Mesoamerican Influences in Mississippi

Recently recalling the artistic themes and concepts I’d encountered in my old artifact drawings in my Gallery of Pre-Columbian Artifacts, I decided to gather examples of probable influence of Mesoamerica on the Mississippian civilization in North America. But first I needed to update my collection of artifacts using Google Images.  In the intervening 25 years a lot of new things had been found.

Coming upon an incised shell gorget (a disc of conch shell worn on a cord round the neck) provided me with a true Eureka Moment:

Fifth Sun gorget – AL

Since I’d also spent some 30 years working on the art and mythology of Central Mexico, I instantly recognized the designs in the band  encircling the very Mississippian-style head.  They are standard Mexican day-signs from their ceremonial calendar and virtually identical to those in Codex Fejervary-Mayer:

Day-signs, Codex Fejervary-Mayer

One of the few Mexican manuscripts to survive the Conquest’s book-burning, the Codex is believed to have come from the area of Veracruz, but the calendrical day-signs usually only varied slightly in codices from other cultural areas of Central Mexico.

As hieroglyphs, these day-signs also convey other information. Crocodile is the first day of the 20-day month, and Flower is the last.  (Why are there two of them?)  All I can read into Vulture is that it’s the day right before Earthquake.  But the four Earthquake signs are eloquent. In traditional Mexican cosmology, Four Earthquake is the ceremonial day-name of the current Fifth Sun (or Era).  So the head on the gorget is most likely that of the Mexican god of the Fifth Sun, whom the much later Aztecs called Tonatiuh.  He is familiar as the face in the center of the Stone of the Suns, which is itself the decorative day-sign/name of the Fifth Sun.

This is unambiguous and conclusive evidence of Mesoamerican influence in Mississippi!  Still, I do have to wonder about the three lines on the apparent deity’s face.  In Mexican codices they are most frequently encountered on the goddess of flowing water, Chalchiuhtlicue, the Jade Skirt.  But this face doesn’t look like a female, which in any case is rarely, if ever, encountered in Mississippian art.

This Fifth Sun gorget was found by Charles H. Worley, an employee of the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930’s and 40’s who salvaged artifacts from mound sites soon to be flooded by the many dams to be built by the TVA, specifically in the Muscle Shoals area of northwestern Alabama.

Mr. Worley also left ethnographic notes from his Chickasaw associates about their legend of originally being “Toltecs” from Old Mexico who migrated into the Tennessee River Valley.  Don’t be misled by the reference to “Toltecs.” The term here is more indicative of the time period (ca. 900 – 1,200 CE) when that militaristic culture based in Tula (in Anahuac) and Chichen Itza (in Yucatan) controlled much of Mexico.  Many other sophisticated cultures lived in Old Mexico at that time, including the Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Huastecs, and so on.

When the Toltecs invaded the area of Veracruz (per Wikipedia), most of the indigenous Totonacs fled north to Cempoala, but at least one group of refugees evidently continued to trek north along the Gulf Coast, across the Mississippi River, and up into the Tennessee River Valley.

As migrations go (like the Indo-Europeans, Mongols, Huns, and such nomads out of central Asia, or for that matter, Asiatics from Siberia all the way down to Tierra del Fuego), this was simply a hop, skip, and jump.  In addition, there are many good reasons to believe that many people of other Mexican cultures also fled from their Toltec conquerors north into the Mississippi Valley, including Mayans driven out of their magnificent cities of Chichen Itza and Mayapan.  In fact, there was probably a mass exodus.

But then I had a second Eureka! moment.  I googled up another gorget called simply “Muskogee Creek,” suggesting a provenance also in the Tennessee River Valley, with a dramatically Mexican image:

Turkey Gorget – AL

The turkey was the important Mexican symbol of war and military glory, as in the later Aztecs’ god Chalchiuhtotolin, the Jade Turkey.  In my studies of the Codex Vaticanus and Codex Borgia (both from Puebla), I’d often wondered what a strange protrusion out of the turkey’s breast might be.

Turkey, Codex Vaticanus

Definitely unnatural, that plume (?) has to be iconically significant of something, and here I found it again on a turkey from Alabama.   Meanwhile, another gorget from Tennessee presents the quintessentially Mexican motif of the anthropomorphic jaguar:

Jaguar Man gorget – TN

In the codices (primarily Bodley, Nuttall, and Vindobonensis–all three of Mixtec origin), there are many images of traditional Mexican Jaguar Warriors of the Night.

Jaguar Knight, Codex Vindobonensis

The artist of the Tennessee example clearly had the concept down pat but just as clearly wasn’t familiar with the real pattern of a jaguar’s pelt.  (Nor did the Mexicans manage to illustrate realistically the creature’s rows of rosette designs.) Several other Mississippian gorgets with jaguars also show fanciful patterns for the feline which by then and there must have become a purely mythical creature.

Above and beyond their shared tradition of earthworking, these few artistic artifacts alone are more than enough to convince me of a significant Mesoamerican cultural contribution to North America’s Mississippian civilization.