Nature Notes | Discovering an Ancient West Texas Treasure at Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument

National Park Service photograph.
National Park Service photograph.

Discovering an Ancient West Texas Treasure at Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument

By Andrew Stuart

Immense, baffling in their extent, the Llano Estacado plains of West Texas are like a sea. Immersed in that oceanic quality, a traveler here encounters variations in the landscape with particular wonder.

Like Caprock and Palo Duro canyons, the Canadian River Valley is such a place. Here, north of Amarillo, the Llano Estacado breaks into mesas and canyons – deep red: the vitals of the Texas earth exposed.

In these breaks, the region’s first people found a unique resource – one that would be quarried, and traded, for millennia. Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument tells that story.

Joe Mihm leads tours at Alibates. He’s a Panhandle “lifer” – “with little chance of parole,” he said. His love for this place is catching.

“This is the dolomite, and this is the flint,” Mihm said. “And this is one of the ways you tell good flint – just feel right there and how smooth it is – it feels waxy: that’s good flint.”

The mesas here are capped by a white rock called dolomite, or dolostone. It was formed from the organic remains of sea life in the Permian Period, 260 million years ago. Some 600,000 years ago, the area was blanketed in volcanic ash from eruptions near present-day Yellowstone. Geologists think that as the ash settled into the Permian rocks, it “agatized” the dolomite.

The resulting flint is gorgeous – pink, blue, green, vivid red.

And it’s harder than steel.

Tim Cruze is chief of interpretation.

“So when you could put an edge on it – and these ancient people could – you would have something that would stay sharp for a long time,” Cruze said. “They found out very quickly that the Alibates is sharp as a razor. and with that they made these beautiful, and very deadly, spearpoints and arrowheads and scrapers and bone choppers and knives.”

In 1932, archeologists made a find near Clovis, New Mexico that rewrote the prehistory of the Americas. They recovered exquisitely crafted spearpoints – of a style known now as Clovis points – among mammoth bones. It was the first evidence that people occupied North America in the Ice Age. Those points were made of Alibates flint.

Flint knives were essential tools in prehistory. The value of Alibates flint for such tools is written on the landscape.

Shallow depressions line the mesa tops. Here, with buffalo leg bones and deer antlers, Cruze said, ancient people dug flint. Alibates tools have been found as far away as Central Mexico and Montana.

“The 832 quarry pits we have identified today that we have at Alibates, if you can imagine, back then could have been anywhere from 6 to as much as 10 feet deep,” Cruze said. “Once they found that vein, they were going to run it all the way down, and utilize and harvest that material.”

Stone wasn’t fashioned into tools on-site – but into “trade blanks,” basic forms that could be easily transported, and refined elsewhere.

In late prehistory, that trade became the cornerstone of a distinctive village society – known as the Antelope Creek Culture. Beginning around 1100 CE, these people built unique structures – using dolomite in walls, and volcanic ash and earth from the red mesas for mortar. They farmed corn, beans and squash, while continuing to harvest wild plants and animals.

“And there were villages all along the Canadian Breaks, going all the way down the Canadian River,” Cruze said. “There were literally thousands of people, even by the 1100s, living in these valleys out through here. And I think a lot of it was because of the Alibates flint.”

The trade was extensive. There are pipes here made of a stone called catlinite – Native peoples use it for ceremonial pipes today. It’s quarried at a single spot, what’s today Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota. Alibates flint, in turn, has been found near those the pipestone quarries.

Around 1450, the villages were abandoned – for uncertain reasons. The contemporary Wichita tribe may be descendants of those villagers.

But on the mesa tops, the evidence remains.

“The quarry pit is right here,” Mihm said. “You know, its filled in over time. They’ve thrown that stuff off the sides – it’s just amazing what they threw away.”

Quarry tours are led regularly, and there are special village-site tours. Visitors are asked to call ahead. In this scenic outpost of the Texas High Plains, it’s an encounter with the region’s deepest human legacy.

Nature Notes is supported by the Shield-Ayres Foundation and produced by Marfa Public Radio with the Sibley Nature Center. The program can be heard each Tuesday and Thursday, at 7:45 a.m. and 4:45 p.m., Central time, on KRTS Marfa, 93.5 FM, and KXWT Odessa/Midland, 91.3 FM. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.