Heretical History

During my recent exhibition (entitled YE GODS! Icons of Aztec Deities), I gave a series of 15 lectures on the Aztec codices and Aztec mythology, culture, and history, branching out in later sessions to New World history in general. From the beginning, I stressed to my listeners that as an independent researcher and theoretical historian (a “historician”), I like to consider probable answers for puzzling questions which the academic establishment refuses even to recognize. I warned them to get ready to hear some historical heresy.

For example, in lecture 10 (Continuity of Culture and Art in Mesoamerica), I discussed the continuity of the ceremonial calendar from the Olmec through the Maya and into the cultures of central Mexico (culminating in the “Aztec calendar”). Then I proposed that the calendar may well have been invented at Chavín de Huantar in Peru.  I published the convincing circumstantial evidence in the article “Source of the Mesoamerican Ceremonial Calendar” in the magazine Ancient American (Issue No. 115) and noted probable diffusion via sea-farers sailing north up the Pacific coast to reach the early Olmec.  That was Heresy No. 1.

Then in lecture 12 (Mesoamerican Relations with Mississippi), I broke some startling news which was corroborated by the website, issued by Richard Thornton, a researcher of Native American heritage.  He has discovered convincing linguistic, DNA, and archaeological evidence that populations from Meso- and South America migrated into the Southeast of North America hundreds of years before the European “discovery.”

Independently, I had previously identified a shell gorget from northwestern Alabama depicting the Mesoamerican Fifth Sun, Four Earthquake, and in my article “Mesoamerican Influences in Mississippi” in Ancient American (Issue 118), I presented ethnographic testimony that (probably under pressure from the aggressive imperialism of the Toltecs), a tribe of Totonacs from Vera Cruz had migrated into the Muscle Shoals area to become the Chikasa (Chickasaw).  Though well-documented, that was Heresy No. 2.

In lecture 14 (Mesoamerican Relations with the Anasazi), I expanded on a proposal by Frank Joseph in “Advanced Civilizations of Prehistoric America” that the Huari of Peru (likely an evolution/reincarnation of the more than three millennia-old culture of Tiwanaku from Lake Titicaca) had migrated up the Pacific coast, through the Sea of Cortez, and up the Colorado River to become the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon. So I was merely guilty of repeating Heresy No. 3.

However, in that context I uttered my own Heresy No. 4: that some populations from the west coast of Mexico may possibly have sailed up the coast and “colonized” the Pacific Northwest.  As I noted to my audience, I made this heretical proposal simply on the basis of a linguistic coincidence (something I generally don’t much appreciate in others’ arguments).

Namely, the city of Seattle was supposedly named for the “chief” of a Native American tribe on the Olympic Peninsula. Well, it just so happens that Ce Atl is the Nahuatl day-name (One Water) of the goddess of water, Chalchiuhtlicue, the Jade Skirt.  She was earlier the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan, likely with the same calendrical name, which may have also held for the Maya goddess of water, but deity names in that even earlier culture are rather confused.

Mesoamerican goddesses of water

As a name for the Pacific Northwest area, a people, an important “town,” or even a chief, One Water seems a legendarily appropriate name for a Mesoamerican “colony” in that area. Such a colony might have happened due to social turmoil amongst the classic Maya, to later aggression by the Toltecs on populations in western Mexico, or even as more recent Aztec (Nahua) imperial “exploration.”  In any case, my heretical suggestion was basically a frivolous “teaser.”

For a couple weeks, that’s what it was for me too, simply an intriguing possibility—until I started reading “The Journals of Lewis and Clark” (edited by Bernard DeVoto). Their first mentions of the Salishan (“Flathead”) tribes in the western Rocky Mountains didn’t give me pause, but when that characteristic kept appearing amongst the tribes down the Columbia River, I had to stop and wonder.

While that exploratory expedition wintered at the mouth of the Columbia, they had much communication and commerce with the many coastal tribes. On March 19, 1805, Captain Lewis took the time (in his fairly “scientific” manner) to write:

“The Killamucks, Clatsops, Chinooks, Cathlahmahs, and Wâc-ki-a-cums resemble each other as well in their persons and dress as in their habits and manners. their complexion is not remarkable, being the usual copper brown of most of the tribes of North America.  they are low in statu[r]e, reather diminutive, and illy shapen; poss[ess]ing thick broad flat feet, thick ankles, crooked legs wide mouths thick lips, nose moderately large, fleshey, wide at the extremity with large nostrils, black eyes and black coarse hair.  their eyes are sometimes of a dark yellowish brown the puple black.  the most remarkable trait in their physiognomy is the peculiar flatness and width of forehead which they artificially obtain by compressing the head between two boards while in a state of infancy and from which it never afterwards perfectly recovers.  this is a custom among all the nations we have met with West of the Rocky mountains.  I have observed the heads of many infants, after this singular bandage has been dismissed, or about the age of 10 or eleven months, that were not more than two inches thick about the upper edge of the forehead and reather thiner still higher.  from the top of the head to the extremity of the nose is one straight line.  this is done in order to give a greater width to the forehead, which they much admire.  this process seems to be continued longer with their female than their mail children, and neither appear to suffer any pain from the operation.  it is from this peculiar form of the head that the nations East of the Rocky mountains, call all the nations on this side, except the Aliohtans or snake Indians, by the generic name of Flatheads.”

Chinook woman and child

Surely I am not the first to note that Captain Lewis has described in exquisite detail the traditional Maya practice of skull deformation. (That same practice also occurred in other parts of the world and among certain tribes of the American Southeast who—per Heresy No. 2 above—migrated there from Mesoamerica.)  With this official testimony, it seems more than probable that this widespread cultural practice in the Pacific Northwest came from a coastal colony of the Maya. The also widespread practice of nose-piercing (as in the Nez Perce tribe and others) could just as easily have disseminated from such or later Mexican settlements.

Considering this distinct possibility, I believe it’s high time someone ran a DNA study of the surviving Northwest tribes to see if they actually do have markers of Mesoamerican populations. Likewise, it would make sense for someone with the expertise to compare the languages of those tribes with those of Mesoamerican peoples. There is a distinctly Nahuatl-ish sound to the names of the Tlingit and Kwakiutl tribes…

But even without such genetic or linguistic evidence, I will now make bold to propose that there was indeed a Mesoamerican colony (or colonies) on the Pacific Northwest coast. And having uttered that blasphemy, I’ll prepare for the academic inquisition to try and burn me at the stake.

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