by Thomas R. Hester and Ellen Sue Turner
Texas prehistory extends back at least 11,200 years and is witnessed by a variety of Indian cultural remains. The "historic" era began with the shipwreck of Pánfilo de Narváez's expedition and the subsequent account written by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. Indian culture was not modified, as best we can tell, by Cabeza de Vaca or by the later seventeenth-century French and Spanish exploration. Indeed, the peoples the explorers found were not severely affected until the advent of the Spanish missions and the incursion of Apaches at the beginning of the eighteenth century.
It is possible, however, that Spanish
diseases, introduced in central Mexico, had begun affecting the
hunter-gatherer bands of northern Mexico, causing displacement of
these and similar groups in southern Texas. The prehistory of
Texas has been studied by both professional and avocational
archeologists for many decades. The first excavations were
apparently at the "Old Buried City" (the Handly ruins)
in Ochiltree County, directed in the early 1900s by T. L. Eyerly
of the Canadian Academy. The most notable pioneer, from the
academic perspective, of early Texas archeology was James E.
Pearce, of the University of Texas, who began excavations in
Central Texas around World War I. His techniques were crude and
his analyses limited, but his work provided the first insights
into the prehistoric past of the state. The beginnings of
avocational archeology in the state can be traced largely to
Cyrus N. Ray of Abilene, who was instrumental in founding the
Texas Archeological Society, which continues to play a major role
in fieldwork, training, and publication.
Broader views of the ancient past came from the excavations, many of them supervised by A. T. Jackson on behalf of Pearce, of the Work Projects Administration during the depression years of the 1930s. Again, however, techniques were poor in most cases and little interpretation was done. Early museum research was conducted by the Witte Museum at the Shumla Caves in the lower Pecos region in the early 1930s; in addition, the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum was established in 1932 and carried out research in the Panhandle of Texas. The research of Alex D. Krieger at the University of Texas from 1939 to 1956 served to integrate some of the WPA work of the 1930s.
His publications provided thorough site
reports and syntheses of broad aspects of the archeological
record. His research brought national attention to the prehistory
of Texas. Krieger's influence culminated in the first major
synthesis of Texas prehistory, published in 1954. Also of
national interest in the 1940s and early 1950s was the work on
"early man" in the New World (the Paleo-Indian period)
by E. H. Sellards and Glen Evans of the Texas Memorial Museum.
Great strides in learning the cultural history of ancient Texas
came in the 1960s, when archeological teams carried out
excavations in proposed reservoir basins along many Texas rivers.
Notable among these was the work at Amistad Reservoir on the Rio
From the late 1960s through the 1990s, archeology expanded greatly in the state. Numerous universities established departments of anthropology, and archeologists began new research programs in various regions. In addition, federal environmental legislation led to the study of "cultural resources," which spawned a large number of archeological studies. The post of state archeologist, held initially by Curtis D. Tunnell, was inaugurated in 1965. The Texas Antiquities Code, passed by the legislature in 1969, required cultural-resource research on state-owned lands.
The explosion of archeology that
accelerated in the mid-1970s has produced a vast literature on
Texas prehistory, and a wealth of information on the chronology
and cultures of the ancient Indian peoples of the state. It is
important, however, to understand the scientific approaches used
by archeologists. These make possible the advances in knowledge
that have taken place, and distinguish archeology from the
collecting of Indian relics or the myths advanced by the
rediscovery of Indian culture in the late twentieth century.
Archeological methods include a variety of techniques to ensure the systematic collection of data. The use of grid systems to record horizontal information, and the excavation of site deposits using arbitrary or natural levels to record vertical data, are at the heart of archeological systematics. Though there are many variations within the practice of field archeology, the critical factor for the scientific analysis of any bit of data is its context: we have to know how, where, and under what conditions an object was found, what other objects were associated with it, and what pattern it may be a part of.
