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Sustainable America Part 1: Ancient Architecture and Town Planning

Credit: Copyrighted VR images by Richard L. Thornton, Architect

All across America, archaeologists and anthropologists, along with geneticists, linguists, geologists, and some of America’s native peoples, are assembling new data, reassessing older data, and generating new models that shed new light on much of what has been written in our history books to-date about how pre-Columbian Americans lived. This new information provides valuable insight into many of the problems which plague our society today.

It’s now clear that much of the western hemisphere was well-populated and dotted with impressive cities and towns. One scholar estimated that it held a hundred million people or more – more than lived in Europe at the time.

Pre-Columbian Americans had transformed vast swaths of landscape to meet their agricultural needs by using fire to create prairies for increased game production, and had also cultivated at least part of the forest, living on crops of fruits and nuts.

What’s more, Native Americans, above all else, were master land planners and designers. They managed their civilization through planning and design much to the extent we do today and in some areas used greater sophistication than we do today. Much sustainable intelligence can be found through the study of their community planning, site selection, terrestrial and marine ecosystem integration, building design, and more.

The contentious debate over what the ecosystem looked like before Columbus arrived has important ramifications for how we sustainably manage the landscape of the future – one which many environmentalists may not like to hear. According to Charles Mann, author of Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491,

Guided by the pristine myth, mainstream environmentalists want to preserve as much of the world’s land as possible in a putatively intact state. But “intact,” if the new research is correct, means “run by human beings for human purposes.” Environmentalists dislike this, because it seems to mean that anything goes. In a sense they are correct. Native Americans managed the continent as they saw fit. Modern nations must do the same. If they want to return as much of the landscape as possible to its 1491 state, they will have to find it within themselves to create the world’s largest garden.

Part 1: Lessons from Bottle Creek Mounds, Alabama
By Richard Thornton – Architect, City Planner, Noted Native American Historian

Bottle Creek Mounds are the ruins of a large Native American town inside a swamp about 14 miles north of Mobile, AL. Containing at least 18 mounds, it is Alabama’s second largest archaeological zone, yet is seldom visited by tourists. Access is almost impossible without a boat. Because of its isolation in the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, the pristine site has been immune to the destruction typical of many other mounds in the Southeast. However, the remote location also has defied explanation by the archaeology profession. An analysis of this ancient town from a regional context just might answer the riddle of its origin.

Although the Mobile Indians probably lived at or visited this island into the early 1700s, very few people knew of its existence until archaeologist David L. DeJarnette of the Alabama Museum of Natural History investigated the mounds in 1932. More recent studies have identified extensive occupation between about 1250 AD and 1550 AD. Archaeologists believe that the town was the political, religious and cultural center of the north central Gulf Coast.

Beginning with DeJarnette, archaeologists have presumed that the town was built by the Pensacola Indians, but apparently other Gulf Coast tribes traded with its residents, or even lived there. The Pensacola Indians were described as fishermen and hunters, who didn’t cultivate extensive fields or live in large communities. The pottery of Bottle Creek does seem to match pottery found around Pensacola, FL, but in both areas may have been produced by an unknown people, who no longer lived around Pensacola when the Spanish arrived.

The Architecture and Town Plan

Credit: Copyrighted VR images by Richard L. Thornton, Architect

One of the most important tasks accomplished by the University of South Alabama was the preparation of an accurate topographic map of Bottle Creek Mounds. Topographic maps make possible the detailed analysis of a town’s architecture and planning concept.

Probably at least half of the architecture of the residents was composed of pre-fabricated sapling frames and walls of vertical river canes. These structures are where the people lived during much of the year, when the weather was not cold or rainy. These types of structures did not leave significant “footprints” in the sandy soil of the Gulf Coast, and therefore are usually missed by archaeologists not familiar with Muskogean and Maya Commoner architectural practices.

Credit: Copyrighted VR images by Richard L. Thornton, Architect

What an architect sees at Bottle Creek Mounds is a very sophisticated sense of space and scale on par with the great Totonac city of Tajin in northern Vera Cruz or in the Highland Maya cities of Chiapas State. Tajin fell around 1250 AD, when sacked by Chichimec barbarians.

Bottle Creek’s pyramidal mounds are arranged in a harmonic composition. The mounds and ceremonial pools are aligned with solar azimuth, but also create public spaces of varying size. There is a grand plaza that probably contained thousands of people for festivals and regional markets, but there are also more intimate spaces between mounds. Like at Etowah Mounds and Moundville, the three ceremonial pools are the foci of three minor plazas.

Most of the mounds are aligned with the Summer Solstice. However, a large mound on the east side of the plaza was aligned with the sunrise of the Winter Solstice. Most proto-Creek Sun Temple mounds in Georgia are aligned with the sunset of the Winter Solstice.

Of particular significance are the obviously man-made “harbors” created on the south side of the public buildings. This area has been labeled “wetlands” by the University of South Alabama site plan, but is almost identical to the human-altered wetlands turned into large “terminals” for trade canoes that were created at Ocmulgee and Achese in Georgia and the massive Troyville site in Jonesville, LA.

The builders of Bottle Creek Mounds placed burial mounds on the west side of a small stream that separated the mortuary neighborhood from the main town. This same exact feature can be seen in proto-Creek towns in Georgia such as Ocmulgee, Achese, Nokose and Okvte. Peachtree Mounds near Murphy, NC also has this site feature. The location of the mounds symbolize the Muskogean belief that souls journeyed to the land of the setting sun after crossing the Mississippi River. This belief “may” have originated with the Chontal Maya.

Ideal location for regional trade

Bottle Creek’s location near the Mobile River placed it in an ideal position to dominate riverine trade for most of present-day Alabama, western Mississippi and northwestern Georgia. The tributaries of the Mobile River reach northeastward to the edge of the Smoky Mountains! The remote island in the swamps protected the town from attack and from hurricanes, but also gave easy access to the Gulf coast.

Architectural features such as the super-sized plaza and harbors suggest that the town for much of its existence functioned as a regional trade center. It was destination to which tourists, religious pilgrims and merchants could travel hundreds of miles by canoe. The Creek Indians have a tradition that for many centuries the indigenous peoples of the Southeast were able to travel long distances for trade, religious activities and entertainment. In particular, young single adults would go on long recreational journeys “to see the world” before settling down to marriage.

One of the many similarities with Mesoamerican traditions found at Bottle Creek is its location. The illiterate Chontal Maya dominated international trade in Mesoamerica for over 1,200 years. Their culture began as humble villages on the islands in marshes along the Gulf Coast of Tabasco State. However, they developed advanced skills in boat-building and merchandizing. Their propensity to place their trading towns on either marshy islands or high mountain passes protected such sites from aggressive militaristic societies. Over time, the trading centers within more backward societies developed into nodes that dispersed the seeds of cultivated plants from other regions and spread cultural advancements.

Pre-Columbian indigenous cultures, such as herein described, have much to teach us about sustainably developing our civilization going forward in the future. Part 2 of this series will profile how Native Americans in Florida are upholding their long tradition of sustainable management by restoring vital wetland areas that have been devastated by mismanagement and unsustainable development activity. It’s a great example of how humans and nature must sustainably co-exist rather than separate one from the other. Rather than conquering nature, we possess the knowledge and technology to live within and sustainably manage just about every type of ecosystem on the planet.


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