As we approach the end of the first season of America Unearthed, I’ve started work on compiling my reviews of the program into an eBook and paperback book, which I’ll release as we get closer to season two. (Before readers start screaming about how I’m singling out America Unearthed, please note that I did the same thing last year with my Ancient Aliens reviews.) In doing so, I’ve started revising and rewriting my early reviews. It was quite a shock to see how short my review of episode one was, and how much information I left out. At the time, I didn’t know what the program would turn into, so I was apparently overly generous in letting smaller, silly claims simply go by without comment.
The first episode detailed Wolter’s investigation into Richard Thorton’s claim that the Creek of central Georgia were ruled by a migrating group of Maya who settled around Ocmulgee (Track Rock) after the Maya collapse. Wolter settles on a slightly different conclusion, arguing instead that Track Rock was a base where itinerant Maya from Chichen Itza ruled over the Creek in order to extract blue clay pigment to ship back to Mexico. The Maya episode of America Unearthed aired on December 21, 2012, timed to coincide with the H2 channel’s day-long celebration of the Maya as part of the Maya Apocalypse programming block.
My revised review of the first episode tripled (!) the original length, adding in much more commentary about the weird claims, analyzing the editing of the interviews, and reporting the actual archaeology behind the alleged claims of the Maya in America. As a point of fact, only one Mexican-made artifact has ever been found in a southeastern United States Native American culture context, at Spiro Mounds in Oklahoma, and it was only confirmed to be Mexican in 2002. (And wouldn’t that have made a better episode of America Unearthed?—the scholars involved used microscopes, a Wolter favorite, and geology to source the obsidian blade to Mexico.)
I want to put two points from my revised review online because I think they’re important enough that they shouldn’t wait for the book release.
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.
Second, Wolter’s thesis about an itinerant class of merchants who came to Track Rock and ruled it as a resource-extraction colony, bequeathing Mesoamerican iconography to the region, is derived without credit from actual archaeologists’ ideas. I did not know this until I started researching the claim, and it turns out there’s a good reason I didn’t see it on my first pass through the episode. That’s because I was looking at the Maya, while archaeologists had a different idea. Scholars have been working for more than 150 years to prove a connection between the Mississippians and Mesoamerica, but aside from one obsidian scraper from Mexico found at Spiro Mounds in Oklahoma, they haven’t been able to pin anything down—though not for want of trying. 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.
Sound familiar? Wolter made the same case, substituting the Maya for the Aztec and neglecting to credit any of the earlier authors. I haven’t looked up all the original articles yet, but I did find references to the pochteca hypothesis (not a theory—there is no physical evidence) in several standard textbooks on North American and southeastern United States prehistory. The Aztec also used the same “Maya blue” pigment Wolter used to connect the Maya and Georgia.
Obviously, it’s not possible to prove that Wolter simply adapted a preexisting academic idea, switching out Aztecs for Maya, but it does undercut his claim in the episode that “academic community” is working to “shut down” his research into whether Mesoamericans were in Georgia out of a dogmatic fear of diffusion. So, either he does really poor research and wasn’t aware of scholarly investigations into the Mesoamerican connection between roughly 1780 and today, or he was purposely lying in order to call into being a false conspiracy against him.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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