A cigar box of "arrowheads"
may be of interest to the archeologist and, if collected from a
specific area, have some interpretative value, but these relics
lack context and are thus of little value in exploring Texas
prehistory. Similarly, the random digging of a prehistoric site
does not contribute to archeology, but prevents it-as ripping
pages from a book destroys it. Texas archeology has long been
plagued, and was even more plagued in the 1990s, by commercial
digging of sites. Such looting destroys the prehistoric record
and greatly diminishes our prospects of learning detailed
information about the ancient peoples of the state.
The Texas archeological record comprises sites. A site, technically, is any spot on the landscape that has been modified by human beings. Common among these are campsites, where daily life took place; quarries or lithic processing areas, the locales of stone-chipping; temporary campsites, representing brief hunting or gathering forays; kill-sites, where bison or other mammals were slaughtered and butchered; rock-art sites, overhangs, caves, or shelters with pictographs or petroglyphs, such as Seminole Canyon State Park and Hueco Tanks State Historical Park; caves and rockshelters, protected overhangs in canyon walls, which some Indian groups, particularly in West Texas, used for daily occupation (these provide extremely well-preserved organic remains reflecting everyday life); mound sites, purposeful accumulations of earth found in East Texas, used as platforms for dwellings or for burials; burned-rock middens, incidental accumulations of fire-cracked rock, often in mounds, used for food-processing, and found associated with campsites in Central and West Texas; shell middens, accumulations of marine shells from shellfish collected as food, principally oyster shells on the central coast and Rangia brackish-water clams on the upper coast; and cemetery sites, areas set aside for the disposal of the dead, found in the Late Archaic and Late Prehistoric eras in Central, coastal, and East Texas.
This abbreviated list of site types suggests the diverse ways in which ancient Indians utilized the terrain and took advantage of its plant and animal resources. At many sites, the only surviving cultural remains are stone tools. If we are to understand what was done at the site, it is vital that we know the context of the stone tools. For instance, at kill-sites, proper excavation will usually discover projectile points and cutting or butchering tools in association with animal bones. The most common type of kill-site in Texas is the bison-kill of Paleo-Indian times, from 9200 to 6000 B.C. For example, at Bonfire Shelter, near Langtry in Val Verde County, excavations revealed a mass of bison remains associated with Folsom and Plainview points, accompanied by flakes and bifaces used for processing the slaughtered animals.
At quarries or lithic processing areas,
controlled surface collection will often yield great numbers of
large, crudely chipped bifaces, rocks in the early stage of
tool-making known as quarry blanks. Rarely are projectile points
or other finished tools found, since this is a locality where the
basic levels of stone-working took place-securing good chipping
materials, using a hammerstone to remove the rough exterior from
the cobbles, and roughly shaping the blanks for further reduction
elsewhere. Though they have long been ignored, lithic processing
areas are important sites for archeological study, as they shed a
great deal of light on a fundamental activity of prehistoric
cultures. One quarry site that is open to the public is the famed
Alibates Flint Quarries, on the Canadian River in the Panhandle.
Campsites are found throughout the state along streams or other water sources; most are "open occupation" sites, though caves and rockshelters were also often used for habitation. Many represent the villages of hunters and gatherers, whose foraging was the main way of life throughout Texas until later times, when farming was introduced in East Texas and in parts of the Panhandle and far West Texas. Campsites, the locales of daily life, were perhaps occupied for a few weeks or months before the group moved on to exploit the plant and animal foods of another area. These are the most common sites and contain great quantities of stone tools, flakes, and other debris. Context is particularly important in these sites.
Even the surface collecting, by
hobbyists, of an eroded campsite can ruin fragile patterns of
tool distribution which, under controlled conditions, might tell
the archeologist a great deal about site function and the ways in
which different parts of the site were used. Excavation presents
an even larger challenge. Test pits can plumb the depths of the
site, sometimes giving us information on the sequence of
occupations by recovering stone tool types from different levels.
