The Chontal Maya or Putun Maya

The presence of crescent shaped temple mounds in the Florida Peninsula strongly suggests cultural contacts with Maya ethnic groups, who worshiped the goddess, Ixchel. Very few Florida archaeologists have been willing to suggest publicly that Florida, Mesoamerica and South America had direct cultural contacts. Those who did, were all ostracized by their peers. 1See previous discussion of William Sears in The Architecture of Fort Center Archaeological Site. However, the linguistic and architectural evidence is overwhelming for contacts between illiterate Maya merchants and the indigenous peoples in Georgia – which is north of Florida.

While most Mesoamericans were landlubbers and terrified of the ocean, a hybrid ethnic group that originated in the coastal marshes of Tabasco navigated their cargo craft across the waters of their known world. Generally known today as the Chontal Maya, they apparently went by many names such as Putun, and after establishing ports of along the coasts of Mexico, probably did not view themselves as a single ethnic group. 2Incháustegui, Carlos. “Chontales de Tabasco / Yokot’anob o Yokot’an“, part of the Instituto Nacional Indigenista’s Pueblos Indígenas de México monograph series. They called themselves the Yokot’anob or the Yokot’an, which means “the speakers of Yoko Ochoko.”

Although the homeland of the Yokot’an is in the Mexican State of Tabasco, the Yucatan Peninsula gets its name from this ethnic group. 3Incháustegui, Carlos. “Chontales de Tabasco / Yokot’anob o Yokot’an“, part of the Instituto Nacional Indigenista’s Pueblos Indígenas de México monograph series. Beginning in the late 10 th century, the Yokat’an and Itza Maya took control of the northern Yucatan Peninsula after the Classic Maya cities collapsed. They were still living in the peninsula when the Spanish arrived, and thus the Spanish ascribed their ethnic name to the new colony.

It is known that these hybrid Mayas spoke several dialects that were essentially trade jargons. 4Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). “Tabasco Chontal“. Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. The Chontal Maya in Tobasco today speak three dialects. A Totonac-Maya jargon dominated the northern Gulf Coast until Nahuatl became the dominant language within the interior of Mexico after 1250 AD. The Putun Mayas of east central Mexico then shifted to a hybrid Totonac-Nahuatl-Maya trade jargon. Southern Putun trade jargons mixed Itza Maya with Yucatec Maya, Zapotec and Zoque-Mixtec. The Putun trade jargon in northern and eastern Yucatan more closely resembled the Classic Maya languages. The presence of Itza Maya, Totonac and Yucatec Maya words in the Creek Indian languages might be explained by the infusion coming from speakers of a Putun trade jargon rather the speakers of a pure language.

The word “chontal” is derived from the Nahuatl word, chontalli, and means “a people living beyond the border.” 5Chontal Maya People.” Wikipedia. Therefore, the remainder of this article will use the more accurate Maya ethnic label, Putun. The Aztecs labeled several peoples to the south by that name. Several Chontal peoples originally had no connection with the Chontal Maya seamen. It gets confusing though, because during the latter half of the Classic Period, the hybrid Putun Maya came to dominate inter-regional trade throughout Mesoamerica. From then on, their trading posts were often located on the frontiers between civilizations. These were the territories of peoples, who Nahuatl speakers also called Chontal.

The Chontal Maya now live in 21 towns in the State of Tabasco in a region known as the Chotalpa (Place or Homeland of the Chontal.) 6Incháustegui, Carlos. “Chontales de Tabasco / Yokot’anob o Yokot’an“, part of the Instituto Nacional Indigenista’s Pueblos Indígenas de México monograph series. It is a hot, humid province composed of tidal marshes, swampy lands and meandering rivers – quite similar in appearance to the coastal marshlands of the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. They claim to be the direct descendants of the Olmecs. They probably can trace their lineage to this first Mexican civilization, but no longer speak its language, which was Zoque. The Zoque People are also descendants of the Olmec Civilization; live just northwest of the Chontal Maya; but still speak a language derived from the original tongue. Centuries of trade and living aside true Mayas caused the Yukot’an to absorb so much Maya culture that their language became a dialect of Maya.

