Hard Rock

It chopped, it scraped, it cut, it carved! Texas’ own Alibates flint helped civilize a continent.

At first it seemed as if I would be the only person on the two o’clock tour of Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument, but soon another car pulled up and a family of four got out. Blinking in the sunlight, they entered the visitors’ center, a beige mobile home in a corner of a nearly empty parking lot. “Looks like we’ve got more customers,” said Wes Phillips, the ranger on duty, sounding relieved. Alibates, 35 miles north of Amarillo on the edge of Lake Meredith, is not the kind of vacation spot people flock to, at least not on a day like this in late summer, when the new black asphalt radiated visible heat waves.

Only three to four thousand people come to this isolated Panhandle location each year. Compared with well-developed public archaeological sites—such as the Caddoan Mounds of East Texas or even Lubbock Lake Landmark, 160 miles to the south—Alibates is a remote, seemingly impoverished place. Yet it yields some of the richest archaeological history in Texas and is one of the most important prehistoric sites in the Western Hemisphere.

Alibates was, in a sense, the Spindletop of its day. The resource found here—flint—was the foundation of a culture. The entire Canadian River region of the Panhandle is sprinkled with traces of prehistoric Indians, but Alibates is important because in this region the flint lies just below the surface in an undulating layer up to six feet thick. For thousands of years beginning some 11,500 years ago, Clovis people (widely accepted as the first Texans) and successive generations of Native Americans used and valued this substance. A massive, dense form of quartz, flint is found throughout the world, but Alibates flint comes only from this area. Beautiful as well as durable, it was traded all over the continent and has shown up in caches and burials in such far-flung places as Montana, central Mexico, and the Gulf Coast. In recognition of that significance, this eight-hundred-acre chunk of land was declared a national monument in 1965.

Visiting the quarries was like journeying back in time. I saw so few buildings along Texas Highway 136 on my drive in that it was easy to imagine the land before Anglo settlement. Erosion gave the stretched-out country a crumbled look, with red dirt visible in distant outcrops. Sage, mesquite, and yucca dotted the area, and all the colors were muted and soft except for the brilliant blue sky.

To reach the flint quarries from the visitors’ center, our group followed Phillips in our cars for about three miles into an enclosed area with a padlocked gate; the quarry is fenced to protect it from rock hounds. Phillips, 49, a short man dressed in national-park khakis, got out of his tan pickup and opened the gate for us to drive through. We would park here and walk another half mile to the quarry site.

In the sweltering summer heat, the furnacelike air dried out my lips and sinuses and mysteriously increased the clarity of the view. Along the horizon tiny heat waves rippled the landscape like a bright tapestry. In the distance the southernmost edge of Lake Meredith melted into the hills. The vastness of the scene helped me imagine the area as it must have appeared to the ancient Indians who came here in search of flint. Scanning the hardscrabble beauty of the Llano Estacado, I suddenly felt small.

The rock formation that contains Alibates flint was named, oddly, for Allie Bates, a local cowboy. Around the turn of the century, he was a foreman on a ranch that encompassed the quarry site, and he also served as a guide to Charles Gould, the Smithsonian Institution geologist who first described the white chalklike dolomite that bears the flint. Gould named the dolomite formation Alibates, and the quasi-exotic name stuck to everything else—flint, quarries, and monument.

Along the trail, Phillips pointed to chunks of flint poking out of dolomite boulders. Smooth and glossy, the flint was formed when siliceous minerals filled in pockets in the sediment that eventually became the dolomite. “Flint is harder than steel,” he said, “so you can see why the Indians wanted it. It was the best product that they could find for making their tools.”

Large grasshoppers snapped out of our way as we walked along. The loud variety, Phillips told us, was called a crackler, while an even larger kind was known as a lubber (meaning “clumsy”). Trudging uphill against the ever-present Panhandle wind made me tired, but somehow that added to the experience. If I were a Clovis woman walking up this very hill, I thought, I would lean into the wind easily instead of fighting it.

Looking out across the valley, I could envision a band of these eleven-century-old people. They would in all probability have resembled modern Native Americans. (The more recent 9,500-year-old skull of a woman found near Leander looks—with forensic sculpture restoration—like that of a modern Plains Indian.) With strong features and thick black hair, they would have been dressed in animal skins. Their language would have been an ancient Eurasian tongue, and they would have possessed fire, efficient tools, and the atlatl, a wooden spear launcher.

Clovis people appear abruptly in the archaeological record when they first entered North America. Crossing from Asia over the Bering land bridge, they traveled south on foot down an ice-free corridor that ran along the western edge of Canada. At that time, the end of the Pleistocene Era, the rich grasslands of the south-central U.S. offered abundant game to support the new immigrants.

Large animals, such as the giant bison, sloth, and American elephant (not a woolly beast, as is commonly thought, but similar to the modern elephant), grazed and browsed on the plentiful trees and grasses, and smaller ones—camels, horses, wild pigs, tapirs, and huge armadillolike creatures—roamed the continent. Man’s competitors for prey were the twenty-foot-tall bear and packs of dire wolves. The first scientific discoveries of Clovis artifacts were made in the late forties and early fifties in the Llano Estacado of Texas and

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