According to the great Mayan scholar J. Eric Thompson in his book Maya History and Religion the Chontal Maya called themselves the Putun or Poton and called their province Acala. Interestingly, there is a city called Ocala in central Florida. It is named after a Native American province recorded in the journals of the first Spanish conquistadors to pass through the area in the early 1500s. These Spanish journals recorded the name of the first Native American tribe they met in the vicinity of Ocala: the Potani. (The importance of Ocala’s geographical location will be discussed further on.) They also recorded the name of the southernmost town in the province of Ocala: Uqueten. Yokot’an just so happened to be another name for the Chontal Maya. It is where the Yucatan in Mexico gets its name. Thus we have a province called Ocala with a town named Uqueten and a people called Potani in Florida and a Poton/Yokot’an people living in a province called Acala in Mexico. Furthermore, Thompson argued that the Itza and Poton Maya were either closely related or the same people.
There’s gold in them hills!
This evidence supports a Mayan presence in Florida and Georgia but doesn’t answer the question of why they were here in the first place. What could these two regions of the southeastern U.S. offer the Maya that wasn’t already available in Mexico? A clue comes from the first French colony in the New World at Fort Caroline in modern-day Jacksonville, Florida. The French recorded in their journals that the local Timucua Indians had various gold objects in their possession. The Timucua agreed to take the French to the northern mountains where they got this gold. The Timucua and French travelled to the Apalachian Mountains and met a Native American tribe mining gold there.
The Spanish, namely the expedition of Panfilo de Narvaez, met Native Americans in Florida who had some gold trinkets. When asked where these came from they were told, “that very far from there was a province called Apalachen where was much gold.” Once again we see that the tribes of Florida knew there was gold in the Appalachian Mountains. America’s first gold rush took place in these same mountains which confirms there was once significant gold in the area.
Yet this Native American gold mining operation presents and enigma since archaeologists have never found many gold artifacts in Native American archaeological sites in the region. (Although one artifact to be discussed later offers tantalizing evidence of a Mayan presence in Florida.) So who was this tribe doing the mining and what were they doing with the gold?
Interestingly, the name of this tribe as recorded by the French explorers was Potanou. Were the Poton Maya mining gold in the Apalachian mountains and shipping it back to Mexico? Was this the reason so few gold artifacts were discovered in eastern North America?
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|Map of Mayan trade routes to Chaco Canyon, Florida,and Antigua.|
We know the Maya were doing something similar in the American southwest at Chaco Canyon. Archaeologists have found southwestern turquois in mosaics at Chichen Itza and Mayan chocolate residue in drinking cups at Chaco Canyon. This is an overland distance of over 2,000 miles. By comparison, Florida is an overwater distance of only 450 miles. In addition, archaeologists have found Mayan jade at sites in the eastern Caribbean on the island of Antigua which is an overwater distance of 1700 miles. Clearly, reaching Florida would have been quite easy for the Poton Maya. In fact, the Gulf Loop Current flows north past the Yucatan and goes directly to Florida thus even without sailing technology one could simply float on the currents and arrive in Florida.
Is there any other evidence of a Poton/Itza Maya presence in Georgia? Yes, there is. J. Eric Thompson also noted in his Maya History and Religion that the Poton Maya were known for constructing homes with doors in the corner of the structure. He noted such structures were shown on a mural at Chichen Itza that represented the Putun/Itza conquest of Chichen Itza. This architectural practice seems unique to the Poton Maya. Yet archaeological evidence of houses with corner doors were also found at the Etowah Mounds site in north Georgia. This is not the only trait shared between Etowah and Mayan sites. An architect I shared this mural with noticed that it contained several additional house types which were also common at sites in Georgia.
Etowah Mounds also features another architectural tradition shared by some Maya sites: a pentagonal mound. The Great Temple Mound at Etowah is in the shape of a five-sided pentagon. Similar pentagonal mounds can be seen at the Maya site of Chawak But’o’ob in northwestern Belize.
There is also a similar artistic tradition between Etowah and Chichen Itza. A copper plate unearthed at Etowah shows a man dressed in an eagle costume holding a scepter in one hand and a human head in the other. A similar image can be found in a relief at Chichen Itza.
When Europeans first arrived in Georgia they encountered a tribe called the Ocute (which translates as “Water People” in Hitchiti) who still constructed pentagonal mounds. The Spanish described these people as being quite unusual in appearance as compared to other tribes in the area. The men all wore mustaches and the priests had beards. The depiction of beards are rare in Maya art but is quite common in Olmec art. Coincidentally, the Poton Maya (Chontal Maya) claim to be descendants of the Olmec.
The fact is, the Poton Maya were plying the same coastal trade routes once controlled by the Olmec. Their territory was the cradle of Olmec civilization. An exquisite wood carving of a Poton Maya Lord has a very Olmec appearance including a mustache and beard. Could the Poton (Chontal) and Olmec be the same people? In his book Origin and Diffusion of Maya Civilization: The Olmec-Chontal-Itza Centric Theory, Douglas Peck argues that the Olmec, Poton (Chontal) and Itza cultures were, in fact, one-and-the-same and were responsible for spreading Maya culture far and wide.
One researcher noted that several place names in north Georgia seem Mayan in origin. For instance, several towns were named Itsate. In Hitchiti, this translates as “Itsa People.” Another town now known as Brasstown was called Itsaye, a Cherokee word that translates as “Itsa Place.” This researcher argues in the book Itsapa- the Itza Maya in North America that an archaeological site on the side of Brasstown Bald, the highest mountain peak in Georgia, that features garden terraces, stone walls and platforms is very similar in form to Mayan mountain terrace sites. He has argued it could be the site of a famous Native American town known as Yupaha which the Spanish conquistador De Soto frantically searched for in the 1500s due to its fabled riches and gold.
The Spanish expedition of De Soto only mentions gold twice in their journals and the first time was in reference to Yupaha. They first learned of Yupaha in northwest Florida:
Of the Indians taken in Napetuca, the treasurer, Juan Gaytan, brought a youth with him who stated that he did not belong to that country, but to one afar in the direction of the sun’s rising; that it’s name was Yupaha, and as governed by a woman; the town she lived in being of astonishing size, and many neighboring lords her tributaries, some of whom gave her clothing, others gold in quantity. He showed how the metal was taken from the earth, melted and refined, exactly as though he had seen it all done, or else the devil had taught him how it was.
The Spanish never found Yupaha which isn’t surprising. Their guide would have likely met certain death had he taken a foreign army into such a rich city. It’s clear he took the Spanish on a wild goose chase to avoid them finding the city. Interestingly, the name of this city, Yupaha, is consistent with Mayan naming conventions. For instance, the Mayan name for the famous Palenque site in the mountains of southern Mexico is Lakamha which means “Big Water” (lakam = big, ha=water). Coincidentally, among the Creek Indians, lako means “big.”
The only other reference to gold in the Spanish journals was at another site in the Georgia mountains called Chiaha. Chiaha just so happens to also be a Mayan word. As noted earlier, chi means “mouth” in both Itza Maya and Hitchiti. Chi also translates as “edge” in Itza Maya and ha translates as “water” thus chiaha means “edge water.” Coincidentally, the town of Chiaha was located on an island in the middle of a river thus “edge water” is a perfect description of the site. Also interesting was the title of the leader of Chiaha as recorded by the Spanish: olameco. (Continues…)