Sul Ross archaeological digs reveal more-ancient life in the TransPecos
By STEVE LANG
SRSU News and Publications
ALPINE – The deeper Sul Ross State University’s Center for Big Bend Studies (CBBS) archaeological teams dig, the older the evidence of human activity in the TransPecos is found.
At present, CBBS research on a south Brewster County ranch site indicates human use dating back 11,000 years, and likely growing older. Six hearths (or thermal features), dating from 11,000 years ago to 8,700 years ago have been unearthed at the Genevieve Lykes Duncan (GLD) site on the 02 Ranch. Even earlier stone tools have been found several feet lower.
Charcoal – carbon-dated back to 12,600 years ago – has also been discovered, but as yet, supporting human evidence has not been found.
“This is the earliest radiocarbon-dated site (of human habitation) in the region by 1,200-1,300 years,” said Andy Cloud, archaeologist and CBBS director. He added that the GLD site, which has been under excavation for about 2 years, may well contain an earlier cultural presence, as the deeper stone tools would indicate.
“We’re going to keep looking lower,” Cloud said.
The GLD site location – near Terlingua Creek and at the foothills of the Davis Mountains – appears to have supported sporadic human use for more than 10,000 years.
Cloud explained that the confluence of mountains, foothills and desert provided necessary resources of food, fuel, water and raw materials for tools to support hunter-gatherer occupations through the years.
“Our research shows that this was a stable land surface for at least 2,000 years (11,000-9,000 years ago) during what is known as the Late Paleoindian period” Cloud said. “Through investigation of this 2,000-year window we may be able to get indicators of cultural change: how and why there were technological advances.”
“After this period, overbank flooding began to slowly bury the stable land surface, yet due to the favorable setting, humans continued to camp here. These occupations, all with high scientific potentials, are exposed in different areas of the site and also warrant investigation,” he said.
Analyses of the excavated thermal features have yet to definitively identify what was being cooked; however, the morphologies of several of these strongly suggest they were earth ovens—cooking features that used heated rocks to retain and regulate heat. Such technology was necessary to cook for longer durations and at lower temperatures in order to make certain plants – such as sotol and agave – edible. Findings also reveal that seeds of several plants were ground into powder, likely mixed with water to form dough and then baked into bread-like substances/cakes.
Cloud indicated the use of rock as heating elements, the earth ovens, and the grinding stones are among the earliest yet discovered in North America.
“The investigation is shedding light on these early peoples’ behavior and their lifeways,” said Cloud. He noted that in addition to learning about early human activity in the region, the investigation has uncovered evidence that many of the plants in today’s Chihuahuan Desert were present thousands of years ago. These include mesquite, creosotebush, saltbush, cholla, sagebrush, thistle and sunflower plants.
CBBS research on the 02 Ranch has been multi-faceted and extensive, with more than 480 sites documented and 23 of these tested or excavated since 1999. The research has also provided field school opportunities for undergraduate students. This year, Kiko Morlock, who graduated from Big Bend High School in Terlingua in 2009 and now attends Texas State University, San Marcos, participated in the excavation.
“I had been an aquatic biology major, then I took an anthropology course to fill a requirement,” Morlock said. “I was hooked. The next semester I took four anthropology courses.”
“There were plenty of other options for field school, but I chose Sul Ross because I had the chance to see some land that many people never get to look at;.that I had passed by all my life. This was an opportunity to learn about a place that I considered home.”
Morlock’s father, John, is superintendent of the Fort Davis National Historic Site and his mother, Adamina, teaches at Marfa ISD. Kiko, who will be a senior at Texas State, has a distinct interest in geology, and said “you could see me back here (at Sul Ross) in graduate school.”
Cloud praised the cooperation of the owners and the ranch manager Homer Mills, who has discovered a number of the archaeological sites documented by the CBBS. Mills and the ranch have also provided shelter and water at the site to expedite the excavation.
“We are extremely grateful to Homer, the Lykes Brothers, Inc. (ranch owners), Cam Duncan, and Genny Duncan (children of Genevieve Lykes Duncan) for their unflagging support and interest in this ongoing project,” Cloud said.
Additional funding for the investigation has come from generous grants by the Brown Foundation, Inc. of Houston, the Coypu Foundation, the Wayne and Jo Ann Moore Charitable Foundation, the Joan and Herb Kelleher Foundation, the Summerlee Foundation, the Semmes Foundation, and the Alfred S. Gage Foundation.
Cloud added, “This site looks particularly good for further work well into the future.”
For more information, contact Cloud, (432) 837-8179 or firstname.lastname@example.org.