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Serpent mounds in North America, a fact check

The Feathered Serpent motif in the Southeast was actually derived from a large fish that formerly lived in the Etowah River of Georgia.
The Feathered Serpent motif in the Southeast was actually derived from a large fish that formerly lived in the Etowah River of Georgia.
© Richard L Thornton, Architect

The January 24, 2014 episode of America Unearthed on History Channel H2 provided an interesting glimpse at a serpent mound in Scotland, the Great Serpent Mound in southeastern Ohio, a complex of effigy mounds in Iowa and the ruins of Cahokia in southern Illinois. Guests on the show made several statements that varied from being confirmed facts, speculations to absolutely false. The program presented only a Euro-centric perspective of Native American history.

America Unearthed provides refreshing new subject matter to television by discussing topics that often are left out of the history books. The focus of this episode was the hypothesis that the two serpent mounds were culturally related and linked to travels of scholars from the British Isles to North America. This hypothesis may or may not be factual. Without a time machine it will be difficult to turn theory into fact because it is not known for certain who built the Great Serpent Mound.

Most of the serpent effigies in the Eastern United States consist of a wriggling snake with an egg in its mouth. Among the Creek, Shawnee, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Alabama Indians of the Southeast, a snake eating an egg was traditionally the symbol of a large meteor. First a ball of light would appear then a tail. The ball of light would then disappear. This cultural fact was never mentioned on the program.

The interpretation of the Great Serpent Mound is a very different situation than the subject matter of America Unearthed’s December 21, 2012 premier, “The Maya-Georgia Connection.” The province around the Track Rock Gap Terrace Complex was originally called “The Place of the Itza” by both the Creek [Itsapa] and Cherokee [Itsayi] Indians. Spanish traders and French Protestant refugees visited the town at Track Rock Gap in the late 1500s when it was still occupied by Native Americans, who spoke a dialect of the Muskogean language family, heavily blended with Maya and South American words. Hundreds of thousands of Southeastern Native American descendants walk around today, carrying Maya DNA and speaking pure Maya words.

The theory of Pre-Columbian visits by Welsh and English explorers to North America first appeared during the 1580s in the books of the brilliant Elizabethan scholar, Richard Hakluyt. Hakluyt did not mention Scandinavians, Bronze Age Irish or Medieval Irish and presented these legends as proof that the people of Britain “discovered” the New World long before Columbus. The evidence of Scandinavian and Irish colonists in the New World is far stronger than the British candidates proposed by Hakluyt.

As part of this episode, the History Channel commissioned a new high resolution LIDAR scan of Cahokia Mounds. The brief glimpse of the LIDAR image was fascinating. That alone could have been made into a one hour program of America Unearthed. Perhaps in the future, it will be.

Here are the “facts” as presented by this episode of America Unearthed:

1. Only one serpent mound exists today in North America. Actually, there are at least three surviving serpent mounds in Ohio, plus at least one serpent mound in show host, Scott Wolter’s, home state of Minnesota. There are also numerous large fieldstone serpent effigies in northern Georgia, northeastern Alabama, the eastern half of Tennessee and southeastern Kentucky. The majority are in the Georgia Mountains, including one at the Track Rock Gap Terrace Complex.

The oldest known serpent mound in the United States is at the massive Ortona town site, immediately south of Lake Okeechobee, Florida. It also appears to hold an egg in its mouth and dates back to at least 300 AD. The Ortona Serpent Mound is almost as large as the better known one in Ohio.

2. The Great Serpent Mound has several astronomical features. This is true. The serpent effigies at Skeleton Mountain, AL; Dug Out Mountain, GA; Fort Mountain, GA; Track Rock Gap, GA; and Ortona, FL also have astronomical features.

3. The Great Serpent Mound was first constructed in the Archaic Period (pre-1000 BC) then reconstructed by the Adena Culture around 300 BC. There may have been earthworks on the site earlier, but scientific radiocarbon dating has consistently found construction of the current mound to date from around 1070 AD. That puts the Great Serpent Mound in the same period when hybrid Maya-Muskogean Indian traders, who called themselves the Tamahi-te, were spreading across eastern North America and introducing new agricultural crops and architecture. One interpretation of the several terrace complexes in northern Georgia is that they were actually horticultural facilities that adapted Southeastern Coastal Plain and Mesoamerican plants to northern climes.

Some Adena artifacts have been found in possible burials near the Great Serpent Mound, but they predate the mound seen today. Some charcoal was found near the surface of the earthwork which was dated as far back as the Adena Culture, but it appears to be the result of 20th century repairs.

Update (8/4/2014): In early 2014, highly respected Ohio archaeologist, Dr. William Romain, led a team which sought to find a definitive radiocarbon date for the Great Serpent Mound. Using rigorous scientific methods, the team obtained radiocarbon dates in a range of 300 BC-100 AD. These dates suggest that the Great Serpent Mound was built in the period when participants on the Adena and Hopewell cultural traditions were coexisting in southeastern Ohio.

4. In ancient times Druids from Britain traveled across the Atlantic and shared their knowledge of astronomy to the indigenous peoples of the America. All archaeological evidence points to an opposite situation. Dr. Gordon Freeman of the University of Alberta has dated several complex ceremonial sites built of stone in Canada that predate by at least 500 years any similar sites in Great Britain, such as Stonehenge. Maya astronomers were far more sophisticated than their contemporaries in Europe.

