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, but the Devils was easily approached and the grass was high and plentiful. What they didn’t know was that this paradise was dangerously fragile. Before long the tall grass began to fail as drifting cattle damaged the thin mantle of soil; immense herds of sheep soon followed, grazing down the short grasses, and when thunderstorms came the soil washed away.

Perry and his cattle stayed on the Devils for three years and then moved on; he was always a restless man, traveling back and forth to California, once by way of Panama, and he spent much of his life wandering along the western margins of Texas. In 1893 his oldest son, T.A., returned to the Devils River, near Juno, along with his wife, Bettie, and their young children. We still operate the ranch my ancestors built, but the rural society and economy that nurtured generations of my family is mostly gone, swept away by abstract economic forces and the ravages of a desert climate. By the time I was wandering on horseback through that country, the glory days of the sheep and goat industry were well behind us. Grasslands had given way to invasive mesquite and cedar, and drought was just a way of life.

The passage of the ranching world was swift. Not so the world of those who came before us. Enigmatic evidence of a human presence in the area reaches back millennia. At sites like Bonfire Shelter, the oldest and southernmost example in North America of a bison jump, and at Cueva Quebrada, another shelter, the butchered bones of Pleistocene mammals were found in deposits dated to some 14,000 years before the present. As rainfall gradually diminished over the centuries and the big game disappeared, people either adapted or kept moving. Those who stayed developed an ingenious hunter-gatherer economy based on desert plants and small animals and the occasional deer. Some left paintings as a record of their lives in this place.

Growing up here, I had little awareness of those ancient people, though signs of their presence were all around me. I played cowboys and Indians around their flintknapping sites and earth ovens and wickiup rings. I hunted for arrowheads. I had heard about Indian paintings, even saw some once or twice, but as a child I never paid them much attention. I had no idea that a complex of rock shelters just miles from my family’s ranch contained one of the most significant bodies of rock art in existence. Still less could I have suspected that those paintings, created for mysterious reasons some four thousand years ago, might speak to us today.

LISTEN to a short radio segment produced with  KUT News and StateImpact Texas featuring Roger D. Hodge: 

 

I arrived at Seminole Canyon on a cool, windy morning in late March. The plan was to meet up with a group from Shumla, a center for archaeological research near Comstock, and spend a week studying the rock art of the Lower Pecos. I hoped to learn more about the deep history of the landscape in which I was raised, about the ways humans had tried, successfully and not, to live in it. Rain had been falling all across the state, and there was some hopeful speculation that the worst single-year drought in Texas history might be drawing to an end. I was doubtful; the previous year had been so dry that much of the cedar had died along with the grass.

I asked Elton Prewitt, a Shumla archaeologist, if he thought the drought was over. Paleoclimatology, it seemed, had some hard lessons to teach us. “What people don’t understand,” Elton said, “is that from around 8,500 to about 4,500 years ago, we had two back-to-back 2,000-year droughts

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