There has long been speculation that the Maya could have traveled beyond the Caribbean islands to reach Florida, and some academic researchers have investigated the possibility. One such researcher is Sandra Starr, formerly of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Her work seems to underlie this particular episode, which basically follows a 2017 article describing her research point for point.
Things don’t go well when Fornal and Ruprah identify the Maya as an “empire” and allege that its people “disappeared” when the Maya kingdoms collapsed. This will be major news to the Maya people, who continue to live in the same homeland where their ancestors had built the great cities in a patchwork of politically distinct rival states. They did not disappear since they are still there. Worse, our heroes describe the Maya as moving, apparently in their millions, to the United States, where, based on a controversial DNA study, they allege that the Cherokee are descendants of the Maya. They then describe the Dresden Codex, a Maya book, as a “map” because it contains “coded symbols” that give directions to America.
Then… Well, things took a turn.
Our heroes visit the man they call one of the world’s most “respected” historians of the Maya, whom they identify as a “forensic historian” by the name of “Jovan Hutton.” This is J. Hutton Pulitzer, who formerly appeared on The Curse of Oak Island and was once the business partner of Scott F. Wolter. Pulitzer is the former advocate of the “100% confirmed” Roman sword allegedly found near Oak Island, which later investigation by independent scholars and Curse of Oak Island determined not to be a Roman sword. Pulitzer disputes the findings. Hutton/Pulitzer does not have any academic publications on the Maya under any of his known names, according to academic database and Google searches.
Under the “Hutton” name, he tells the men that the Dresden Codex indicates that the Maya traveled to Florida because of a panel depicting water falling from the mouth of and a non-migratory bird called the crested caracara worn as another figure’s hat. Although the more parsimonious interpretation is that the panel depicts the bird because it is native to the Maya homeland, Hutton tells them that the bird also lives in Florida; therefore, the appearance of water in the same panel indicates that the codex is a map showing that the Maya traveled from Mexico to Florida. In fact, the show tells us that the caracara lives only in the Yucatan and Florida, but this is not true. Its range extends through Central and South America. The bird, while generally a homebody, has been spotted as far north as Canada, and it also lives on several Caribbean islands, so it is not impossible for it to fly around and does not require Maya to transport it across water. None of the men involved provides a translation of the Maya glyphs on the codex. The picture, on the final panel of the codex, is typically interpreted as an image of heavy rains associated with a flood, not of travel to Florida.
This segment is part of the show’s continued pattern of reusing former guests or hosts from History Channel programs and identifying non-academic researchers as experts.
Our heroes next explore whether ocean currents would have made it possible to travel to Florida, and they view the remains of an ancient canoe that they speculate may have been similar in style to those of the Maya. They then travel to Newnan’s Lake in northern Florida to map the lake for what they propose may be a Maya settlement, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. They speculate that a Maya city may be under the water, so they decide to scan the lake for a settlement. Their sonar scan reveals an anomaly that they interpret as a canoe, but there is no logic to their further claim that it “could be” of Maya origin, especially since there were real Native people who actually lived there. My money would be on the actual Native inhabitants before the Maya, assuming that the sonar artifact is in fact a canoe. The men dive to find the “giant” canoe, and they say “all signs point to this canoe being Maya,” even though no signs actually do that. Florida law forbids them from doing anything more, so they cheer themselves for ignoring the actual Native Floridians in favor or more glamorous colonizers.
Next up, Fornal and Ruprah review early Spanish accounts of Florida which mention some names that begin with the sound “Maya-” such as “Mayaca,” a place name, which they conclude must be evidence of the Maya christening Florida in their image. Since the actual Maya did not call themselves “Maya”—it’s a modern designation—this line of reasoning is pointlessly absurd, but it does lead our heroes to Gary C. Daniels, another self-described “expert” on the Maya and one who previously appeared on the America Unearthed episode dedicated to Maya in America. I’m really not sure why the Science Channel wanted to make America Unearthed fan fiction, but this show is hardly the 50 Shades of Grey to Scott Wolter’s Twilight.
There is no reason for me to repeat myself, so I will instead recycle my criticism of Daniels from 2012:
First, as supporting evidence Gary Daniels offers Wolter the fact that three Native peoples around Lake Okeechobee in Florida had “Maya” as syllables in their names, the Mayaimi, Mayayuaca, and Mayaca, although these names were only recorded five hundred years after the construction of the Ocmulgee citadel. However, the name of the Mayaca is a Spanish name, recorded only after 1575, and the Mayaimi (Miami) said their name referred to the Muskogee term miaha, or “wide,” not the Maya. This is because they called themselves the peoples of the wide water, their name for Lake Okeechobee, known as to them as Lake Mayaimi, as Hernando d’Escalante Fontenada reported in 1575: “They are masters of a large district of country, as far as a town they call Guacata, on the Lake of Mayaimi, which is called Mayaimi because it is very large.” Additionally, the “Maya” spelling is merely conventional; Spanish reports also used “Maia,” “Mia,” and other variants. In sum, the connection to the Mexican Maya is superficial at best.
Daniels shows our heroes a bunch of rocks which he alleges are Maya stelai, though they bear no resemblance to Maya art, and he alleges that the rocks have astronomical alignments. Even if that were true, it must rather offend Native Floridians to assume that they could not look up at the sky and see the stars as well as the Maya.
The men then try to prove that the Maya built a step pyramid on an island by scanning beneath the vegetation. They claim that a thirteen-foot-tall somewhat irregular lump is a “textbook Maya pyramid,” though I hate to mention that 13 feet is not a “massive” step pyramid but is instead at best a platform. [Update: Thanks to Andy White for pointing out that this pyramid was investigated in 2016 and found to be a Woodland period shell platform mound.] Since they are not allowed to excavate, they declare themselves discoverers of a Maya pyramid and more or less challenge archaeologists to prove them wrong. You know, SCIENCE!
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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