Brown, Wichmann & Beck (2014) put forward 90 cognate sets and a number of structural comparisons which they propose are indicative of a genetic relationship between Chitimacha, a Gulf isolate of Louisiana, and Proto-Totozoquean, the authors’ reconstruction of the common ancestor of the Tepehua, Totonac, Mixe, and Zoque language groups of Mesoamerica (Brown et al. 2011). Based on their ... [Show full abstract] reconstruction of Proto-Chitimacha-Totozoquean, they propose that Chitimacha must have had an origin in Mesoamerica. A key piece of evidence for this proposal is that among their reconstructions are terms relating to maize agriculture, suggesting that the speakers of this protolanguage must have known maize domestication. Though maize was introduced into the Southeast possibly as early as 1–400 CE, it did not constitute a major part of the diet in the Lower Mississippi Valley and was not intensely farmed until approximately 1,200 CE (Fritz & Kidder 1993; Fritz 1990; Rees 2010:186). In order for Proto-Chitimacha-Totozoquean speakers to have had exposure to maize, they must have lived not just in Mesoamerica, but close to or in the homeland of domesticated maize, since the time depth for the family that Brown et al. propose (“even older than [Proto-Indo-European, perhaps approaching the chronological threshold for being able to retrieve cognates among modern daughter languages based on sound correspondences” (2014)) would predate the emergence of domesticated maize entirely (approximately 3,400 BCE for Zea mays; Blake 2006).
Given this potential inconsistency in dating, the present paper attempts to assess the validity of the reconstructed words relating to maize agriculture in light of recent and ongoing contributions to our understanding of Chitimacha grammar (Hieber 2013; Hieber), and evidence based on internal reconstruction. In addition, this paper examines potential cognates for the same set of maize-related terms in the neighboring languages of the U.S. Southeast to determine whether the evidence for a Mesoamerican origin for maize among the Chitimacha is stronger than the evidence for borrowing from neighboring groups, or chance. It will be shown that the internal evidence from Chitimacha lends strong support to the reconstructions for maize, and that a Mesoamerican origin for Chitimacha is therefore likely.