Our Paleo Past
Researchers in Texas are finding evidence that humans inhabited the New World At least A thousand years earlier than once believed
By Dale Weisman
Who were the first humans to set foot in the New World? Where did they originate? When did they arrive?
The “peopling of the Americas” remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of archeology. And Paleoindian experts are piecing together some of the answers to this prehistoric puzzle at archeological sites right here in Texas.
Researchers are digging into our ancient past throughout Texas, unearthing chipped-stone artifacts and Pleistocene mammal fossils that provide clues to how prehistoric humans lived, migrated, and adapted to a changing climate more than 10,000 years ago. Recent discoveries at Paleoindian sites in Central Texas are providing new evidence that humans reached the New World at least a thousand years earlier than once believed.
You don’t need to be an expert to experience the cutting edge of Paleoindian research. Several sites in Texas welcome visitors, offering public tours, educational programs, and opportunities to participate in active digs.
The Gault Site
A lovely valley along Buttermilk Creek in Bell County has attracted humans for millennia. This idyllic enclave, known to archeologists as the Gault Site, has all the natural ingredients that Paleoindians needed to survive: water from the creek and from springs that have never gone dry in historic times; diverse flora and fauna for hunting and gathering; and plenty of chert, a silica mineral similar to flint from which they formed razor-sharp projectile points and other stone tools.
The Gault Site, named for onetime landowner Henry Gault, is situated in the Balcones ecotone, a transitional area for the Edwards Plateau, Black Prairie, and Coast Plains ecozones. “It would have been an attractive area for living, and an excellent place for hunting and gathering,” says archeologist Clark Wernecke, executive director of the Gault School of Archeological Research.
In fact, the Buttermilk Creek valley served as a major Paleoindian base camp and stone-tool manufacturing center. Debitage—flakes of waste lithic material produced during flint-knapping—blankets the trails and valley floor at Gault.
“Hundreds of thousands of person-hours of flint-knapping are represented at Gault over a span of 15,000 years,” says Mike Collins, the Gault School’s chairman and a leading authority on Clovis culture, which flourished at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, roughly 13,000 years ago. James E. Pearce, a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas in Austin, conducted the first archeological investigations at Gault in 1929, excavating 6,000- to 8,000-year-old burned-rock middens.
Lubbock Lake Landmark
Imagine stepping back in time to the end of the Ice Age on the Southern High Plains. Rich grasslands flourish in a milder, wetter climate. Pleistocene mammals roam the savannahs and frequent watering holes along flowing streams. Humans, too, gather at these lush havens to forage and hunt prey.
Flash forward 13,000 years to the remnants of one of these ancient oases on the western edge of Lubbock. Now known as Lubbock Lake Landmark, the 300-acre site is an archeological and natural history preserve operated by the Museum of Texas Tech University. A National Historic Landmark, Lubbock Lake Landmark ranks as one of the most important hunter-gatherer sites in North America.
Located on an intermittent tributary of the Brazos River called Yellowhouse Draw, Lubbock Lake is the site of a spring once fed by the Ogallala Aquifer. When the spring went dry during the Dust Bowl era, the city of Lubbock tried to resurrect it by dredging the lakebed, uncovering a lost world of fossils and artifacts.
Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument
Welcome to a Paleo workshop: the windswept caprock overlooking the breaks of the Canadian River in the Texas Panhandle. Prehistoric tool makers have come here for thousands of years to chip away at an abundant material—Alibates flint. Paleoindians prized it not only for its durability but also for its magical beauty. Each piece of Alibates shimmers like a petrified rainbow splashed with bands of white, maroon, red, orange, yellow, blue, and black.
Alibates is not a true flint but a type of agate called agatized dolomite. A sedimentary rock similar to limestone, dolomite forms the craggy caprock along the Canadian River. Clovis and Folsom peoples came here to gather chunks of Alibates, found in profusion in a 10-square-mile area, and knapped the colorful agate into elegantly fluted projectile points. Clovis points made of Alibates flint have turned up in archeological sites—even in situ with ancient bison and mammoth bones—in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, and Mexico. Alibates flint was a sought-after trade item among prehistoric peoples, and it’s still treasured by contemporary flint-knappers.
Austin-based writer Dale Weisman blogs about the ethics of artifact-collecting and the science of archeology at www.texashighways.com.
From the August 2012 issue.