Nature Notes : A glimpse into Ice Age

A century ago, most archeologists believed human beings had only occupied the Americas for about 3,000 years. Then, a series of finds on the Llano Estacado changed that view.

One of the most significant finds occurred just 6 miles southwest of Midland. The discovery – called the Midland Site – included ancient human remains. It opened a window into the Ice Age world.

In June 1953, Keith Glasscock, an amateur archeologist, was collecting artifacts on the Scharbauer Ranch, near Monahans Draw, when he spotted a human skull among the sand dunes. Glasscock knew he had something important. He contacted Dr. Fred Wendorf, a leading archeologist.

In 1955, Wendorf published The Midland Discovery. The fossilized skull was identified as that of a young woman. It’s believed to be 11,000 years old. And Wendorf identified a new spear point, of roughly the same age – the Midland Point.

The Midland Site supplemented earlier Paleo-Indian finds at Folsom and Clovis, New Mexico. Together, they provided a glimpse into the continent’s first hunter-gatherer cultures.

“You must understand that when man first came on to this continent, there were trails that they could get down through the ice and snow to this part of the world,” said Teddy Stickney, a member of the Midland Archeological Society. “That’s why we have so many Paleo sites here, because this was melted.”

Raised near Farmington, New Mexico, Stickney was surrounded by archeological activity as a child, and longed to pursue the discipline herself. But in the late 1940s, the department at the University of New Mexico was unwilling to accept a female student. She’s pursued archeology as a dedicated amateur, at excavations and rock-art sites across West Texas.

When humans arrived, much of North America lay covered by glaciers. The hunters pursued mastodons, mammoths and giant bison. The Great Plains was the prime corridor for these massive animals, and the Llano Estacado was at the southern end of the vast river of grass.

With Midland Point spears, hunters pursued the bison antiquus or ancient bison, ancestor of the living buffalo. Fifteen feet long, an adult bison antiquus weighed 3,500 pounds.

Stickney helped excavate four bison skulls at a site near Lubbock.

“Oh, they were huge,” Stickney said. “You just can’t imagine what kind of an animal it took to hold that head up. The horn span – they said [it was] at least 6 foot. All I got was the horn core, and it was 2-and-a-half feet long.”

The Llano Estacado provided rich forage for these huge animals.

“The buffalo came in because they found a grass here which they liked – we call it buffalo grass,” Stickney said. “It was very substantial. It had a lot of food value to it, where these other grasses didn’t maintain a big antiquus bison.”

Bison may have been the prize for the Paleo hunters. But they probably weren’t the staple. At Yellow House Draw near Lubbock, ancient butchering sites reveal hunting patterns, Stickney said.

“Lubbock has pretty well proven to us that a bison was killed just once in a while,” she said. “Antelope, deer, possums – these little critters were in there too. The jackrabbits and the rabbits were a good food source. They theorize that they had rabbit drives into a net somewhere.”

Crafting a Midland Point required tremendous skill. The Midland Point is thinner than other Paleo-Indian points. The hunter-gatherers manufactured many points at flint deposits in the Edwards Plateau, in present-day Central Texas.

“These guys were artists with their flint,” Stickney said. “These are the most beautiful points. [You can] look at the little flakes that were taken off that thing – and you’re working with a piece of stone that can break in a minute if you’re not careful.”

The dry and windy climate of the Llano Estacado has helped expose Paleo-Indian sites. But the Paleo-Indian world remains essentially mysterious. Did they use fire? Did they speak a language? Archeologists don’t know. As the climate dried and warmed, the Ice Age animals vanished. Cruder dart points replaced delicate tools like the Midland Point.

But for thousands of years, the Llano Estacado sustained the continent’s earliest hunters.