However, to understand the behavior of the ancient inhabitants
and the activities they carried out, a large block or open-area
excavation is necessary. In it, we can plot in place the
projectile points, scrapers, choppers, flakes, animal bones,
snail shells, and other items and study the patterns of their
horizontal distribution. The distribution often shows the
archeologist where tool-making took place, where animals were
skinned and butchered, where bone tools were made or wooden spear
shafts fashioned. The relationships of the tools to the areas of
the site and to other stone tools provide, then, contextual
information critical to archeological interpretation.
Much of what is found in Texas prehistoric sites is artifacts of chipped stone (such as projectile points), pottery, antler, bone, and shell. If excavated with systematic methods, the context of these artifacts-taken as a whole-provides a picture of ancient life at certain periods of time. Critical to our interpretations is the dating of these materials and contexts. The most widely used method for absolute dates is radiocarbon analysis, in which associated organic remains (such as wood charcoal from a hearth) can be assayed to yield a date for cultural remains at the same level of the hearth. Excavations can also provide relative dates by determining which styles of artifacts are earlier or later than others. Once a chronology is established at several regional sites, types of known dates can then be "cross-dated" by distinctive artifacts to other sites. Gradually, a framework of prehistoric cultures can be built up in a sequential fashion.
In Texas, research has shown that in
most regions, distinctive changes occurred in the shapes of
projectile points through time. These artifacts, called
"arrowheads" by nonarcheologists, occur in two forms:
as dart points-large, heavy points ("arrowheads") used
on the tips of spears thrown with the spearthrower or atlatl,
common in the Paleo-Indian and Archaic periods; and as arrow
points ("bird points" to collectors)-tiny, thin points
that tipped arrow shafts, often made of cane, when the bow and
arrow was introduced to ancient Texas cultures around A.D. 700.
This weapon appears to have wholly replaced the spearthrower, as
it was more accurate and more effective at longer distances (tiny
arrow tips could penetrate a bison, a man, or a smaller
creature). Many of the dart and arrow points can be sorted into
"types" of distinctive shapes that are restricted in
distribution in both time and space. This makes the points
"time-sensitive"; they are often valuable chronological
aids for archeological research.
Archeological work has continued in parts of Texas for more than eighty years. Some areas, such as Central Texas, have been intensively studied, and detailed archeological sequences of them have been established. In other regions, such as South Texas, research intensified only in the 1970s, and much remains to be learned about them. Cultural change proceeded at somewhat different rates over the vast area of Texas; in some regions, hunting and gathering cultures persisted throughout prehistory; in others, cultures with farming and settled village life appeared. Research has divided the Texas archeological record into four general periods: Paleo-Indian (9200-6000 B.C.), Archaic (6000 B.C. to around the beginning of the Christian era), Late Prehistoric (roughly A.D. 700-1600), and Historic.
Paleo-Indian. Although some claims have been made for greater antiquity, the earliest known inhabitants of the state, during the late Pleistocene (Ice Age), can be linked to the Clovis Complex around 9200 B.C. The distinctive Clovis fluted point is widespread and was used at least in some cases in mammoth hunting. A mammoth kill-site, Miami, is found in Roberts County in the Panhandle. The Gault Site in Central Texas has a Clovis occupation that includes incised pebbles, a blade core, and several Clovis points, including one made of Alibates material from the Canadian River quarries. At a deeply buried Clovis campsite at the Aubrey Site in Denton County, a Clovis point, Clovis blades, and thousands of flakes were found.
