Tonight’s episode of America Unearthed, S02E08 “The Underwater Pyramids,” attempts to investigate whether the Aztecs ventured to Wisconsin. This is not a completely ridiculous question, and American archaeologists have devoted considerable ink to discussing the evidence for a Mesoamerican influence on the Mississippians, the mound building culture responsible for Aztalan, one of the sites featured in this episode. Although there is considerable circumstantial evidence that some type of influence occurred (in one direction or another), only one Mesoamerican artifact has ever been found at a Mississippian site, a single obsidian scraper found at Spiro Mounds in Oklahoma, identified as Mesoamerican only in 2002 through a geological analysis of the source of the obsidian. This might have made a good episode of America Unearthed, but it would have meant exploring real science rather than seeing Scott Wolter in a submarine.
The lack of a proven connection between the Mississippians and Mesoamerica is not for want of trying. As I reported almost a year ago in revisiting Wolter’s efforts to link the Maya to Georgia:
The scholarly consensus is that direct contact between Mesoamerica and the Mississippians was either non-existent or very rare, and that the only limited contact would have been the diffusion of ideas and the movement of raw materials along trade networks, without direct movement of peoples. However, more than a few archaeologists seriously speculated that a band of traveling merchants, most likely the Aztec pochteca, could have evangelized Aztec religion while questing for raw materials. If these merchants did in America as they did in Mexico, they would have taken control of weaker societies, imposed their ideology, and ruled among them, thus creating what is now known as the Southeast Ceremonial Complex, the religious ideas and iconography long suspected of having a Mesoamerican connection.
Thus, Wolter’s investigation, while not mainstream, is hardly beyond the pale for archaeological research. The trouble is that there isn’t any solid evidence that the Aztec ever did this, despite the perceived similarities between Mississippian religion and Mesoamerican religion. I had an archaeology professor in college who was convinced that some type of connection must have existed, and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone actual research trying to find evidence of one.
Aztalan, however, is probably not the right place to be looking being about as far as possible as one could get from the Aztec heartland. The story of Aztalan in Wisconsin is colorful, but not all that complex. I don’t suppose it will surprise anyone that it emerges from the same milieu of nineteenth-century racism as other claims for various lost races that supposedly built America’s mound sites. Although Wolter focuses on the Aztec, they were first proposed as the builders because early scholars believed that they were the descendants of a lost white race, possibly the Lost Tribes of Israel.
The story of Aztalan begins, in prototype, with Baron Alexander von Humboldt, the Prussian polymath whose monumental works on the Americas were, early in the nineteenth century, considered a definitive account of the geography, biology, and anthropology of the New World. Humboldt delivered one of the first reports of the Aztec myth of their homeland of Aztlán, which in legend was a place located somewhere in the mysterious north. “It is almost certain,” he wrote in his Researches Concerning the Institutions and Monuments of the Ancient Inhabitants of America (1810), “that we must look for the first country of the Mexican nations, Aztlan, Huehuetlapallan, and Amequemecan, at least North of the 42d degree of latitude” (trans. Helena Maria Williams). This would place it in the northern United States or Canada.
He came to this conclusion, incorrectly, by assuming that the Aztec origin myth was literally true in his preferred version (many versions differ considerably) and approximating how far a group of Aztecs might walk at each leg of the fifteen-stage journey over 416 years. Nevertheless, Humboldt himself noted that his own theory failed to fit the facts since an Aztec painter depicted Aztlán with a palm tree, which “certainly does not indicate a northern region.” He dismissed this problem through appeal to his own genius, suggesting that the Mexican painter had been in error, ignorant of the true history of his own people and wrongly projecting Mexican scenery onto North America.
Humboldt was so taken by the myth of Aztlán that he proposed renaming the Mexica, as the indigenous people who ruled pre-Conquest Mexico called themselves, as the “Aztecs” after the myth. Europeans and Americans immediately adopted the suggestion because it help erect a wall between the Aztecs, whom many believed had originally been “white” or a Lost Tribe of Israel, from the modern Mexicans, whom they viewed as racially inferior. They are still called Aztecs today.
