Did Maya settle in Georgia?

Article by Blake Smith | | Published: 2.16.12

A version of this article appears in The Examiner.

In December I began seeing many articles about a possible forgotten group of Maya refugees having come to what is now North Georgia to settle at the end of the “classic period” of their culture in Central America (around 900 AD).

A small amount of digging revealed that all of the articles were tied back to a post on The Examiner by author Richard Thornton. It’s an interesting article, and an interesting idea – and one worth discussing and investigating. Many topics that are investigated by skeptics involve questions about an idea that would overturn decades of scientific theory! And these ideas are postulated and promoted by persons whose expertise and education fall outside the fields they want to revolutionize.


In the process of gaining expertise in established sciences, there are hundreds to thousands of hours of “basic” training in the tools, procedures and theory which comprise the field. Ignorance of these basics is no sin, but familiarity with them can save time by helping one to avoid repeating work on hypotheses which have already been falsified (or demonstrated to be impossible). An outsider may have useful insights into a field in which they lack expertise, but they also are at risk of drawing incorrect conclusions because of their ignorance of well tested theory.

Richard Thornton is a very engaging writer and has interesting ideas about the history of North America. I’ll generalize these down to two concepts that recur in several of his articles:

  • The history of North America includes tribal migration from pyramid-building cultures from the American Southwest to what is now the Southeastern United States.
  • Proof of this migration can be found in the architecture, archeology and DNA from sites in the American Southeast.

His articles take a very definite tone that imply certitude about his hypotheses. Is that certitude warranted?

Some red flags came up as I read his article on the Maya connection with archaeological zone 9UN367 (more commonly known as the Track Rock Gap archaeological site). First, there is a pretty good reason why archaeologists don’t support his hypothesis. When people live in a place they leave trash, buildings, middens, pottery and ceramics, tools, and all the general detritus that indicate humans lived here. Thornton’s hypothesis is that when the Maya culture fell, there was a diaspora – part of that included an exodus of Mayas north and then east to what is now North Georgia. But where is the evidence of this migration?

If the people who occupied the Track Rock Gap site had been Maya refugees, then one might expect that their language, art and ceramic techniques would mirror that of the cultural environment which they left. The Mayas had written language, complex calendars, and definite styles that have not been found in the Track Rock Gap site.

Another tell-tale issue is that Thornton’s hypothesis is in direct conflict with the findings of the trained archaeologist who actually examined the sites. If you visit the comments-section on the Track Rock Gap article, the very first comment is from the archaeologist Mark Williams. Williams dismisses the whole premise as “complete bunk” which initiated a storm of comments from readers.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Thornton’s theory – but there is no evidence to support it from an archaeological perspective. Like Thornton, I am not an archaeologist. But I tend to defer to experts in matters where I am not professionally trained.

To get an expert opinion on this matter, I contacted Dr. Ken Feder, an archaeologist I know from my work on the podcast MonsterTalk . Feder, a Professor of Archaeology from Central Connecticut State University, responded. I am including his response in full:

Letter from Ken Feder, Jan 3, 2012:

There is a longstanding discussion concerning, not if there was any Mesoamerican influence on the ancient indigenous cultures north of Mexico, but about how that influence actually played out. For example, though we now recognize an independent, indigenous agricultural revolution in North America focused on native crops (sunflower, marsh elder, lamb’s quarters, and a local squash), it is clear that once maize (a non-native, tropical cultigen) made its way north, it became the dominant domesticate in North America. But archaeologists don’t accept a scenario of Mexican proselytizers moving north, spreading the gospel of corn. While there probably was some direct contact at the geographic edges, it was the corn that did the moving, not so much the people.

We also know that there must have been some level of contact through the turquoise trade. Clearly, many of the complex cultures of Mesoamerica, including the Maya, liked to use turquoise in their artwork, but there aren’t any substantial turquoise sources in their region. There are, however, lots of turquoise sources in the American Southwest. When I was an undergrad, I worked for a prof (Phil Weigand) on a project that was aimed at tracing the ancient movement of turquoise. Phil has spent forty years collecting raw turquoise from sources in the southwest and conducting neutron activation analysis on it as a way of determining the distinctive trace element chemistry of each source. He has performed the same analysis on hundreds of turquoise artifacts found in Mexico and shown conclusively that ancient Mexicans were obtaining their turquoise from sources in California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico. Here too, there’s absolutely no evidence of the large-scale movement of people north or south; there are no quarries with Toltec or Aztec or Mayan artifacts in New Mexico. In all likelihood, the turquoise moved south incrementally, from village to village. This is called “trickle trade.” There’s a great ethnographic example of this from Australia where a group living on the coast and with ready access to stingray barb spines (used in spears) wanted volcanic cobbles useful in making axe heads, the raw material for which was available about 400 miles away. At the same time, the people living near the volcanic rock wanted stingray barb spines. There are no reports of anyone traipsing the 400 mile distance to trade. In both directions, people traded with their neighbors who traded with their neighbors, etc. So, people didn’t need to travel far to have the raw materials travel far. Back in the Southwest, archaeologists have found ceramic vessels at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico with chemical residue of a chocolate beverage typical among Mesomericans. So chocolate moved north, probably in much the same way. (I tell my students that, sadly, archaeologists did not find any residue of marshmallows in those ceramic vessels. I am disappointed that this does not elicit howls of laughter. Go figure.)