As early as 1600 BC, the ancestors of the Putun Maya had the capability to navigate between North American and Mesoamerica. 7Campbell, Lyle; and Terrence Kaufman (1976). “A Linguistic Look at the Olmec“. American Antiquity (Menasha, WI: Society for American Archaeology) 41 (1): pp. 80-89. The Mayas of Tabasco always have claimed to be the descendants of the Olmec Civilization. In their tradition, they crossed the Gulf of Mexico in three great flotillas of canoes to colonize the coast of southern Mexico. Certainly throughout the time between 1000 BC and 1600 AD, when advanced cultures thrived in southern Florida, the Putun Mayas regularly traveled distances over the ocean longer than the ocean channels that separated Yucatan, Cuba and the Florida Keys.

A vector image of Chontalpa Town
A vector image of Chontalpa Town

During the period when the Maya Civilization was at its highest fluorescence (400 BC-900 AD) the Maya elite in cities of the interior considered the Yokat’an to be illiterate barbarians. 8Incháustegui, Carlos. “Chontales de Tabasco / Yokot’anob o Yokot’an“, part of the Instituto Nacional Indigenista’s Pueblos Indígenas de México monograph series. Their earthen mounds and horseshoe shaped ball courts were virtually identical to those found in the contemporary Swift Creek Culture of the Southeastern United States. However, the Yokot’an’s close association with both the Gulf of Mexico and inland riverine systems caused them to become increasingly skilled seamen. As the centuries wore on, they came to dominate the coastal trade between the Mexican Highland civilizations and the Maya. This eventually led to them becoming the predominant merchants for all of Mesoamerica.

Between about 600 AD and 800 AD, rapid growth and massive public construction projects in the Classic Maya cities created demands for many commodities and large numbers of human slaves. 9Thompson, J. Eric. “Trade relations between Maya Highlands and Lowlands.” “Estudios de Cultura Maya.” UNAM; 1973. The Putun merchants became extremely wealthy by having a virtual monopoly over the trade of salt, cocoa, jade, gold and slaves. Large caravans of Yokat’an merchants and enslaved porters crisscrossed the Maya lands. Being outsiders and neutrals, the Yokat’an merchants could travel safely through territories being contested by Maya city states. Their seaworthy boats, emblazoned with serpent heads, traveled long distances in search of more primitive peoples, who could be enslaved.

The demand for prestige goods and slaves stimulated the wealthy Putun to develop their boat-building skills. 10Peck, Douglas T. (2005) The Yucatan from Prehistoric Times to the Great Maya Revolt. Norman. NC: Exlibris; pp 167-174. They learned how to build boats from wooden planks that were much more efficient freight haulers than either dug-out canoes or slave caravans. Eventually, they developed a craft that was about the same size and construction as the famous Viking långbåt (longboat.) The Chontal sea craft usually were about sixty feet long, used rudders for steering, contained a cabin for ship’s officers and were propelled both by oarsmen and one or more sails. These were true ocean-going boats. They would have had no trouble navigating the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean Sea.

The Putun who concentrated on the trade with the Yucatan Peninsula, Central America and the Caribbean Islands set up trading posts on the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. 11Incháustegui, Carlos. “Chontales de Tabasco / Yokot’anob o Yokot’an“, part of the Instituto Nacional Indigenista’s Pueblos Indígenas de México monograph series. True Mayas were generally terrified of the ocean and of hurricanes. Most of the Classic Maya cities were within the interior. Therefore, the growth of Putun trading posts into prospering towns was not considered a threat to the sovereignty of Maya city states. It was in this period that the Chontal language to such a scale that they no longer spoke a Zoque dialect.

After the Maya cities began collapsing in the 800s AD, Putun boats started traveling long distances in search of new trading markets. 12Peck, Douglas T. (2000) “The Little Known Scientific Accomplishments of the Seafaring Chontal Maya from Northern Yucatan.” There was no longer a high demand for slaves, so these later expeditions probably traded for commodities from the Gulf Coast and Caribbean Basin that were in demand among the prospering Totonac and Toltec cities of Mexico’s interior.

The Yokot’an and Zoque living in the southern end of what is now the State of Vera Cruz and the northern end of what is now the State of Tabasco absorbed Toltec and Totonac culture. 13Geoffrey McCafferty & Tanya Chiykowski. (2008) “Maya Immigrants to Tollan Cholollan.” Their language evolved to be much more like the languages spoken in Mexico. They are now called the Vera Cruz Chontal or Putun. Thus, merchants from this region would tend to spread Totonac and Toltec cultural traditions and words.