In 1833, the pseudo-historian Josiah Priest, forerunner of Scott Wolter in that he too made fanciful claims based on half-understood facts, popularized Humboldt’s belief that the Aztec homeland was located “at least north of the 42d degree of latitude,” which is to say, around the Great Lakes. Priest’s version, in his American Antiquities, which included a botched quotation from Humboldt missing several words, achieved great popularity, appearing in a direct plagiarism in the work of Benjamin Moore Norman and in a slightly less direct lifting in the American Magazine, then in its final months of publication, just after the departure of its famous editor, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Both copied Priest’s ungrammatical, botched quotation of Humboldt verbatim and failed to distinguish between Humboldt’s ideas and Priest’s own.
Priest married this suggestion from Humboldt to accounts from Indian agent William Walker and pamphleteer Frederick Falley about legends of the Wyandots, a Huron people who in his day lived in what is now Ontario, Canada and Michigan but today live in Quebec, Kansas, Michigan, and Oklahoma. According to Priest, the Wyandots had said that a lost race—the builders of the mounds of the Midwest—had been driven from their earthen cities by a savage horde, and these people therefore fled to the south, where they became the Aztec. Needless to say, Priest considered the lost race to be white, the only race capable of building mounds or pyramids.
Therefore, for Priest, Aztalan had to be the wild and wet homeland of the Wyandots, the area around the Great Lakes. He equated Aztalan with “the region of the western states,” by which he meant the modern Midwest, then the western borderlands of the United States. It was populated, he said, with (white) people “believed to be from Asia; of Tartar, Hebrew, and Scythian origin.” Unlike modern Lost Tribes theorists, who favor an Atlantic crossing, earlier Lost Tribes writers like Priest assumed the Hebrews had walked to America across the Bering Strait. Here he followed Caleb Atwater, the early proponent of a lost race of Mound Builders, who had likewise assumed that civilization began in Vedic India, from which a lost white race had colonized America before the savage Native Americans arrived and killed them off. At the time, the white race was thought to have originated somewhere in central Asia, giving rise to Vedic India and Europe.
With the wrongheaded belief that the Aztec homeland was the Great Lakes already established, it is no surprise that N. F. Hyer quickly identified the newly-discovered earthen ruins of Aztalan, Wisconsin with the mythic Aztec homeland. As the American Magazine reported in 1837, in calling for the site’s preservation, the site was certainly evidence of a lost race of mound builders, stunning confirmation of Humboldt’s theories about the location of the Aztec homeland and Caleb Atwater’s equally certain view that a lost Old World race (the pre-Hindu Vedic Aryans) had built America’s mounds and forts before decamping for Mexico to become the civilized peoples of that region.
You will, of course, recall that Scott Wolter accused the Smithsonian Institution of being in a conspiracy to suppress the truth about the pre-Columbian history of America. It is therefore with interest that we read in the official Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge series Increase A. Lapham’s Antiquities of Wisconsin, written in 1853 and published two years later. In it, Lapham, a civil engineer rather than a hated “academic” (Wolter’s trusted friend Alan Butler trained as a civil engineer), surveyed the site for the Smithsonian and delivered the true history of Aztalan State Park, including the fact that its name was nothing more than the speculation of a known individual at a known date:
The “ancient city of Aztalan” has long been known, and often referred to, as one of the wonders of the western world. Many exaggerated statements respecting the “brick walls” supported by buttresses, the “stone arch,” &c, have been made; for all of which there is little foundation in truth. The remains were discovered in October, 1836, and hastily surveyed in January, 1837, by N. F. Hyer, Esq., who soon afterwards published a brief description of them, with a rude wood-cut, in the Milwaukie Advertiser, the first, and then the only newspaper, in this part of the country. This survey was made before there were settlements in the neighborhood, and was done in. a cursory manner. The brief account, however, as published, gave a very good general idea of the works; and has been the foundation of all subsequent plans and descriptions up to the present time.
