Mayan Words Among Georgia’s Indians?

Mayan Words in Hitchiti-Creek Language Suggest Ancient Connection

The Hitchiti language, one of many languages spoken by Creek Indians, was spoken in Georgia and Florida during the Colonial Period by tribes including the Hitchiti, Chiaha, Oconee, Sawokli, Apalachicola and Miccosukee. Based on the number of place names derived from the Hitchiti language, scholars believe this language was once spoken over a much larger area of Georgia and Florida than it was during colonial times.1

A Seminole Indian camp with a sleep chickee, cooking chickee, and eating chickee. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Curiously, the Hitchiti language appears to contain words of Mesoamerican origin. For instance, the Hitchiti word for “house,” chikee,is identical to the Totonac word for “house”: chiki.3

The Totonacs likely borrowed the word from their Maya neighbors where the word means “woven basket/container.” In fact, the Mayan word refers specifically to one type of basket, those made with split cane or similar woody material. Since Totonac homes consisted of a substructure of interwoven tree limbs and saplings with an overcoat of stucco-like clay (referred to as wattle-and-daub construction), “woven container” is a fitting description for these homes. The Hitchiti chikee was a four post design with no exterior walls but instead used mats woven from split cane material to create partitions and blinds. Again, we see that “woven container” is an appropriate description of these homes as well. (“Container” was a common euphimism in Mayan for “house.” For instance, in the Mayan dialect of Chol ‘otot is usually glossed as “house” but has been shown to have “a wider range of meanings as ‘container.’”)4

Chikee was the name of the summer house for Hitchiti-speaking tribes. They also had a winter house that had thick walls to better keep in heat. They called this house a tcokofa or “hot house.”5 In Mayan choko means “hot.” The word is still used in modern Muskogean and is chukopa which means “warm place,” where chuko means “warm” and pa means “place.”

El Castillo pyramid at Chichen Itza

Other Mayan words also appear in Hitchiti dictionaries. Chi is the Hitchiti word for “mouth.” Chi also means “mouth” in the Itza dialect of the Mayan language. One of the Itza’s most famous cities was Chichen Itza. Chichen is translated as “mouth of the well” with chi meaning “mouth” and chen meaning “well.” Chahni means “well” in Hitchiti thus chichahni would mean “mouth of the well” in that language.

John Mitchell’s 1755 map of Georgia shows Chiaha listed as Chiha.

The next entry in the Itza Mayan dictionary after chi is chiaha-eh  which translates as “water’s mouth” or “water’s edge.” Chiaha, sometimes also corrupted as Chehaw and Chiha6, was a common town name among Hitchiti Creek Indians7 whose villages were located beside rivers and streams. The earliest record of a town by this name appears in the journals of the De Soto expedition who visited a town named Chiaha that was located on an island in the middle of a river.8 Thus “edge water” is an appropriate description of these villages.

Lake Okeechobee as viewed from space. (Courtesy Wikipedia.)

Interestingly, the area around Lake Okeechobee in south central Florida was known as “Chia”9 and the people who lived there were called the Mayaimi. One researcher theorized, based on absolutely no evidence, the word meant “high place” but due to its use for the area surrounding Lake Okeechobee it seems more likely a corrupted form of Chiaha, “chi-ha,” meaning “edge water.”

In Hitchiti, Okeechobee means “Big Water” where oki means “water” and chobee means “big.” There was another word for “big” among the Creek Indians: lako. In Mayan, lakam means “big,” as in the Mayan name for Palenque, Lakamha which means “Big Water.”

The –ha suffix was a way in which the Mayan language denoted water. Similarly in Georgia and Florida there are many rivers and lakes with Hitchiti names that end in ha such as the Altamaha River in Georgia, Ocklawaha River and Lake Hatchineha in Florida. This suggests that they also used this suffix to denote water but only with further research can we be certain.

The Mayan word for blood is ch’ich. According to anthropologist and linguist John R. Swanton, the Natchez word for “blood” was i’cha which, although different from the usual Creek word, reappeared in Hitchiti as ichikchi.10 The Hitchiti dictionary lists pichikchi for “blood.” Yet it also lists the prefix pichi as “to give” thus it is likely pichikchi actually means “to give blood”  and Swanton’s ichikchi is the correct word for “blood” in Hitchiti.

The Hitchiti word bih means “head-chief” and the head chief was known as the Great Sun. Early eyewitness accounts of the Natchez noted that each morning the Great Sun would smoke a pipe and blow the smoke towards the sun (center) and then to the four directions.11 Thus we see that the Great Sun is associated with the five directions.

