stone wall atop Fort Mountain3.FortMountain Kolomoki Mounds4.Kolomoki Ocmulgee Mounds5.Ocmulgee Etowah Mounds6.Etowah
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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. 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. 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. [View Gallery]

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. (Continues…)

Etowah Mounds (1250 AD)

Sapelo Shell Ring Complex1.SapeloShellRings Rock Eagle2.RockEagle ancient stone wall atop Fort Mountain3.FortMountain Kolomoki Mounds4.Kolomoki Ocmulgee Mounds5.Ocmulgee Etowah Mounds6.Etowah

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.

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.)

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.

 Zoom in to see the Etowah Mounds site. Click on the blue markers to learn more about individual features of the site.

Shell gorgets from the Etowah Mounds site in Georgia.The Funeral Mound, on the other hand, has been completely excavated and some of North America’s most important Native American and Mississippian artifacts have been discovered there.  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. [View Gallery]

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.[Continues…]