Heritage, Volume 6, Number 2, Summer 1988 Page: 19
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The major part of the trip will be a float through
Santa Elena Canyon of the Rio Grande.
T hey must have enjoyed it-how
could they not have? The
mountains rising up at jagged angles
that reflect the sunset glow, the badland
bluffs striped purple, gold and green, the
bright red flowers of the ocotillo atop
thorny stalks-surely the Indians who used
to travel through the Big Bend looked up
from pounding mesquite beans to savor
Our group of archaeology buffs certainly
finds itself torn at times between admiring
the scenery and searching for evidence of
the first Texans. We have come together to
take part in a tour of Indian sites in this far
West Texas area with archaeologist Virginia
Wulfkuhle, curator of the Museum of
the Big Bend in Alpine. The major parts of
the trip will be a float through Santa Elena
Canyon of the Rio Grande with visits to
sites along the way. But before we get on
the water, there are places to see that are
accessible only by rough, dusty roads.
We begin our explorations at the offices
of Far Flung Adventures, organizers of the
trip and outfitter for the river portion,
where we meet Virginia and Ken, our drivers.
We then drive to a large site seemingly
in the middle of nowhere. A nearby spring
attracted hunter-gatherer Indians as far
back as 2500 B.C. when the area was much
wetter than it is today. All that remains
now of their camp are rocks cracked in
cooking fires, circles of stones (one partly
erased by a bulldozer) which formed the
bases for their houses, and ring middens
where the heart of desert plants were baked
for food. Everything else has been stripped
away or destroyed-all the woven mats and
baskets, the beads and sandals, any pieces
of pottery they might have had, the dart
points and scrapers. This camp, part of the
Cielo Complex of sites, is now practically
useless to archaeologists. In fact, everywhere
we go we find that greedy artifact
hunters have stolen and dug and obliterated
knowledge of the people whose possessions
they so brazenly covet.
The Indians who used this camp probably
had their closest cultural ties not with
the tribes of the Pecos or the New Mexico
pueblos, but with the people of Northern
Mexico, whose history has not been thoroughly
studied. Archaeologists tend to
refer to these Big Bend sites as "peripheral"
to cultural centers in North America-a
term that galls Wulfkuhle after years of
studying these prehistoric camps.
It is obvious that she enjoys her work
very much. She easily infects us with her
curiosity and zeal to learn as much as possible
from each site. We eagerly bring her
pieces of worked stone ("debitage," it is
called) and she patiently acquaints us with
the whats and the hows of fling knapping.
The chips in their bright pinks and yellows
and whites stand out from the ashy soil.
Does the flake show a large area of the
original surface of the stone, possibly a river
cobble ? Then it's a primary flake. A smaller
area makes it a secondary flake - both
taken from central cores which are also
abundant. She tells us about concoidal
fractures, bulbs of percussion, impact
The sites we see are typical of Big Bend
sites. None were permanent dwellings, but
camps at advantageous points that were
used over and over for thousands of years by
people who traveled in search of game or
plant foods. Successive waves of such
nomads built on top of those who had gone
before. Of the Late Paleo-Indians we find
Opposite page: The Rio Grande River in Santa
Below: Metates, a concave or flat stone, forms the
understone of a primitive mill or mortar on which
corn and beans are pulverized with a smaller stone.
only scattered points-Folsom and Plainview,
but no camps at all. The height of
occupation came with the Late Archaic,
beginning around 1000 B.C. Change did
not come rapidly to the Big Bend and its
wanderers; the Late Archaic lasted longer
here than in most other settled places.
When the Spaniards arrived they found a
group they called the Jumanos, but no one
is now sure whether these were farmers of
Here’s what’s next.
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 6, Number 2, Summer 1988, periodical, Summer 1988; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45434/m1/19/: accessed June 28, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.