Increase A. Lapham’s etymology of Aztalan is incorrect and is a by-product of a claim from Humboldt relating Aztalan to atl, the Nahuatl word for water. Josiah Priest picked up on this as well and added to it with other claims about atl. He, like Humboldt, identified Aztalan with atl, or water, and used this to connect it to the Great Lakes, but he added in an idea from Francisco Gómara, the sixteenth-century Spanish historian, who claimed that “in Mexico they call water atl, a word that seems like, if it is not already, from the island” of Atlantis (my trans.). Priest agreed that North America was undoubtedly the Atlantis of Plato.
On the other hand, pro-conspiracy proponents can point to U.S. President Martin Van Buren’s refusal to save the site from destruction in 1838 as evidence that the government was trying to suppress the truth. But unfortunately that doesn’t tell the whole story. While Van Buren did allow the site to be plowed under, its mounds destroyed and its stone walls broken, he was actually acting out of the belief that the site was Native American and therefore not worth saving.
The most prominent figure looking to protect the site was Edward Everett of Massachusetts, who wanted to save Aztalan because he thought it was an outpost of a lost white race whose existence would justify Native American removal policies. This truth was so carefully suppressed, of course, that Everett only learned about the site by reading about it in the Wisconsin territorial newspapers shipped to the capital. He petitioned Van Buren to save the site, but Van Buren did nothing to prevent it from going up for sale. A pioneer family purchased it for $22 and promptly plowed it under. Charles A. Alexander commemorated the site with an 1839 poem, “The Fall of Aztalan.”
The site had been part of the territory reserved for Native Americans prior to the Removal Act. In 1921 it was donated to the Wisconsin Archaeological Society and became a park.
By the end of the nineteenth century, it was fairly well established that the site was not the work of the Aztecs or a lost white race but rather of Native Americans. Indeed, by 1901 standard textbooks like Pre-Historic America even routinely debunked the last major claim about the uniqueness of Aztalan: Contrary to early reports, its walls were not made of brick but only of clay and grass, a wattle-and-daub structure that was hardened with fire, giving the false appearance of stone. Sure, Lapham had noted that in 1853, but fringe claims die hard. It was no Old World or Aztec fort, but another earthwork of the Mississippians, part of the same cultural complex that reached across the Midwest and the South from the tenth to thirteenth centuries CE and had its cultural focus at Cahokia. It was indeed heavily fortified, probably due to a Mississippian incursion causing friction with local non-Mississippian tribes.
So uncontroversial had Aztalan become—and so irrelevant to fringe history—that neither Robert Silverberg’s study of Mound Builders of Ancient America (1968) nor Stephen Williams’s Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Prehistory (1991) made mention of it. Instead, the biggest controversy at the site was whether butchered and broken bones represented cannibalism or mortuary dismemberment. At one time, cannibalism was thought to be one of the most important food sources at Aztalan, but today the bones are considered to be mortuary, not culinary, processing.
Then why are we talking about Aztalan?
Oh, right: Because of ex-Neo-Nazi convicted pedophile Frank Joseph (a.k.a. Frank Collin). In the years after Joseph had been released from the prison where Richard Burrows had been a guard, he had been busy promoting Burrows Cave and making a name for himself as a fringe author. He developed an interest in Lake Michigan area archaeology, declaring in David Hatcher Childress’s World Explorer magazine that the Loop in Chicago had once been a Phoenician site of infant sacrifice. In FATE magazine in 1989, he reported on as many as nine submerged “pyramid” structures of Rock Lake, just three miles from Aztalan. Mainstream archaeology suggests that these are submerged earthen mounds, either natural glacial deposits or possibly manmade structures built by a Mississippian group when the lake’s water levels were lower, but Joseph had come to believe that they were made of bricks and stones and were therefore unlikely to be Native constructions. As with Aztalan, if artificial the appearance of brick is probably due to the fire-hardening used on clay mounds. Although the structures had been discussed since at least 1937, Joseph’s article brought them into the fringe history orbit.
