Nature Notes; Adapting to an Unforgiving Land: Archeology Sheds Light on Big Bend’s Native American History

Volcanic badlands and limestone canyons, wooded mountains and stony plains. Big Bend National Park is known for its beauty – and its geological and biological richness.

But this land has a rich human history as well.

Archaeologists recently completed a survey of the park – the largest of its kind ever in the region. It’s shed new light on the relationship between the land and people of the Big Bend.

Archeologists work with shovels and trowels, right? Not necessarily. The Center for Big Bend Studies, at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, partnered with Big Bend National Park in 1995. The Center kept its focus above ground.

David Keller led the survey. He and his crews spend 490 days in the field. Fieldwork wrapped up in 2010. On foot, in a harsh land, they patiently surveyed 62,000 acres.

“Everything within your view that you can possibly pin on having been placed there or in any way manipulated by a human is recorded – every single thing,” Keller said. “I think it’s probably the largest intensive archeological pedestrian survey in the state’s history – in the most rugged and God-forbidding place in the state.”

That exacting work paid off.

The crews collected 2,300 artifacts. They documented 1,400 new archeological sites – from cooking hearths and campsites to dart points and grinding stones.

They explored which ecological zones were used by ancient peoples, and how use of those zones changed over time.

Archeologists refer to the first North Americans as Paleoindians. As early as 13,000 years ago, they hunted big game – mammoths, sloths, bison.

But life in the Big Bend was different. Paleoindians here adapted to arid conditions. They roasted plants in earth ovens, and relied on small game.

“Rather than killing large animals like bison, they primarily relied on things like rabbits and mice and snakes and lizards,” Keller said. “Succulents were a huge part of their adaptation – roots and bulbs, like agaves and sotol.”

Desert adaptations changed over time. But core features of the “desert lifeway” remained constant, up to the Mescalero Apache in the 19th century.

Surveying in the lowland desert, Keller’s team made one of its most stunning finds – a “petroform,” a human-made rock outline or mosaic. Rocks had been laid out in a “V” or arrow pattern. Each arm of the arrow was 150 feet long. At the tip, Keller’s team found a cache of 13 dart points.

The points dated to the Middle Archaic – a span of time, short by archeologists’ standards, from 4,500 to 3,000 years ago.

The researchers were awed by this apparent ritual monument. And it trained their eyes to look for Middle Archaic sites. Almost a quarter of the dart points they found were Middle Archaic.

That suggests a spike in population. Something unique was happening in this period, Keller said.

“So what we began to tease out based on that find and subsequent finds and then through the data, is that there was this incredible fluorescence about 4,500 years ago that nobody knew about,” he said. “They lived in larger groups. They became more specialized. They seem to have had more structure to their religious observances and more ritual. And it looks like they were congregating, at least in the park, down along the river, probably seasonally, in pretty large groups.”

Elsewhere, the team found petroforms depicting turtles, with diameters of up to 15 feet. Keller suspects they date to the Late Prehistoric Period – the 1,700 years ending with the arrival of Europeans in North America.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Comanche Trail passed through this land, as the master horsemen traveled to raid settlements in Mexico. Strangely, archaeologists find little evidence of the trail.

“When you read about historic accounts of the Comanche Trail, it was described as being in places a mile wide, rutted, strewn with the carcasses of animals and humans and discarded loot and booty,” Keller said. “It was a mess. It was the leavings of a mass plunder. And so how would that stuff disappear in less than 200 years? I don’t know.”

Indigenous life in the Big Bend was probably always “hardscrabble,” Keller said. But the cliche that Big Bend is the “despoblado” – the unpopulated place – is misleading. For millenia, diverse societies of Native people made this unforgiving land their home.

Nature Notes is underwritten by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.

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