The Mesoamerican Connection to the Eastern United States

I found the following information in the comments section of a blog that was critiquing the Mayan-Georgia connection. The author of this comment, Bill Tiffee, provides a wealth of information about research made through the years that support a connection between the Native American tribes of the U.S. and their counterparts south of the Rio Grande in Mexico. Read his comments below:

I believe the famous Zelia Nuttall was the first to propose a link between Georgia (Etowah) and the Maya.(Comparison between Etowan, Mexican and Mayan designs in Etowah Papers (1932).
And of course the dominant paradigm prior to the 1970s was that Mesoamerica and the SECC region were closely linked. A handful of scholars, including Timothy Pauketat, Peter Peregrine, Alice Kehoe and Stephen Lekson, have continued to champion theories very close to those of Richard Thornton….

“My research interests in archaeoastronomy and ancient religion have been developed in part through my participation in a working group on pan-American cosmology at the Santa Fe Institute, organized by Linda Cordell, George Gumerman, and Murray Gell-Mann. There and in other ways I have benefitted from working with and learning from Robert Hall, who happens to also have done early work at the Emerald site, the focus on future work and key in what is going to be another radical change in how we understand Cahokia. Via Bob, others at the SFI, and influential figures such as Alice Kehoe, Mesoamerica has reemerged in what Steve Lekson would call a big-historical re-thinking of North America.

Alice Kehoe:
“Mesoamericanists will be interested in the connection I found between Osage priest texts and the Vienna Codex:
Kehoe, Alice B. 2007. Osage Texts and Cahokia Data. In Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms, edited by F. Kent Reilly III and James Garber. Austin: University of Texas Press,
and in this entire volume, which includes my paper suggesting the name Powhatan was a praise name from Maya Pahuatun:
Kehoe, Alice B. 2005 Wind Jewels and Paddling Gods: The Mississippian Southeast in the Postclassic Mesoamerican World. In Gulf Coast Archaeology, the Southeastern United States and Mexico, ed. Nancy Marie White. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. Pp. 260-280.

Alice kehoe (wiki entry)
“Kehoe emphasizes that, from these stale and false notions of ancient Native American history, much has been missed in the archaeological record of the Americas that is only just now coming to light. This history is now being reinterpreted through the new knowledge and understanding of peoples who built towns and even cities (e.g. Cahokia) of pyramidal mounds and other forms of monumental architecture surrounding huge ceremonial plazas. For instance, in examining the most recently discovered archaeological evidence of Cahokia, Kehoe suggests that this largest known center of Mississippian culture should best be termed a state. She argues that the Mississippian, often called “mound-building,” culture had close trade and communication links with civilizations of Mesoamerica (Mayas, Aztecs, their predecessors and contemporaries) and that this link is readily apparent from the archaeological record. She argues that trans-Gulf contact between the Mississippi Valley and Mesoamerica was quite likely, with communication and trade occurring either on foot, by canoe, or both, leading to clear similarities in the culture, religion, and art of the SECC, Midwest, and Mesoamerica (Kehoe 2005 Wind Jewels and Paddling Gods: The Mississippian Southeast in the Postclassic Mesoamerican World. In Gulf Coast Archaeology, the Southeastern United States and Mexico, ed. Nancy Marie White. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. Pp. 260-280).
Gulf Coast archaeology : the southeastern United States and Mexico /Authors:White, Nancy Marie. | Society for American Archaeology. — Meeting — (2001 : — New Orleans, La.)Published by : University Press of Florida,

Archaeologist Alice Kehoe(professor emeritus of anthropology at Marquette University), is another prominent scholar who continues to support close ties between American and Mesoamerican cultures. Kehoe notes that the “Tolteca may have traded, perhaps via nations in the Huasteca, across the gulf and up the Mississippi lacks hard evidence (other than filed human incisors), but hard evidence for Highland Mexico itself in this period is relatively limited and subject to much debate…Evidence for contacts, for shared conceptualizations, does exist in similarities between Early Postclassic Mexico and contemporary Mississippian (e.g. Carlson 1981; Hall 1984; Gillespie 1991). Some of the strongest parallels are in iconography (especially if mound-and-plaza architecture is counted as iconography)…. Phillip’s tenacity in rejecting Mississippian-Mesoamerican contacts even when evidenced on Gulf of Mexico shells transported to eastern Oklahoma, is a strong example of the power of core beliefs in this discipline.”

“the principle of actualism, not to mention Occam’s Razor, posits Cahokia to be a market hub, and one that was likely to ship goods downriver. Downriver from Cahokia leads into the gulf of Mexico and the ports of the Huastec and Maya. Huge platform pyramidal mounds constructed around great plazas-the central theater of power signaled by an imposing wall-neighbored by relatively well-constructed (wall-trench) houses with a variety of finely polished open bowls, cups, and jars, amid miles of hamlets among raised fields of maize and squashes? This form for a metropolis was standard in Mesoamerica…The parsimonious hypothesis is that Cahokia’s pyramidal mounds and plazas and ‘green city’ farmsteads and hamlets, which replicate the general Mesoamerican pattern of the urbs, embody architectural conceptions originating in Mexico.” (Assembling the Past; studies in the Professionalization of Archaeology at 169).

Among archaeologists, there is a maxim that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, yet this lack of evidence is offered as the primary grounds to dismiss decades of careful analysis of the links between the Mesoamerican and North American pyramid building cultures, even to the extreme of stating that such contacts can no longer be “seriously hypothesized.” The real question is whether there are plausible explanations for the lack of evidence of trade, and history is replete with examples of closed trading systems(US gunboats under the command of Commodore Perry shelled Japanese ports in 1853 in order to force them open to trade).