Mayan k’in glyph with quincunx design

Among the Maya the quincunx design consisting of five dots represented the four directions plus a center direction. In Mayan this design has the phonetic value bi or be.12 It is often integrated in the k’in glyph which means “sun.” Thus, like the Maya, the Hitchiti word bih is associated with both the sun and four directions.

The Hitchiti word for rattlesnake, chintmigun, translates literally as “snake chief.” Likewise, “in many Mayan languages the word for ‘rattlesnake’ is composed of the word for ‘snake’ preceded by aha(w) (lord).”13 So, although the actual words are not the same, the ideas are identical.

There are also words of Mixe-Zoque origin in Hitchiti. For instance, the Hitchiti word for “three,” tuchini, is very similar to the Mixe word for “three,” toohk.14

The typical scholarly argument suggests these are just coincidences or at the very least very recent additions to the Hitchiti language during the colonial period. The argument goes that if they were truly ancient then they would have changed in the intervening years.15 Yet recent linguistic research shows this is not the case. In fact, researchers showed that “the frequency with which a word is used relates to how slowly it changes through time, so that the most common words tend to be the oldest ones.”16 Chikee or “house” is certainly a very common word thus it could easily have survived the ravages of time unchanged.

In fact, the word was already part of several place names when the first Spanish explorers entered the southeast in the early 1500s. The conquistador De Soto recorded a town named Cofachaqi and Cofitacheqi in his journals. Nearly five hundred years later the word is still in use among the Seminole and Miccosukee with zero change.

Why do several seemingly Mayan words appear in the Hitchiti language? How many other such words are there? In his article, “The Natchez, an offshoot of the civilized nations of Central America,” famed early Mayan scholar, Dr. D. G. Brinton, noted over 100 words of Mayan origin.17 In  his article “Maya stock and Mexican languages,” Carl Herman Berendt, acknowledged as “undoubtedly the greatest scholar of the Mayan language,”18 also compared Maya with Natchez. In Miscellanea Maya in the Berendt Linguistic Collection, No. 179, Berendt showed similarities between Natchez, Apalachee, and Mayan.19 

In his article, “On the Language of the Natchez,” Brinton later backtracked somewhat from this position and noted, “It is very evident…that the Natche is a dialect of the Maskoke or Creek…with a small percentage of totally foreign roots.”20 But then notes, “The body of roots wholly dissimilar from any I have been able to find in the Chahta-Maskoke dialects, embraces a number of important words, and makes up a sufficiently large percentage of the language to testify positively to a potent foreign influence.”21 He did not speculate as to whom this foreign influence might be but it seems reasonable to assume that, based on his previous writings, the Maya were one likely candidate.

Brinton also noted that among the Natchez, the commoners spoke one language, referred to as the “stinkard language,” while the elites spoke another. As Brinton notes, “The Natchez offered one of several examples among American Indians where in the same community two independent tongues were employed, one by the nobles, the conquerors, another by the vulgar, the conquered.”22

Although, again, Brinton would later question the idea of two separate languages, the legends of several tribes suggest they were, in fact, ruled over by foreigners who lived atop the earthen pyramids scattered throughout the region.23 These foreigners were always referred to as a “priestly clan.” Among the Cherokee they were known as the Ani-Kutani and among the Choctaw the Unkala. The Choctaw legends stated they controlled an important temple called the “House of Warriors” and “chanted hymns in an unknown tongue.”24 Some legends even noted that these foreigners came from the sea and maintained rule within a single family for thirteen generations before dying out.25 The Cherokee claimed to have massacred the foreigners who ruled over them.

Were these “priests” actually nobles of Maya descent ruling over local indigenous tribes? Does this explain why only certain Mayan words such as for “blood,” “house,” “head chief,” et cetera, showed up in the commoners’ language?

Another clue that may help determine the most likely source of this foreign influence arises from symbols that appeared on pottery in Florida and Georgia around 200 AD. Known as Swift Creek pottery, these symbols were similar and, in some cases, identical to Mesoamerican symbols and Mayan glyphs. For more info read: “Mayan Glyphs on Georgia, Florida Pottery?

Work in progress. For more information visit: Maya in America- The Untold Story of Ancient America.

[References cited can be found on the original paper: “A Mayan Connection to Florida and Georgia Indians?“]

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
Above: Watch an excerpt from the Lost Worlds: Georgia DVD.   Buy today or make a donation and help support LostWorlds.org. All sales help fund future videos and exhibits. Watch more videos at LostWorldsTV.

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
Above: Watch a short excerpt from the Lost Worlds: Georgia DVD. Buy the DVD or make a donation to help fund future videos and exhibits. Watch more videos at LostWorldsTV and subscribe to our newsletter for updates.

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…)