The evidence for contact or influence in the American southeast is less definitive and more impressionistic. Maya monuments include truncated pyramids of stone with temples on their tops. The Mississippian culture of temple mound builders of the American mid-south and southeast included truncated pyramids of earth with temples on their tops. The Maya build great ceremonial and population centers with a number of pyramids surrounding a large open plaza. The Mississippians built large ceremonial and population centers with a number of pyramids surrounding a large open plaza. It is undeniable that the ceremonial centers themselves as well as elements of the iconography of the temple mound builders has a general Mesomerican vibe. That’s highly impressionistic and subjective, to be sure. But it’s there. However, there is absolutely no material evidence even for trade, much less for the movement of Maya or Aztec, or whoever north into what is today the US. None. No artifacts, no Maya glyphs, nothing.

Complicating things a little is a mound site in Florida, Crystal River Mounds (on the gulf coast) with two upright stones, one of which has a carving on it and what appears to be a buried ceremonial offering of stone flakes and food. This is very reminiscent of Maya stelae, and there are those who think this isn’t coincidence. Their argument would be buttressed substantially if the damn stone had a Maya date glyph on it like many stelae do. But it doesn’t. A colleague tells me that there’s some brand new, unpublished work at Crystal River that might actually clinch the argument of a substantial Mesoamerican influence there. We’ll see.

Finally, that brings us to Georgia. After reading the article a few weeks ago, I did the obvious thing; I contacted Mark Williams, the University of Georgia archaeologist who actually excavated the site in question. His response was brief and to the point; the article is a complete misrepresentation of his work. There’s no evidence of the Maya at his site.

Oh well. No big surprise.

Meanwhile, Thornton has gone on to suggest that the Olmecs moved through Louisiana. That article opens up with this ditty:

If the name of archaeologist Joseph W. Saunders sounds familiar, his work was featured in an eight part Examiner series on the Troyville Mounds in Jonesville, LA during 2010. Much of his career has been devoted to the preservation and understanding of Troyville Mounds. The articles described the architecture and cultural practices of Troyville Mounds that were very similar to that of the Chontal Mayas in the coastal areas of Tamaulipas and Veracruz States in Mexico. The series stated that these similarities suggested contacts with Mexico. At the time of the articles’ publication, Saunders did not agree with that interpretation. It is not publically [sic] known if Saunders still maintains that position.

So Thornton has taken the work of yet another archaeologist and interpreted it as proof of a conclusion that is at odds with the findings of both mainstream archaeology and the author of the original research. I commend Thornton for his interest in Native American culture, but his ideas are not supported by the evidence or by the opinions of experts who have studied the sites.

Will Thornton go on to contend that the Aztecs built the Big Chicken ? I doubt it. His ideas seem much more like the work of the TIGHAR project . That’s the fringe group of aviation-history researchers who think Amelia Earhart made it to an island and survived for years versus dying at sea when her plane ran out of gas. Thornton has made a conclusion in his head – that the Native Americans of North Georgia are descended from the great builders of the American Southwest. He is trying to piece together everything he can to support that idea and dismissing anything which diverges from his hypothesis.

He also claims that he has strong evidence that Mayas were in north Georgia, his own DNA. His genes might very well have such markers – but since Spanish explorers settled Florida and came through Georgia with their slaves (and thus Mesoamerican DNA) there is an easier explanation for such markers than an undiscovered exodus that somehow left no strongly identifiable artifacts.

And then there is Thornton’s take on the name of the people who built the Track Rock Gap site:

The people whom Georgia archaeologists call Hitchiti Creeks, called themselves, Itsate… pronounced It-zja-tee. The people that are generally called today Itza Maya, formerly called themselves Itsate… pronounced It-zja-tee. On my desk are site plans produced by archeological[sic] teams from several major universities that describe pentagonal earthen mounds built by the Itza Mayas in Chiapas and Belize, which are identical to those in Georgia, such as the Kenimer Mound. In short, if it builds the same buildings as the Itza Maya, says the same words as the Itza Maya, and has the same DNA as the Itza Maya… by golly, it must be an Itza Maya.

As interesting as words that sound alike are, by golly, I don’t think it is enough to overturn the current thinking in archaeology. Do the earthen mounds really match up in design? I don’t know —Thornton has a history of drawing conclusions that are diametrically opposed to the research on which they are based.

In the end, there Maya turn out to be something to his ideas—but Itsa not likely.

Special thanks to Dr. Ken Feder, Daniel Loxton and Kathleen Smith for help with this article.