Nature Notes: Beneath the Guadalupe Mountains, Traces of an Ancient Salt Road

Prolific salt deposits in lake beds near the Guadalupe Mountains were targeted by the Spanish in the 17th century, by El Paso-area communities in the 1800s. But the indigenous use of this resource endured for millennia.
Prolific salt deposits in lake beds near the Guadalupe Mountains were targeted by the Spanish in the 17th century, by El Paso-area communities in the 1800s. But the indigenous use of this resource endured for millennia.

By Andrew Stuart

It is today “so common, so easy to obtain, and so inexpensive that we have forgotten that from the beginning of civilization until about 100 years ago, [it] was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.”

The quote comes from an unlikely best-seller: Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History. Humans, of course, have a taste for salt – but it’s essential to our survival. Fluid balance, the function of organs and cells – all involve salt. And it’s important in preserving foods and tanning hides. Salt has been currency. Its scarcity led nations to war.

At one West Texas place, this resource was available in abundance. For millennia, people journeyed to the Guadalupe Mountains salt lakes – to collect the life-giving substance.

The Salt Basin, west of the Guadalupes, is austere. The lake beds are white with gypsum sands, and white-sand dunes surround them.

But it’s also a place of bounty. In the Ice Age, this was a shallow lake, filled by mineral-laden streams. About 10,000 years ago, the lake dried – leaving salt deposits. These deposits could be harvested. Then, through capillary action and evaporation, new deposits formed.

Ancient peoples knew about this chemical “miracle.”

Beginning in 2001, Dr. Solveig Turpin, a veteran Texas archeologist, led a survey on UT lands in a nearby range called the Sierra Prieta, or Black Mountains.

Though a modest spring once flowed here, this isolated range would never have been particularly hospitable. Yet the evidence suggested heavy human use. There are scores of pictographs – painted images. Pottery fragments and burned-rock – evidence of plant-baking – abound.

“You don’t think of it as a place that would really be a mecca for people,” Turpin said. “But very clearly they were coming from all over the place. They had to be coming there for a reason. You don’t just go trekking across the flats with no goal in mind. That’s why I think the salt was so important.”

Some nearby pictographs are of the “Candelaria style.” The style is at least 2,000 years old, and it’s named for the Candelaria Mountains in Chihuahua, 80 miles away. It had never been recorded this far north. The images suggest salt expeditions deep into prehistory.

Most of the paintings, however, testify to the Jornada Mogollon civilization – which, in what’s now West Texas, built settled communities – and incorporated farming with a reliance on wild foods.

Mask-like paintings here resemble Jornada images at Hueco Tanks. But one image Turpin found was particularly intriguing.

Three feet high, the image depicts a naked man, who appears to be copulating with a natural cleft in the rock.

Turpin described the image to a colleague, a specialist in Arizona’s Hopi culture. She pointed Turpin to a Hopi account, of a 1912 expedition to gather salt in the Grand Canyon. One detail had a striking resonance with Turpin’s “Naked Man” image.

“I came back and got the book and looked at it, and said, ‘Ah-hah, yes,’” Turpin said. “I think the archeology fits the story, even though the story is much later.”

The dangerous journey was accompanied throughout by ritual. Participants created petroglyphs before setting out. At one point, the Hopi expedition stopped at a smooth sandstone boulder, a shrine to an important deity known as Salt Woman. To ensure the journey’s success, and to honor the goddess, the elder leading the expedition simulated intercourse with a hole in the rock.

“Naked Man” images are found at other Jornada sites, including Hueco Tanks. It may represent an ancient West Texas tradition associated with salt procurement, a tradition that later spread across the Southwest.

At the salt lakes themselves, archeologists find evidence of salt processing. But Turpin thinks the Black Mountains may have been a “base camp” for salt-seekers.

“They didn’t have occupation sites,” she said. “That’s why I think it was task groups, that emanated from the mountains and came down. They could carry enough in water – in a deer bladder or a skin bag or whatever – and just harvest as much as they could carry and then go back up there again.”

The Guadalupe Salt Lakes remained important into historic times. The Spanish made long journeys to gather salt for mining operations, and access to the resource triggered the infamous El Paso Salt War of 1877. But the human link to this feature of the West Texas landscape is truly ancient.

Nature Notes is supported by the Shield-Ayres Foundation. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.