Joseph would go on to write an entire book about Atlantis in Wisconsin (1995) based on Rock Lake and Aztalan. In that book, Joseph presents the claims of emeritus engineering professor James Scherz, who asserted that an unnamed Native American elder told him that the Chinese (“Chinetec”) and the Vikings (“Redbeards”) had invaded America around 700 CE and drove the Mexicans to Wisconsin, where they buried gold at Rock Lake. Chinetec? Seriously? Even the Chinese don’t call themselves Chinese; it’s a Western term derived from a Persian version of the Sanskrit name for the Qin dynasty. However, Sherz went farther and told Joseph he believed the site actually dated to at least 1600 BCE.
Scherz would later work with Scott Wolter on Holy Grail in America (2009), where he claimed to be an expert in “prehistoric cartography” as presented on the Burrows Cave artifacts, which in turn had been promoted by Joseph. Scherz and Burrows wrote a book together, and Scherz founded a group to investigate the “true” origins of America’s mounds, which he does not feel are all Native constructions. It is a small world.
At any rate, Frank Joseph was sure the site couldn’t be Native American because “its dynamic civilizers dominated” the land and therefore had to be from somewhere else. He proceeded to use psychical research to gain paranormal insight into the deceased inhabitants’ lives.
On the strength of such claims Joseph met with Childress in the early 1990s to take him to Aztalan and the nearby site of Rock Lake. Childress, giddy with ignorance, declared Aztalan “a miniature version of Teotihuacan” because both had … vaguely tapering structures in sort of a line. He speculated whether what he called the rites of cremation burial at the site connected it to the “Hindus and Buddhists of the Orient as well as the Atonists of Egypt.” Childress and Joseph made a dive at Rock Lake, but they found nothing. Childress reported that Kinglsey Craig, a “researcher” at the Epigraphic Society, the site had been destroyed when Genghis Khan’s hordes crossed the Bering Strait and invaded Canada and the upper Midwest in 1233, rampaging across the continent until the Pueblo killed them off when they tried to take over the Southwest. The warrant for this was Ethel Stewart, who had claimed a connection between Athabaskan languages and central Asian tongues as late as the 1200s. Childress also met with Scherz, who shared with him stories of Hindu invaders of early America!
Childress published these claims in Lost Cities of North and Central America (1993), from which they cross-pollinated with other pseudo-historical claims, as well as his own self-congratulatory claim that he had found the hypocrisy of archaeologists who had cried racism over other diffusionist claims: This evidence showed that pre-Columbian Asians had reached America, and one could not be racist against the same population for invading America repeatedly over the millennia. He castigated the “dogma” of academics and demanded that the “truth” about North America be set free and then promptly related Aztalan to Burrows Cave (drawing no conclusion on authenticity) and Egyptian voyages to America. Yes, the David Childress of 1993, before Ancient Aliens, was essentially Scott Wolter. Perhaps in twenty years Wolter will be up to his armpits in Martians, too.
So: Aztalan has been attributed to Aztecs, pre-Vedic Indians, Vikings, Egyptians, and Mongols—anyone but Native Americans! How could they possibly pile dirt in large mounds? And if you suggested the question was racist, well Childress would tell you that the Native Americans were just another type of Asiatic invader.
We open with a gun being loaded and two men sitting in a boat on Rock Lake near Lake Mills, Wisconsin, around 1900. They start shooting at ducks, miss, and try to row to shore. They strike something hard in the water, and CGI creates an image of a massive pile of rocks beneath the water, forming a perfect pyramid with a sea monster in the shape of a plesiosaur passing by.