5. In ancient times, people traveled back and forth across the Atlantic. This is not an established fact, as stated in by one of the guests on the program, but there is artistic evidence in the gold fields of the Georgia Mountains that at least some Europeans where living there in the period between 1600 BC and 500 BC. A network of petroglyphic boulders, almost equally spaced along major Native American trade routes, contain the exact same glyphs as Bronze Age petroglyphic boulders in County Kerry, Ireland and southwestern Spain. Only one of these boulders portrays a serpent. Boulder Six at Track Rock Gap contains the Itza Maya glyphs for Great Sun ~ Lord Quetzal-Serpent. It appears to date from the later period when the Great Serpent Mound was built.

6. Serpent worship originated in the British Isles; was established by newcomers in Ohio and spread southward into the rest of North America and Mesoamerica. All evidence points to an opposite situation. The oldest known serpent mound in North America is located at Ortona in southern Florida. The Great Serpent Mound, along with several Native American towns in the Southeast are on the same longitude line as the great 12 mile long megapolis on the Ocmulgee River in central Georgia, known to the Creek Indians as Waka, and to archeologists as Ocmulgee National Monument. Waka was founded at least as early as 900 AD. Its mounds predate those at Cahokia by at least 150 years. Serpent themed art is seen on the Ocmulgee River at Waka. It is possible that Tamahi-te traveled northward from this town to Ohio with a serpent-themed religion.

Serpent images are ancient in Mesoamerica and are seen in some Olmec art. The Olmec Civilization thrived from about 1600 BC to 500 BC. This corresponds exactly to the Bronze Age in Europe and the occupation of Poverty Point in Louisiana. All three advanced cultures could well have been the result of ideal climatic conditions and not evidence of trans-Atlantic contacts. However, the identical petroglyphs in Western Europe and the Georgia Mountains are also from that period.

7. A “plumed” serpent cult existed throughout much of Mesoamerica and North America. Serpents WERE important religious symbols in many parts of Mesoamerica and North America, but they embodied three different religious concepts. Actually, although North American archeologists, historians and “space aliens built the Maya cities” theorists all like to use the English words, “Plumed Serpent” or “Feathered Serpent” to describe a particular Mesoamerica deity, the indigenous equivalent of those words were never used in the Americas. Their words translate from Mexican languages as “Quetzal Serpent.” In the Southeastern United States, the Creek Indian equivalent word translates as “Eagle-Serpent.”

The Horned Serpent was a super-sized rattlesnake that lived underground. In some cultures it functioned as a Satan-like deity. The horned rattlesnake today only exists west of the Mississippi River in arid regions. It is quite likely that this set of religious beliefs originated in northern Mexico or the southwestern United States.

Among “mainstream” Maya provinces, the Sky Serpent was the incarnation of the Maya god, Kukulkan, who was associated with the planet, Venus. However, the Itza Maya, who originally were a non-Maya speaking people, worshiped a cosmic serpent deity associated with the sun and comets. The concept of a sky deity being associated with serpents probably came from the tails of comets and meteors.

The Feathered Serpent is endemic in the proto-Creek Indian art of the Southeast, but very different than the concept of Kukulkan. This creature was an actual large fish that lived in the Etowah River until probably made extinct by the construction of Alatoona Dam. This strange fish may have once lived in other isolated bodies of water in North America and be the source of the Giant Serpent Legend in the upper Midwest.

Between the late 1700s and 1947, the “Feathered Serpent” was seen by hundreds, if not, thousands of Anglo-Americans. It was at least six feet long and had long, feathery fins like a Siamese Catfish. The riverine predator apparently was a freshwater cousin of the oarfish. The oarfish is believed to the origin of Giant Sea Serpents reported intermittently by early voyageurs across the Atlantic Ocean.

When European settlers first arrived in Northwest Georgia, these fish were seen eating fawns, dogs and lambs that strayed into the Etowah River. They lived in a section of the Etowah that was up to 25 feet deep, but contained extremely pure mountain water. The Georgia “feathered serpents” were killed on sight by white settlers until they were almost extinct in the 20th century. The last “feathered serpents” were seen in 1947, swimming in the newly filled reservoir near Allatoona Dam, southeast of Cartersville, GA.

8. All Native Americans associated the Great Serpent Mound with the Garden of Eden. This statement is so far into the realm of fiction that it is horse manure. There is nothing equivalent to the story of the Garden of Eden among the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

One expert stated matter-of-factly that “Cherokee Elders” had told him that among the Cherokees, the circle in the mouth of the Great Serpent symbolized the Garden of Eden. What were the names of these “Cherokee Elders?” There is a legion of “Wannabe Injuns” running around the United States who present themselves as Cherokee shamans or medicine men. There is a Giant Serpent in Cherokee mythology called the Uktena. Its folklore includes nothing akin to the story of Adam and Eve.

North Carolina Cherokees have produced several books and films in recent years in which they claim to be the ancestors of the Aztecs and Mayas, the builders of most of the mounds in the Southeast, plus the first people in the world to cultivate corn, beans and squash. Their BIA tribal membership cards do not make the statements true.

In the filming of Season Three of America Unearthed, the producers of the show, Committee Films, should always include professionally educated Native Americans in the cast, when examining Native American archaeological sites. Besides entertainment, the History Channel has an obligation to present viewers a balanced view of the past.

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