When most of the Classic Maya cities collapsed during the late 800s and early 900s AD, the coastal Putun continued to thrive. 14Peck, Douglas T. (2005) The Yucatan from Prehistoric Times to the Great Maya Revolt. Norman. NC: Exlibris; pp 167-174. Their neighbors back home, the Itza Maya migrated to the northern end of the peninsula. Soon the Putun Maya and the Itza Maya controlled the region. The cultural traditions of the Putun and Itza in the peninsula merged. The Putun added even more Itza Maya words and grammar to their hybrid language.

Yokot’an boats continued to sail the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico until the very early 1500s. 15Peck, Douglas T. (2005) The Yucatan from Prehistoric Times to the Great Maya Revolt. Norman. NC: Exlibris; pp 167-174. European diseases introduced by the Spanish so decimated the indigenous populations, that regional trade collapsed. Undoubtedly, the Putun merchants suffered a disproportionate level of deaths of Spanish plagues because of their mobility, but also probably they became carriers of the microbes so that the diseases spread northward well in advance of Spanish colonizers. By 1550 regional trade was completely dominated by the Spanish. .

Rediscovery of the Chontal Maya

Vector image of a Chontal Maya warboat.
Vector image of a Chontal Maya warboat.

There was virtually no mention of the Chontal Maya in the professional archaeological literature of Mexico and North America until the first decade of the 21 st century. 16Dr. Roman Piña-Chan, Director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia and my fellowship coordinator in Mexico, was half Maya and grew up in Tabasco. However, he never mentioned the Chontal Maya to me throughout the semester. Throughout the latter half of the 20 th century, archaeological texts pondered about the fate of the people, who developed the Olmec civilization. They were not called Olmec. The Olmecs were a Nahuatl people, who arrived in southern Mexico a century or so before the Spanish. Meanwhile, the Native workers who excavated the Olmec Civilization’s cities, often were the very same people, who claimed to be their descendants . . . but no one asked them who their ancestors were. Apparently, the American archaeologists did not see the resemblance.

In the 1960s, University of Georgia Anthropology Department Director, Dr. Arthur Kelly, supervised a series of archaeological investigations along the Chattahoochee River from southwest Metro Atlanta to the Georgia-Florida Line. 17This section is derived from personal conversations with Dr. Kelly. I prepared the site plan of archaeological site 9FU14 on the Chattahoochee River near Six Flags Over Georgia. In several sites, he found ceramic figurines and cylindrical seals, which he interpreted as being either from Mesoamerica or created by local inhabitants, who were copying Mesoamerican artifacts.

Kelly was puzzled by the artifacts because they looked like simplified versions of Classic Maya artifacts. What they most resemble is Putun Maya artifacts from the Classic Maya Period. However, in the 1960s and 1970s, there were absolutely no references on Putun Culture and Putun artifacts, even in Mexico.

Kelly made the mistake of publishing his interpretation of these artifacts and also insisting in 1969 that the 9FU14 mound and town site (200 BC-450 AD) near the Six Flags Over Georgia amusement park was an agricultural community. These statements so angered his professional peers and faculty that he was fired as department head. Kelly’s reputation was restored on December 21, 2012 when on the History Channel program, “America Unearthed,” University of Minnesota scientists revealed a 100% match between attapulgite mined in Georgia and Maya Blue stucco in the Maya city of Palenque, Chiapas. The largest concentration of Mesoamerican –like artifacts had been found by Kelly near Attapulgus, GA.

It was Douglas T. Peck (Jan. 7, 1918 – Jan. 4, 2014) a mariner and historian In Bradenton, FL who first brought attention to the Putun Mayas. 18Cox, Billy. “Man Who Rewrote Florida History, Dies.” Herald-Tribune, Sarasota, FL, January 16, 2014. Still today, Peck’s books and essays on the Putun are the predominant resource in English on that subject. Being a skilled navigator and sailor, Peck’s research in the 1990s initially focused on the navigational skills of the Putun. In 1992, he used his sailboat to study to probable trade routes of the Putun in the Caribbean. He then focused on the evidence of Putun contacts with the indigenous peoples of southern Florida.