Given the number of wars in history that have their roots in trade conflicts, the two cultures may have also simply agreed to trade in their own exclusive zones(the Mesoamerican one obviously extended into the southwestern United States). A state of hostile relations between the two cultures could also account for the lack of trade. The absence of evidence means very little in terms of what influence the two cultures had on each other, a link that may well go back to 3000 BCE, the Maya creation era of 3114 BCE.

The Mexican Connection and the far west of the American Southeast
Nancy White
American Antiquity
© 2008 Society for American Archaeology
73(2) 2008 227-277
New World archaeologists have long agreed that there was prehistoric cultural interaction between the southeastern United States and Mesoamerica, but seldom are the details of such potential relationships discussed, especially recently. The farthest westward extent of Southeastern cultural influences, as shown through the distributions of fiber-tempered pottery, Archaic and Woodland mounds, later platform mounds, ceramic styles, and other material culture, seems to be east Texas. Only a few Mexican artifacts have been found at the edges of the Southeast-obsidian at Spiro and coastal Texas, asphalt-covered pottery extending northward from Mexico into southern Texas-though general ideological connections, not to mention the sharing of maize agriculture, seem obvious. In northeast Mexico, outside the Mesoamerican heartland, Huastecan people made artifacts similar to types in the Southeast. But long-distance interactions overland or via the Gulf of Mexico were apparently sporadic, despite some common cultural foundations. Strong Southeastern cultural identities plus the presence of the north Mexico/south Texas desert may have discouraged movement into the Southeast of many important Mesoamerican traditions, such as cotton growing and beer drinking.”

In less enlightened times during the post-World War II era, it was commonplace for scholars to suggest links between the Mesoamerican cultures and those of southern America, particularly Spiro, where the most prized treasures of SECC art were found. According to David Sutton Phelps:
“Mesoamerican influence on the culture of the eastern United States has long been recognized and variously discussed in the literature of the past 60 years. While the majority of these discussions have recognized the existence of relatively direct diffusion from Mesoamerica to the Southeastern United States, they have dwelled primarily on attempts to correlate traits and establish the possible routes of contact…The cultural exchange between Mesoamerica and the Southeastern United States may have begun as early as 3000 B.C.” (“Mesoamerican Glyph Motifs on Southeastern Pottery,” by David Sutton Phelps, International Congress of Americanists, 1965).

As late as 1968, Robert Silverberg would write that “Beyond much doubt the basic Mississippian ideas stemmed from Mexico, for they follow Mexican thought in many ways…Though the Mexican influence on Hopewell and Adena is still a matter for conjecture, there is little doubt that Mexican thought underlies the Mississippian Tradition.” (Silverberg; Mound Builders of Ancient America: The Archaeology of a Myth, 296)

There is also a long history linking Spiro to the Huastec Indians, and recent research lists Tula, Hidalgo as a Huastec rather than a “Toltec” site.

MacNeish (1947) gave a list of traits “which he believes connects Spiro and the Southeast with Mesoamerica, particularly into the Huasteca area of northeastern Mexico.” (James Griffin; An interpretation of the Place of Spiro in Southeastern Archaeology, 1950).

Wicke (1965) noted that various scholars have considered the problem of Mesoamerican cultural influences in the eastern United States. They “agree in general on a Mesoamerican origin for temple mounds. Eastern temple mounds are larger than the earliest ones from Mesoamerica and, like them, are characterized by groups of four around a plaza, superimposed construction, frequent eastward orientation of the principal platform of a group, and capping by a temple structure. The Huastec region of northeastern Mesoamerica seems to show the closest architectural similarities to the southeastern United States.” (Wicke; Pyramids and Temple Mounds: Mesoamerican ceremonial architecture in Eastern North America; American Antiquity, vol 30, April 1965 at 409).

On the other side of the border fence, modern Mexican scholars such as Alfredo Austin and Leonardo Lujan have no difficulty connecting the Mexican cultures to the “American” natives: “The
Huastecs also had contact with the Mississippi Basin in the southeastern US, as shown by the similarities in the motifs on luxury items in both place.” (Mexico’s Indigenous Past; Austin et al at 264).

Huastec art figures “frequently sport extensive and complicated tattoos” (just as the Tula encountered by de Soto had tattoos around the nose and mouth), and “many of the sculptures have adornments identifying them with Quetzalcoatl or with death gods.”(at 264). They also note that Huastec ceramics have been found at Tula Xicocotitlan in the state of Hidalgo, and list Tula as a “Huastec” site(at 264), which supports recent scholarship which views Tula Xicocotitlan not as a “Toltec” culture but rather as Huastec. Aztec myths also speak of a “Huastec Lord” at Tula(Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas; ed. Bruce Trigger et al, 184 )

Gary C. Daniels

Gary C. Daniels is an award-winning, Emmy-nominated television, video and multimedia writer and producer. He has a M.A. degree in Communications from Georgia State University in Atlanta, a B.F.A. degree in TV Production from the Savannah College of Art and Design and an A.A. degree in Art from the College of Coastal Georgia. He has appeared on the Travel Channel, Discovery Channel, Science Channel and History Channel. His History Channel appearance became the highest-rated episode in the network's history. He has a passion for Native American history and art. He is the founder and publisher of