¿Como? ¿Puertorriqueños en América del Norte antes de que Cristóbal Colón? ¡Por seguro! Forensic geologists and Native American scholars are opening the flood gates of new knowledge about North America’s past. What they are discovering is that what is now the Southeastern United States was a melting pot for at least 1000 years. Much of the proof has also been available for a long time . . . 16th century archives left by French and Spanish explorers, plus a stone tablet discovered over century ago near Atlanta, GA. The Taino ethnic and place names were in these old texts. Some of them are still in use today. Until recently, though, no one ever stopped to investigate the origins of such words that were within what was thought to be the original territory of the Creek Indians, but not Creek Indian words.
The first breakthrough occurred in 2011. This column was running a series on the enigmatic petroglyphs of eastern North America. Several readers were intrigued because the petroglyphs from northern Georgia did not resemble those they were familiar with in the Southwestern United States. Most were on larger boulders and were very similar to Bronze Age petroglyphs on the Atlantic coasts of Ireland and Spain. One was entirely different. It was inscribed on a four feet (1.33 m) tall stone tablet, called a stela by archaeologists. It had been found over a century ago near the Chattahoochee River in an area that is now part of Metropolitan Atlanta. Some thought it looked “very Caribbean.”
The Sweetwater Creek stela, as it is now known, was discovered by a hunter, face down on the crest of a hilltop shrine. Earthen and stone steps led up the steep hill from the creek’s confluence with the Chattahoochee River. The hillside was littered with Native American artifacts. For many years the stela was on display at the offices of the Georgia Division of Archives and History. It is now displayed at a museum in Sweetwater State Park.
The names of several experts on Taino and Carib art were forwarded by a reader. These specialists were sent photos of the Sweetwater Creek stela. The response was instantaneous. The stela portrayed a Taino guardian deity. In fact, the semi-human figure was virtually identical to art found in caves near Arecibo, Puerto Rico. That region was the Toa Province, prior to conquest of Puerto Rico by the Spanish. It was a 100% match.
The Toa Provinces . . . in Puerto Rico, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee
During the early spring of 1540 the Hernando de Soto Expedition was traveling northward through present day southern Georgia. Approximately 80 miles (130 km) south of Macon, GA the expedition entered a Native town on the Ocmulgee River called Toa. It was in a province called Toasi, which in the Itsate Creek language means “offspring of Toa.” De Soto’s chroniclers remarked that the town of Toa was cleaner, better planned and more sophisticated than the native villages they had visited in Florida. Toa is also the Taino name for a special stone griddle used to bake cassava bread.
The fact that a Native town in Georgia and a province in Puerto Rico had the same name might be thought to be a coincidence, but the Toasi moved westward into central Alabama in the 1700s as European colonists occupied the Atlantic Coastal Plain. When white settlers reached Alabama, they were called the Tawassee. It is still a place name near Loundesboro, Alabama. One of the Tawassee men happened to be traveling in the Carolinas, looking for work. Some local scholars took an interest in the native language he spoke. Toasi (or Tawasee) turned out to be a mixture of Taino Arawak and Creek Indian words.
Some of the Toa’s also settled in the mountains of Georgia, probably to have access to the region’s natural resources. In the mountains, the Toa maintained their Arawak identity more completely. They called themselves the Toa-coa (Toa People.) Their name survives today as two rivers named Toccoa in the mountainous part of the state. They also had a village on the Little Tennessee River. That village eventually joined the Cherokee Indians. It was known to the Cherokees as Tocqua.
Were Arawaks all over the Southeast?
Anthropologists have long believed that the group of Native provinces that the Spanish called Timucua, were Arawaks. The Timucua lived in southeast Georgia and northeastern Florida. The name comes from one ethnic group in the region which called itself the Tamacoa. That is a hybrid word that mixes the Totonac (Gulf Coast of Mexico) word for “trade” with the Arawak word for people, “coa.” They were probably a hybrid ethnic group that was drawn from several distinct peoples in the Caribbean Basin and northern South America.
Conventional anthropological maps only place the Arawaks in Florida and the extreme southeastern tip of Georgia. However, the linguistic evidence suggests that Arawak provinces were once scattered over a broad expanse of territory. A good example is the Thamagoa (Tamacoa) tribe that lived near the coastal French colony of Fort Caroline in the 1560s. That name appears as a "Creek Indian town" in 18th century maps at the headwaters of the Oconee River in northeastern Georgia, north of Athens. It was the original name of the county seat of Jackson County, GA until changed to Jefferson, GA.
There was another hybrid group that lived in central Georgia near the Toa and also in the southern tip of Florida. According to 16th century French explorers, they called themselves the Mayacoa. That means Maya People in Arawak. Apparently, they were a mixture of Maya Indian and Arawak ancestors. Other Arawak tribes in Georgia mentioned by the French included the Potano, Ustacoa, Panicoa, Anatecoa, Maticoa, Omiticoa and Enlicoa. These tribes were Arawaks, but allied with Itsate-Creek Indians, who spoke another language with many Maya words.
In the same general region that stretched to the southern tip of South Carolina were also peoples originally from South America. They worshiped the South American sun god, Toyah. Apparently, these provinces spoke dialects of the Tupi-Guarani language. Dialects of Tupi-Guarani are spoken in many parts of South America today, east of the Andes Mountains. One of the provinces in southeastern Georgia was actually named Tupi.
Arawaks, originally from the Caribbean Basin, may have lived as far north as the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. When European settlers arrived in the Shenandoah Valley it was uninhabited. Either a plague or Rickohocken Indian slave raiders had erased an advanced indigenous culture. This extinct nation left behind many mounds and the ruins of numerous villages. While tilling the fields around these abandoned villages, the newly arrived German and Dutch settlers found numerous stone griddles with legs that were unlike anything utilized by Algonquin Indians in Virginia. The descriptions of these griddles sound identical to the toas used by Arawak Indians to bake cassava bread.
Gary Daniels is the founder of www.LostWorlds.org. He was featured on the premier of the History Channel’s American Unearthed on December 21, 2012. Gary lives on the coast of Georgia and has been researching the Arawaks of the Southeastern United States for several years. He has identified a pre-European trade network, operated by the Arawaks that transported products from the coast like salt to the highlands, then returned to the coast with products from the mountains.
Gary often pondered what caused a sudden ethnic change around 1000 AD, when many new towns appeared within the interior of the Southeast, while parts of the Atlantic Coast seemed to have been temporarily abandoned by Muskogean mound builders. The coast was reoccupied by Arawak and Tupi-Guarani peoples some time later. They paddled as far as 2,000 miles (3200 km) to settle in Georgia.
The answer came from two British geologists. Simon K. Haslett and Edward A. Bryant discovered that a massive tsunami struck the coasts of Ireland, Wales and southern England in 1014 AD. As many as 30,000 people drowned. The scientists studied the sediments in the Atlantic Ocean for several years before determining that an extremely large meteor had broken up in the atmosphere then caused multiple, catastrophic tidal waves to strike the shores of both sides of the North Atlantic. Undoubtedly, many thousands of people were also killed on the American side. The survivors headed for the mountains and foothills of the Southeast, where no wave could engulf them. They passed down to future generations stories of great serpents with a flaming tails that almost destroyed the world.
Those readers who wish to ask Richard Thornton questions about architecture, urban planning or Native American history may email him at Native Question@aol.com .