Peck presented his research and theories to Florida archaeologists in 1999. His paper was published, but generally ignored by archaeologists. His work did have an impact on other researchers, particularly Southeastern Native Americans, who were trying to create a more accurate history of their ancestors than archaeologists had adopted.

Peck’s work also strongly influenced the Institutio Nacional de Anthropologia E Historia (INAH) in Mexico. During the first decade of the 21 st century, INAH archaeologists began to study the long ignored coastal towns and ports of the Putun that ring the Gulf and Caribbean coasts of Mexico. Excavations at several ports have greatly expanded the understanding of the Putun’s hybrid cultural characteristics.

When Peck died in early 2014, he left behind two unfinished books that would have greatly expanded the body of knowledge concerning Putun influence on Native Florida. 19Cox, Billy. “Man Who Rewrote Florida History, Dies.” Herald-Tribune, Sarasota, FL, January 16, 2014. One, “Spanish La Florida” examines the Maya connection to the Sunshine State. The other, “Goddess Ix Chel,” compiles what is known about the Putun worship of the goddess Ix Chel.

Cultural memories of the Chontal Maya

A vector image of a Chontal Maya seacraft
A vector image of a Chontal Maya seacraft

Generations of Creek Indian children in Georgia and South Carolina, up until the mid-twentieth century grew up hearing periodic admonitions from their grandparents . . . better be good, or the winged snakes will come up the river and GET YOU! Probably, neither the adults nor the naughty children had any clue as to what a winged snake really was, but the children imagined it to be some fierce sea monster lurking in the depths of the ocean. Most likely, the winged snake was never a marine animal, but a dim cultural memory of an era over a thousand years ago, when strangers sailed up the coasts of Florida and into the navigable rivers.

Another vestige of this ancient time was the Creek boat pipes, which were produced in abundance until the early 1800s. They were ceramic models of boats with curved ends, rudders and serpent heads engraved on their prows. Creek dug out canoes had horizontal profiles, squared-off ends and no rudders.

The Spanish recorded the aboriginal name for the section of the Gulf Coast between Pensacola and Apalachee Bays (Florida) as Amichel. The natives probably pronounced this word as the Yokot’an and Itza Maya pronounced Am Ix Chel, which means “place of the Moon goddess. 20Boot, Erik (2008) “Itza Maya Dictionary.” FAMSI. ” Ix Chel was the favorite deity of the Yokot’an and Putun Maya.

Footnotes:   [ + ]

1.See previous discussion of William Sears in The Architecture of Fort Center Archaeological Site.
2, 3, 6, 8, 11.Incháustegui, Carlos. “Chontales de Tabasco / Yokot’anob o Yokot’an“, part of the Instituto Nacional Indigenista’s Pueblos Indígenas de México monograph series.
4.Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). “Tabasco Chontal“. Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
5.Chontal Maya People.” Wikipedia.
7.Campbell, Lyle; and Terrence Kaufman (1976). “A Linguistic Look at the Olmec“. American Antiquity (Menasha, WI: Society for American Archaeology) 41 (1): pp. 80-89.
9.Thompson, J. Eric. “Trade relations between Maya Highlands and Lowlands.” “Estudios de Cultura Maya.” UNAM; 1973.
10, 14, 15.Peck, Douglas T. (2005) The Yucatan from Prehistoric Times to the Great Maya Revolt. Norman. NC: Exlibris; pp 167-174.
12.Peck, Douglas T. (2000) “The Little Known Scientific Accomplishments of the Seafaring Chontal Maya from Northern Yucatan.”
13.Geoffrey McCafferty & Tanya Chiykowski. (2008) “Maya Immigrants to Tollan Cholollan.”
16.Dr. Roman Piña-Chan, Director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia and my fellowship coordinator in Mexico, was half Maya and grew up in Tabasco. However, he never mentioned the Chontal Maya to me throughout the semester.
17.This section is derived from personal conversations with Dr. Kelly. I prepared the site plan of archaeological site 9FU14 on the Chattahoochee River near Six Flags Over Georgia.
18, 19.Cox, Billy. “Man Who Rewrote Florida History, Dies.” Herald-Tribune, Sarasota, FL, January 16, 2014.
20.Boot, Erik (2008) “Itza Maya Dictionary.” FAMSI.
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