After the opening credits, we cut to Scott Wolter traveling by SUV to Lake Mills. We listen to a phone recording by Jeff Stockinger, a local man, informing Wolter that the Aztecs “may have” built “pyramids” under Rock Lake. Wolter travels to a brewery where promotes the local Stone Teepee brand of beer, whose label contains three stone pyramids, from the recent (post-1970) legends about the lake. Stockinger contacted Wolter about it and he offers a diagram that was made in 1970 for Skin-Diver magazine and reproduced by Frank Joseph in FATE.
Wolter tell us who the Aztecs were and offers a few factoids—emphasizing, bizarrely, the class segregation of the Aztec capital, an aspect of Aztec civilization of particular interest to conservative historians. He says the Aztec built a wall to separate rich and poor, but that isn’t right; the elite lived on the central island and the poor outside of it. Wolter carefully ignores the special island nature of the Aztec capital for reasons that become clear later. Stockinger informs Wolter that there is an alleged lake monster in Rock Lake, which really belongs on a different show. Wolter, acting macho, promises that he won’t get “creeped out” by the monster and plans to use a submarine to penetrate the water.
After the first break, we get an on-screen recap of the nothing that has happened so far, and Wolter then repeats the same information verbally. Then Wolter shows off a pair of small submarines whose yellow color prompts Wolter to inform us that he dislikes the Beatles. I don’t care about the submarines and have no interest in their technical details, with which the show is rather enamored. The two submarines are owned by a pair of brothers, Russell and Doug Canfield, who are trying to market and sell them online, and I’m not in the business of giving free advertising, especially when the show isn’t willing to tell viewers that they’re essentially doing a promotional spot for the owners, who are attempting to sell a reality television show based on their submarine adventures. Backdoor pilot? If so, I’m not watching.
Scott Wolter interviews Dr. Roberto Rodriguez, a journalist who claims to study indigenous migration patterns via maize (his PhD is in communication), and who tries to explain patiently to Scott Wolter that if corn came to North America 6,000 years ago, it was not brought by the Aztecs in 1300 CE. Rodriguez, however, says he “stumbled on” a map that said that the Aztecs came from the north to Mexico. I am pretty sure this is the same Robert Rodriguez who advocates a maize-based curriculum for Arizona schools.
After the second break we get an on-screen recap followed by another verbal recap and a montage of scenes from the first twenty minutes of the show, including the entirety of the cold open. In sum, the show concedes that the first twenty minutes contained nothing we needed to see.
Rodriguez, now identified as an “Aztec Migration Expert” (his PhD dissertation was on communication about maize) tells Wolter that there was a connection between Native Americans and the Aztecs, and Rodriguez promises to show an “ancient map” at the L. D. Fargo Public Library. This ought to be good, since there are no Aztec-era maps of Wisconsin. Oh, of course: The “ancient” map was drawn in 1847.
Rodriguez and Wolter discuss Aztlán, the mythic Aztec homeland of which the Aztecs told stories, claiming it was somewhere from the north. Rodriguez claims to have found a map dating back to the 1500s identifying the Salt Lake as the Aztec homeland. We do not see this map, and I would very much like to see it. Both men assert that the United States purposely suppressed the “antigua residencia de los Aztecas,” but Rodriguez is a bit dishonest. He is a political activist who has been claiming since 1998 that the 1847 map “ends” the immigration debate by “proving” that the Mexicans were indigenous to the United States—as though the fact that America absorbed half the country from Mexico didn’t already imply as much. Rodriguez suggests that the Nahuatl language family’s widespread geographical distribution proves a connection between the Aztecs and Wisconsin, which is about like saying the Ireland and India are closely related because of the Indo-European family of languages.
I did some research into Rodriguez’s claims in his dissertation from 2008 on maize wisdom (yes, really), and it turns out his map from the 1500s doesn’t say what he says it says. In a 1562 map by Diego Gutierrez he finds a place called Aztatlam near Yuma, Arizona. He admits that there is no evidence this is related to Aztlán. Instead, the Salt Lake claim he assigns to a toponym of “Tulah” found on an 1856 map, which he declares to be the Toltec capital of Tula! The Aztec toponyms derive from the erroneous belief that the Aztecs built Pueblo ruins. Some of the earlier terms derive from the misapplication of the more broadly-defined Aztec ethnonym (before Humboldt assigned it to the Mexica, it belonged to most Mexicans) in fanciful geography. Any appearance after 1810 is simply the influence of Humboldt.