The Lewisville Site near Denton is
another Clovis campsite. The Folsom Complex, around 8800-8200
B.C., is distinguished by Folsom fluted points and is known from
sites where now-extinct forms of bison were killed and butchered
(Bonfire) or from campsites (Adair-Steadman) where the points are
found along with other stone tools. The Clovis and Folsom
materials might be considered to fall within the early part of
this period. Although fluting ceases to be an important trait of
Paleo-Indian points after Clovis and Folsom, later Paleo-Indian
points maintain an overall lanceolate, parallel-sided form, often
with careful parallel flaking and with the basal edges dulled to
facilitate hafting. One unfluted type that may well be
"early Paleo-Indian" is Midland, known from excavations
at the Scharbauer Site, near Midland, in the early 1950s. A
portion of a human cranium found at that site may be linked to
this early cultural pattern.
Dalton and San Patrice points may date around 8000 B.C. in East Texas; Plainview points found from the Panhandle into South Texas date from around 8200-8000 B.C. and are associated with kills of Pleistocene bison at Plainview and Bonfire. By around 8000 B.C., the end of the Pleistocene, remnants of the animals of that era-mammoth, bison, camel, horse, sloth-disappeared. Climates became more like those of modern times, yet in some regions, group mobility and stone toolmaking continue to follow the patterns of earlier times. There is a great diversification of point types, several of which we still cannot precisely date, in post-Pleistocene, late Paleo-Indian times. Excavations done in the 1980s and 1990s at the Wilson-Leonard Site in Williamson County, Central Texas, may help to resolve some of these issues, as well as provide archeologists with a broader view of the cultural patterns associated with distinctive Paleo-Indian points.
The Scottsbluff points in East Texas
are from around 6500 B.C.; in the lower Pecos and South Texas,
hunters and gatherers used Golondrina points, radiocarbon dated
at 7000 B.C. Excavations at Baker Cave, a dry rockshelter on the
Devils River drainage, has yielded a wide array of information on
the climate, which was essentially modern though probably drier,
and the diet of peoples there 9000 years ago (the Golondrina
Complex). A well-preserved cooking pit yielded the remains of
small game, especially rabbits, rodents, and several species of
snakes; the cave also yielded charred walnut and pecan hulls as
well as other organic remains. The Angostura projectile point
marks the end of the Paleo-Indian period; radiocarbon dates from
the Wilson-Leonard Site and the Richard Beene Site near San
Antonio date it at around 6800 B.C. The peoples who made these
points, like the peoples of the Golondrina complex, were hunters
and gatherers who used resources quite similar to those of the
Archaic. Much of Texas prehistory is subsumed within a long time span of hunting and gathering cultural patterns known collectively as the Archaic. The period begins around 6000 B.C. and is notable for changes in the style of projectile points and tools, the distribution of site types, and the introduction of grinding implements and ground-stone ornaments, all reflecting a gradually increasing population that utilized abundant plant and animal resources of environments similar to those of modern times. As noted earlier, the primary weapon during the Archaic was the spearthrower or atlatl, and the bow and arrow had not yet been introduced. Climatic patterns surely vacillated during the Archaic, though we have little detailed knowledge of them; a dry, warm episode known as the Altithermal (about 5000-3000 B.C.) was clearly present, but we are uncertain about its effects on local populations. The details of the Archaic sequence vary from region to region within the state. In general, the span can be divided into Early, Middle, Late, and Transitional eras. Each period is represented by changes in cultural patterns, often including specific artifact forms, hunting patterns, types of site utilized, and other elements. In some regions we have enough information to subdivide these periods into "phases" or "intervals."
The Early Archaic (6000-2500 B.C.) is poorly known in its earliest phases, though a number of point and tool types can be linked to that era. In general, settlement appears more scattered than in later times, and populations were still rather small and quite mobile. There are broader relationships among several regions, as indicated by the widespread occurrence of distinctive points, such as the Martindale, Uvalde, Early Triangular, Andice, and Bell (the latter two part of a cultural pattern known as Calf Creek, which encompasses Oklahoma and parts of Arkansas). The Middle Archaic (2500 B.C.-1000 B.C.) marks a time throughout the state of significant population increase, large numbers of sites, and abundant artifacts, especially projectile points of various forms.
