Nature Notes: At Big Bend Ranch, Archeology Reveals Region’s Cosmopolitan Past

Above, Big Bend Ranch State Park archeologist Tim Gibbs at the Four Seasons Shelter in the park. Located high on a canyon wall, the cave shelter contains rock art in the “Big Bend Bold” style. The large images, of animal and human forms and geometric patterns, were painted at a time when agricultural villages flourished in the Presidio Valley.

Isolation defines the Big Bend today. The border town of Presidio, and the surrounding river valley, can seem especially remote.

But along the roads here, on riverbanks and in nearby canyons, ruins and traces tell a different story.

The Presidio Valley is La Junta de los Rios – the confluence of the Rio Grande and the Rio Conchos. And a few centuries ago, it was a hub of Native American life, a center in a complex interplay of diverse societies.

Big Bend prehistory is closely associated with hunter-gatherers. For more than 10,000 years, nomadic peoples hunted game and harvested desert plants.

In the 1940s, Texas archeologist J. Charles Kelley began to study the Presidio area. What he found complicated that hunter-gatherer narrative.

Tim Gibbs is archeologist at Big Bend Ranch State Park. At La Junta, Gibbs said, Kelley found evidence of settled village life.

“And this occupation, he observed it at a number of sites,” Gibbs said, “and he was really the first guy to not only observe this, but the first guy to recognize some key traits. Those key traits are very distinct from the otherwise hunter-gatherer occupation.”

Beginning as early as 600 CE, people raised maize, beans and squash here. In dozens of riverside villages, they built pit houses, and then adobe structures. They imported ceramics, and later made their own.

These are the distinctive traits of an agricultural civilization that flourished in the millennium before European invasion, from the Pueblos of present-day New Mexico to Casas Grandes in Chihuahua. The Presidio Valley was an eastern outposts of that Puebloan-type civilization.

West Texas is a threshold, where the plains meet the desert-mountains. That crossroads geography made La Junta a societal crossroads as well.

Gibbs highlighted a site in Big Bend Ranch.

“One of the cool things about the Big Bend in general is that things can hide in plain sight – like this,” Gibbs said.

On a bluff by the Rio Grande, he pointed to three stone foundations. Kelley found evidence of a permanent village below. But these stone foundations were for temporary homes.

Artifacts indicate that the occupants cooked with a technique called “stone boiling. The technique was unknown in the desert – but common on the plains.

Plains peoples apparently stayed temporarily in these “suburbs” of the La Junta village. They may have traded buffalo goods for agricultural products.

In fact, there’s abundant evidence that La Junta was a center of trade. Diverse peoples, speaking a range of languages, likely met here.

“We find obsidian here, we find turquoise here – and neither one of those things occur anywhere remotely near here,” Gibbs said. “I have personally found conch shell not 2 miles from [the park’s] Sauceda Headquarters that almost certainly would have come from the Sea of Cortez. So the trade networks indicate a cultural complexity in this region that far surpasses anything that I think most current occupants can wrap their heads around.”

Above the village site, a deep canyon cuts into the Bofecillos Highlands. It conceals a breathtaking legacy of La Juntan society – the Four Seasons Shelter.

In a cave high on the canyon wall, images – large animal and human forms, geometric patterns, a handprint – are rendered in black pigment. They’re examples of a rock-art style called “Big Bend Bold.” It’s found only in the La Junta area.

Rock-art images resist interpretation. But it’s not hard to imagine that this cave – a half-day’s walk from the village – might have been a site of religious activity.

“I don’t think it’s unfair to say this is a place of tremendous importance,” Gibbs said. “I think that many of the mysteries of rock imagery are simply going to stay that way. It’s left for us to protect them.”

The stewardship of archeological resources is a new concept. Gibbs highlighted one former La Junta village in Big Bend Ranch. In the 90s, it was torn up to serve as a movie set. It was looted for artifacts as recently as 2016. Gibbs and his colleagues see safeguarding cultural resources as central to their mission.

  Big Bend Ranch is Texas’ largest and wildest state park. But it’s not just landscape and wildlife. The park preserves haunting evidence of the Big Bend’s rich and complex past.

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