The Writing on the Wall

Around four thousand years ago, an unknown and long-departed people created a series of magnificent rock paintings in shelters along the lower Pecos River. Who were they? What were they trying to say?
Photograph by Kenny Braun

At the end of the last ice age, when 
the high glacial cliffs 
began to shrink back across a scarified continent, woodlands more typical of northern latitudes covered parts of what we now call Texas. Grassland savannah flourished, with pine and possibly aspen growing along streams and rivers. On the Llano Estacado, where today giant windmills sprout from endless cotton fields, there might have been substantial forests, or short-grass prairies, or a desert, or perhaps an open forest steppe—a grassy parkland with clumps of deciduous trees. Large Pleistocene mammals, such as mastodons, mammoths, camels, horses, and giant bison, grazed and wandered through seas of grass, hunted by dire wolves and saber-toothed cats. The coast, hundreds of feet lower and miles beyond the present shoreline, was drier, perhaps with wide dune structures, sand laid down by cold glacial winds blowing over a bare midwestern tundra.

The Trans-Pecos, now part of the vast Chihuahuan Desert, was temperate, with tall grasses and extensive open woodlands composed of piñon, juniper, and oak. As the glaciers receded and the oceans rose, the climate remained cool for a long time but grew progressively wetter, until it flipped and entered a long period of heat and drought, a trend that has continued, with some brief moist intervals and dramatically colder episodes, for the past nine thousand years.

Life in West Texas has never been easy, and to outsiders, the idea that people might choose to live in such country has always seemed improbable. In the sixteenth century, when the Spanish first passed through the area defined by the confluence of the Devils River, the Pecos, and the Rio Grande, they found little more than abandoned rancherías. When the Americans came through three centuries later, they saw these canyonlands as just another obstacle on the way to California—a desolate march between Fort Clark and Fort Lancaster best left to outsized characters like Jack Hays and Bigfoot Wallace. This was Indian country, and military maps all noted the presence of painted caves.

Cattlemen saw it differently. When the early Texas ranchers, among them my great-great-great-grandfather Perry Wilson, drove their livestock into the open rangeland along the Devils River, they found what appeared to be a stockman’s paradise. Cliffs along the Rio Grande and the Pecos made access to water difficult for livestock,

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