This appears to have been a time when Indian cultures became more specialized on a regional basin. For example, most regions appeared to be typified in the Middle Archaic by one or two distinctive points: Gary and Kent points in East Texas, for example, Pedernales in Central Texas, Langtry in the lower Pecos, and Tortugas in South Texas. In some regions, specific types of site are present, especially the burned-rock middens of Central Texas (apparently used for cooking wild plants of various sorts, especially the bulbs of sotol) and shell middens on the Texas coast. Additionally, cemeteries with large numbers of interments begin to appear late in the period, perhaps reflecting territoriality on the part of some hunting and gathering societies. Similarly, trade connections are established and artifacts of stone and shell are brought from distant areas, especially Arkansas.
The Late Archaic (1000 B.C.-300 B.C.) sees the continuation of hunting and gathering in most of Texas, again distinguished by certain types of projectile points and stone tools. In East Texas, pre-Caddo sites mark the beginning of settled village life shortly after 500 B.C. Cemeteries are more notable in some regions, such as Southeast Texas. Bison appear to be an important game resource in Central Texas and in the lower Pecos, where another bison-kill occurs at Bonfire Shelter. Other bison-kills are known in the Panhandle and South Plains at this time. The Transitional Archaic (300 B.C.-A.D. 700) marks an interval which in some ways is little more than a continuation of the Late Archaic.
Still, it features distinctive point
styles, such as Ensor, Darl, Frio, and Fairland. Although this
period is important in the Archaic sequences of Central and lower
Pecos Texas, it is not part of the East Texas archeological
record, where village sites such as the George C. Davis Site of
the Gibson Aspect (see CADDOAN MOUNDS STATE HISTORIC SITE) make
their initial appearance and fully develop only during the
subsequent Late Prehistoric period. These sites often have large
mounds, flat-topped ones sometimes used to support structures and
conical ones for burials. Such sites mark the introduction of,
and reliance upon, agriculture which leads to this population
growth and the emergence of social and political systems.
Many Indian rock art sites in Texas, especially in the lower Pecos, date from the Archaic. The Archaic pictographs in the lower Pecos can be recognized by the presence of spearthrower motifs in the panels of polychrome Pecos River Style art. Studies using a specialized type of radiocarbon dating, known as AMS (accelerator mass spectrometry), suggest that this style may date as early as 4000 B.C.
Late Prehistoric. This period (A.D. 700 to historic times) is particularly noticeable in the archeological record throughout the state. The bow and arrow is introduced, along with other distinctive types of stone tools. Pottery is also present, even among hunters and gatherers in Central, South, and coastal Texas. Bison hunting appears to be very important in most regions. The occurrence of tiny arrow points marks the spread of the bow and arrow throughout the state. Many local types develop: Livermore in the Trans-Pecos, Friley and Catahoula on the Texas-Louisiana border, Lott and Garza on the Llano Estacado, and McGloin and Bulbar Stemmed on the coast. In some areas we can discern distinct shifts in arrow point styles through time, especially with Scallorn (Austin Phase) and, later, Perdiz (Toyah Phase) in Central Texas.
The Toyah Phase is of particular
interest because it represents a widespread bison-hunting
tradition in Central and South Texas from around A.D. 1300-1600;
in addition to Perdiz points, its material culture includes end
scrapers for hideworking, beveled knives for bison butchering,
and a distinctive bone-tempered ceramic. On the central Gulf
Coast, the Rockport Complex represents a population that may be
ancestral to the historic Karankawas; these peoples hunted and
fished along the bayshores and oftentimes moved inland to hunt
bison. An asphalt-lined, thin-walled pottery called Rockport Ware
is diagnostic of this complex. In the Rio Grande Delta, the
Brownsville Complex is unique for its trade with frontier
Mesoamerican cultures (e.g., the Huastecs of Veracruz), which
began around A.D. 1300-1400. Representatives of the Brownsville
Complex made shell beads and other ornaments in large numbers and
traded these to the Huastecs in return for pottery vessels,
jadeite ornaments, and obsidian, all found in Brownsville Complex
sites in the lower Rio Grande valley.