Diego Gutrierrez’s map, which is in the Library of Congress and reproduced below, is, as you can see, too inaccurate to declare evidence of the Aztec homeland in Yuma. It’s most likely a fanciful attempt to situate Aztlán somewhere in the vague area north of the explored lands in central Mexico. Indeed, Astalam, as the place is called, is actually located in north-central Mexico on the map. You can blow it up at the Library of Congress website to see for yourself.
A lot of submarine promotion occurs as we go to commercial.
After the break, we get another on screen recap followed by a verbal recap. Wolter then tries to legitimize cryptozoology (!) by telling us that kangaroos used to be cryptids before they were found, so why the hell not a plesiosaur in the lake. Maybe he’d like to look for the UFOs and the ghosts Frank Joseph “investigated” there, too.
He travels around the lake and sees nothing in the murky water. Thus endeth the quest for Aztec pyramids.
As we head to commercial, Wolter travels to Aztalan State Park, having seen no pyramids. After the break, we get another on-screen recap followed by a verbal recap for those of you who missed the two or three facts in this hour.
Wolter asks Bob Birmingham, the former Wisconsin state archaeologist, if Aztalan was the original homeland of the Aztecs. Birmingham tells Wolter Aztalan was built about 1000 CE, and Wolter immediately notes that the Vikings found America that year. Birmingham explains the lifestyles of the Aztalan people, but Wolter decides that the mound city resembles Aztec pyramid cities. The trouble, though, is that despite the plaza and the social segregation of the Aztalan site, Mexican cities had the same pyramid-and-plaza setup since the time of the Olmec, thousands of years earlier. It is the same setup we find from Peru to Canada, and indeed it is also the same type of setup, in general terms, that we also find in ancient Greek agorae, Roman forums, and nearly all ancient cities.
Birmingham tells Wolter about the Princess Mound, where a high status woman was buried with thousands of shell beads. Wolter draws facile connections between the Aztecs and Aztalan based on sacrifice, corn, and pyramids—deciding to ignore the widespread use of these almost everywhere in the Americas, and for thousands of years. Birmingham explains to Wolter that there is no connection between the Aztecs and Aztalan, reminding him that an early settler named the site fancifully. He explains that the Mississippians built the site, but since they are Native Americans and not sexy foreigners, this is squeezed into the last few seconds of the show.
“Who’s to say the Mississippians of up hear in Wisconsin didn’t become the Aztecs of the American southwest and later Mexico?” Wolter asks. “I’m not saying it happened, but it is a possibility, even if Bob [Birmingham] doesn’t think so.” There is literally no evidence that the Aztecs originated in Wisconsin—not genetic, not cultural, not archaeological. There is no trail of material culture leading from the Mississippian sites to Mexico; only one single Mesoamerican artifact was ever found in a Mississippian site, and virtually nothing Mississippian in any Mexican context. Wolter nevertheless concludes that the Aztecs had to have come from the United States, conflating Wisconsin with the Southwest as though both were equally plausible. The Southwest is certainly a possibility, albeit an unlikely one, but Wisconsin is insupportable under any fair reading of the evidence. Wolter, how
ever, is content to restate essentially the argument of Josiah Priest, made nearly 200 years ago, and based on no better evidence: The Aztecs said north and the United States is north of Mexico; therefore, because the United States is better than Mexico the Aztecs had to come from here. Your civilization belongs to us. I will admit that this is a different turn for the show, extending its imperial ideology in a new direction. But since we already know from Wolter's radio interviews that he thinks that the Mississippians were chased out of America by the superior power of the Knights Templar, it is not as much of a shocking stretch as it seemed.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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