Mayas in Georgia?

Again with the Mayans! This time an architect* named Richard Thornton has provoked a bit of controversy lately with his claim that the Brasstown ruin in Georgia was built by Mayan refugees fleeing the collapse of their civilization. Part of what got the ball rolling on the internet seems to be the fact that Thornton referenced the work of archaeologist Mark Williams. Shortly thereafter, Williams himself posted a comment calling Thornton’s interpretation “complete and total bunk.”

Anybody who thinks this kind of denunciation would put the matter to rest obviously doesn’t have a lot of experience on the internet. Naturally, a great many people jumped in to support one side or the other. Not surprisingly, it appears that most of the archaeologists who have posted have agreed with Williams.

I will admit going in that I am not a specialist in either the Southeast or Mesoamerica. However, when I read Thornton’s article, and his further explanation of his methods, several things immediately stood out. First, the size of the Mayan group he posits is utterly beyond belief: he claims that the population of the Mayan kingdoms decreased by about 15 million people at the end of the Classic Period, and although he doesn’t quite say that they all went to Georgia, he clearly imagines that a large fraction of them did. It is simply not plausible that a population movement of that size could have occurred that recently without leaving a massive amount of evidence. And not just at one site in Georgia, but all along their route of travel.

Second, I noticed that a great deal of Thornton’s argument is based on linguistic parallels between Muskogean languages on the one hand and Mayan/Totonac on the other. The fact that the latter two are grouped together is itself telling, as they are not in any way related. Thornton relies heavily on the work of the People of One Fire Team, who compared vocabularies of various southeastern and mesoamerican languages and found a number of common words. Without having to go any further I can already say that this method, at least, is bunk. (Although it remains widely popular with cranks.) Matching up a few words here and there is simply not the way linguistic relationships are established. Not that such minutia should even be necessary: had millions of Mayans settled in the United States, their descendants at the time of European contact would certainly have been speaking a Mayan language, not a Muskogean one. Again, the evidence would have been blindingly obvious long before now.

I also have to say that it’s very convenient that only the illiterate farmers went on this migration, leaving behind all the people who could have left behind glyphs to describe their incredible exodus.

And finally, since part of Thornton’s argument is based on the claim that the name “Brasstown” was a mistranslation of a Cherokee name meaning “Place of the Itza,” I present an alternate explanation for the name.


* Some reports on this story have called Thornton a historian. However the Examiner, where he writes and where he published his theory about Mayans in Georgia, identifies him as an “architect and city planner with a very broad range of professional experiences.”

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