Although a hunting and gathering continues in the Late Prehistoric as in the Archaic, the material culture, hunting patterns, settlement types and other facets of the era mark a fairly distinctive break with the past. In East Texas, agriculture provides the base for the Gibson Aspect, which marks the earliest Caddoan culture; mound building, specific types of pottery and arrow points, sedentary villages, ceremonial centers, and an established social hierarchy are salient features. Around A.D. 1200, Gibson gives way to the Fulton Aspect, which continues into the Historic era and is clearly linked with the Caddos.
In the Panhandle and Llano Estacado,
settled villages (also engaged in bison hunting) are found in the
Antelope Creek Phase on the Canadian River around A.D. 1400 and
in Andrews County. Village sites with links to southeast New
Mexico appear around the same time. In the Trans-Pecos, a
sequence of settled horticulturists with strong ties to the
Southwest Mogollón culture begins in the early centuries A.D.
and develops more fully around A.D. 600. It is marked especially
by pithouse dwellings. Down the Rio Grande, near Presidio,
another center of agriculturally based villages, the Bravo Valley
Aspect, dates to around A.D. 1200-1400.
One distinctive aspect of the Late Prehistoric was widespread, long-distance trade, best reflected in the distribution of obsidian artifacts in parts of Texas. Artifact-quality obsidian (volcanic glass, usually black to gray in color) does not occur in Texas. Yet at sites in deep South Texas, across Central Texas, and into the Panhandle, obsidian artifacts are often reported. The geologic origin of the obsidian can be traced using methods of nuclear chemistry, such as X-ray fluorescence or neutron activation analysis of a chemical "fingerprint" of trace minerals in a specimen.
The specimen can then be linked to a
specific obsidian quarry. In the Panhandle, most of the obsidian
comes from sources in the Jemez Mountains of northern Mexico, and
was part of Plains-Pueblo trade in Late Prehistoric times.
However, some of the obsidians found in South and Central Texas
can be definitively traced to sources in southern Idaho (Malad),
Wyoming (Obsidian Cliff), and central Mexico. These facts reflect
long-distance trade networks, especially in the case of the Idaho
and Wyoming obsidian, which were part of a north-south trade
system through the Great Plains that continued into Historic
The transition from Late Prehistoric to Historic is difficult to discern in many parts of the state. The initial European expeditions had little, if any, effect on the native cultures, which were largely unchanged for another 100-150 years. Texas archeologists refer to this brief span as the "Protohistoric." Perhaps it is best exemplified by sites of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on Galveston Island and in South Texas, where no tangible evidence of contact (e.g., glass beads) is found. However, by the early eighteenth century most peoples of these areas were affected by the Spanish missions, and their cultures began to unravel.
Historic. The Historic era (after ca. A.D. 1600) marks the beginning of the end for the Indian cultures of the state. The Spanish and French brought change to both agriculturalists and hunter-gatherers, though the latter were decimated by the introduction of the Spanish mission system and the intrusion of Apache, and later, Comanche groups. Archeologically, we can recognize certain sites as Historic Caddo on the basis of their pottery and arrow points. Similarly, some arrow point types such as Harrell and Washita are found with historic hunter-gatherers and village farmers in north central Texas and the Panhandle.
Rock art sites incorporate such historic motifs as churches and horse-borne Indian warriors or Spaniards. With the advent of the Spanish mission system, the Indians who adopted mission life continued for a while to make stone tools, and a distinctive point type, Guerrero, is often found in missions, ranchos, and Indian campsites of that era. However, by the late eighteenth century, stone tools gave way to glass, and brass and iron points replaced those chipped from stone, thus signaling the end of an 11,000-year tradition.
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This page was last updated August 16, 2000.