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Panther Cave: Rock Art in Danger

Carolyn Boyd, executive director of the SHUMLA School, and noted expert onthe rock art of the Lower Pecos, offers new interpretations of the region’s rock art based on the extensive research by the SHUMLA-led team. (Photos by Michael Amador)

In the dramatically scenic canyon of the Lower Pecos River, where ancient limestone cliffs rise steeply above from the water’s surface, and prehistoric rock art awaits in hundreds of shelters eroded over eons from the sheer rock face, it seems odd that a single year would be the topic of conversation. After all, the surrounding desert landscape appears almost eternal, and on the waters of Lake Amistad, the craggy shoreline environment suggests that time should be considered in a sweep much more vast than just one number on the calendar of history: 1954.

But 1954 is the year we’re discussing as our group of four floats in a National Park Service jet boat on Lake Amistad. The boat sits mid-channel, at the point where the Pecos joins the Rio Grande, not far from the US 90 high bridge, west of Comstock. 

Why this year instead of all others?

A side view of a major figure in the Panther Cave shelter. You can see  the panther figure on the  far end of the photo.That’s the year of the greatest, most devastating flood ever recorded on the Pecos. One summer day, in the midst of a drought, the remnants of a hurricane named Alice deluged the Pecos watershed with more than 20 inches of rain in a 24-hour period, sending a 95-foot wall of water down the canyon and into the Rio Grande. The existing highway bridge across the river was ripped from its moorings not far from where we now sit.

Such weather-borne savagery seems a distant possibility on this warm autumn morning, as the members of our group discuss the environment of the Lower Pecos. In the boat is rock art expert Carolyn Boyd, Executive Director of the nearby Shumla School; archeologist Jack Johnson, a program manager with the National Park Service; and Randy Rosales, Superintendent of Seminole Canyon State Park. The three organizations these people represent: The National Park Service, Shumla School, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, are collaborating on a project to document Panther Cave, site of one of the area’s most well-known—and most threatened—ancient rock art panels.

As part of the Panther Cave project, researchers document every painted figure in painstaking detail. The documentary and preservation project is a collaboration among the SHUMLA School, the National Park Service, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.Before we proceed to Panther Cave, we’re taking a few minutes to watch the screen of the boat’s depth finder, noting the numbers that indicate how many feet of the lake’s water lie beneath us here at the canyon’s mouth: 12 feet here, 18 feet there, 21 feet in another place. The reality is that, even though this canyon is more than 80 feet deep, flood waters would not scour out the more than 60 feet of sediment that has settled during the 40-plus years since Lake Amistad was created. Instead of scouring out the sediment, surging flood waters would be expected to rise above the current lake level. That means that Panther Cave, seven miles downstream, would be completely inundated, and probably destroyed. In fact, all the rock art panels in the region are, to at least some degree, subject to the damaging effects of erosion and vandalism, but Panther Cave is more precarious because the lake’s water laps at the shoreline only yards below the shelter. Even the mud daubers seem to be conspiring against this fragile cultural site, building their thumb-sized adobe homes atop centuries-old painted surfaces.

After we’ve made note of water depths, Johnson gestures for the rest of us to slip on the headphones that will protect our ears from the boat noise, and he steers the boat out onto the main lake, where the craft’s hull will slap loudly over the surface at 40 miles per  hour for the 15 minutes it takes to cover the distance to Panther Cave.

Panther Cave and Lower Pecos Rock Art

The SHUMLA School, 117 Sanderson Street, Comstock, 78837, 432/292-4848.

Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site, US 90 W. and Park Road 67, Comstock, 78837, 432/292-4464.

Amistad/NPS Visitors’ Center, 9685 US 90 W, Del  Rio, 78840, 830/775-7491.

White Shaman Tour, Galloway White Shaman Preserve. Rock Art Foundation.

From the March 2012 issue.

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