Nature Notes: In the West Texas Canyonlands, Shumla Center Works to Preserve An Ancient Painted “Library”

Texas Parks & Wildlife photograph

Visitors to Seminole Canyon State Park participate in guided tours of Fate Bell Shelter. An intricate, multi-colored mural, created by ancient inhabitants of the Lower Pecos region, dominates the back wall of the shallow cave, which is more than 400 feet long.

For Native peoples, the arrival of Europeans in the Americas brought destruction on a staggering scale. Along with the catastrophic human toll, there was cultural shock – the violent disruption of ancient traditions and histories.

But even where people were displaced or destroyed, clues to the history endure.

Two decades ago, Carolyn Boyd, an artist-turned-archeologist, founded the Shumla Archaeological Research and Education Center. Based in tiny Comstock, Texas, it’s dedicated to documenting – and preserving – a standout legacy of the Native American past: the painted murals of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands.

At the threshold of West Texas, near Amistad Reservoir, the Devils and Lower Pecos rivers flow into the Rio Grande. The terrain is a maze of limestone canyons. Native peoples occupied this land for at least 13,000 years. Artifacts abound.

But one feature gives the region its fame. Between 4,000 and 1,500 years ago, people painted hundreds of murals here, on canyon walls and rock shelters. Massive, multi-colored, the Pecos River Style murals are meticulous compositions, incorporating human- and animal-like iconography.

In 1997, Jessica Lee was an undergraduate archeology student. Excavation was her interest. But she’d also befriended Carolyn Boyd. She joined Boyd on a rock-art research trip.

Lee’s experience is familiar to others who’ve encountered the murals.

“My first mural, I walked up to it, and thought, ‘Wait – what? How is this here?,’” Lee said, “and how have I never heard about this? This is more than I expected. It’s so complex. It’s multi-colored and multi-faceted, and you can see it the minute you look at it, that it’s different and it’s nothing like I thought rock art was going to be.’”

Boyd and Lee conceived a nonprofit to study and educate people about the murals. Shumla was born.

In the years since, Shumla has developed a rigorous research method. In facilities in Comstock – population 475 – archeologists prepare rock-art samples for radiocarbon dating. They use high-tech cameras to photograph the murals. There are giant servers to manage the data.

The work is yielding powerful insights. Boyd has found striking correspondences between one mural, at White Shaman Shelter, and the living traditions of Mexico’s Huichol people, as well as those of the Nahua, or Aztec. The mural, she argues, depicts a creation narrative – perhaps North America’s oldest representation of a creation story.

The region may have been a pilgrimage place for ancestors of the Huichol and Nahua.

The murals here record a people’s understanding of the universe, and their place in it, Lee said.

“We are truly the only group that is preserving what is really world-heritage-level cultural resources,” she said. “The information housed in these murals – they are books. They were painted to communicate. They just didn’t have parchment.”

Lee became Shumla’s executive director in 2015. She helped craft a new mission statement: “preserving the oldest books in North America.”

Because even as Shumla is learning to interpret the images, the murals face growing threats.

In 1969, the Rio Grande here was dammed to create Amistad Reservoir. An untold number of murals were lost forever beneath the waters. The effects didn’t end there. Lake levels continue to rise, as the reservoir fills with silt. Water now laps at murals that once crowned deep canyons, and ancient pigments could be stripped by a single flood.

Shumla’s answer is “the Alexandria Project” – a comprehensive effort to document this vast painted archive, so it can continue to be studied, even it’s destroyed.

“This library is being destroyed,” Lee said, “and we can preserve what’s here. But what we need to do first is to truly understand the library as a whole. We’ve honed our skills to a point where we can see what needs to be done to preserve a site.”

The project’s first phase would document the 300 known sites in Texas. From private donors, Shumla hopes to raise $3 million for the undertaking.

The information contained in the murals could rewrite the history of the Americas. As she makes her appeal to donors, Lee said she wants Texans to understand the rich legacy preserved in these arid canyons.

“Because this is so important – when it’s gone it’s gone,” she said. “And it belongs to all of us, and it is truly a Texas treasure. It would be like someone blowing up the Alamo, and nobody did anything to stop it. It’s part of our shared heritage.”

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.


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