Prehistory Lesson

At three magical sites near Del Rio, my young daughter was fascinated by some of the oldest rock art in North America—and so was I.

HOW DO YOU GET a twenty-first-century child excited about ancient history? Judging by my recent adventures with my eight-year-old daughter, Rayna, it’s a challenge that can be just as fun and rewarding for the parent as it is for the child. We started our journey into the past by reading books about fossils and hunter-gatherer societies, getting information from the Internet ( has an excellent kids’ section), and visiting museums that feature exhibits on ancient Texans, such as San Antonio’s Witte Museum. But it wasn’t until we traveled to the Amistad National Recreation Area, near Del Rio, that we came face to face with the world of our predecessors and began to really appreciate their history and the mystery of their spiritual lives.

Some of the oldest dated rock art in North America can be found within a fifty-square-mile area near the confluence of the Rio Grande and the Pecos River, in what archaeologists call the Lower Pecos Region. The limestone canyons here provided natural canvases for art that includes murals as large as 20 feet by 150 feet. Although many sites were submerged after the Amistad Dam on the Rio Grande created the Amistad Reservoir in 1969, a world of treasures still remains.

In December and January Rayna and I explored three sites in the Amistad area: Parida Cave, on the banks of the Rio Grande, the nearby Galloway White Shaman Preserve, and Fate Bell Shelter, in Seminole Canyon State Historical Park. Before leaving Austin we packed the car with books and plenty of water, which is a must in this area, even though the hikes to the sites are short.

To reach Parida Cave, we floated down the Pecos into the Rio Grande in a 34-foot canoe that proudly flew the Texas flag. Our party consisted of another child and nine other adults, including our tour guide, Jack Richardson, a.k.a. Pecos Jack, a quintessential outdoorsman in a plaid shirt, well-worn overalls, and a straw hat. Before we shoved off from the National Park Service’s Pecos River boat launch, he gave everyone an oar and instructed us to row in unison.

As we headed down the river, Rayna spotted something on the canyon wall. Pecos Jack told us what it was. “Wow, an eagle’s nest,” said Rayna. Excitement built as we entered the Rio Grande; little clusters of bubbles danced on the surface of the water as the current picked up speed. Mexico was just a stone’s throw away. We disembarked at a site near Parida Cave and hiked a short distance up a primitive trail, negotiating some steep rocks along the way. Stepping into the cave was like stepping back in time. We marveled at the ingenuity of the men and women who lived here as early as six thousand years ago as we examined the stones they used for grinding roots and seeds, the earth ovens they used for baking, and the rough remnants of their rock paintings, called pictographs. (The art is said to be more spectacular at Panther Cave, which is six miles downriver and accessible only by boat, but low water levels prevented our going there.)

I was puzzled when Pecos Jack asked

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