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 (www.texasbeyondhistory.net 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 the kids if they’d ever “popped an airhead”—until I realized that he was talking about an “arrowhead.” “You use flint,” he went on, pulling a pouch filled with the stones from his pocket. Fascinated, Rayna followed Jack’s lead, slowly chipping away at her flint with a deer-antler flaking tool while he effortlessly created an arrowhead. “You can teach me lots of stuff,” Rayna told him in one of those rare moments when an adult earns the respect of a child. We ended the day with a picnic on the banks of the Rio Grande.
On our second trip we explored the rock art in the Galloway White Shaman Preserve, one of the most important sites in the Lower Pecos Region, which archaeologists believe was used as a ceremonial area. When we arrived at the gated entrance (the small sign nearby is easy to miss), our guide was waiting for us. A volunteer with the Rock Art Foundation, which owns the site, she suggested that we look for fossils while waiting for the rest of the tour group. Rayna found a spiral shell that had hardened into stone and was just like one in her fossil book.
“Why do you think a shell was here?” I asked her.
“Because this used to be under the water,” she answered indignantly.
“How long ago was that?” I said, persisting with my clever parental questioning.
“Long before people existed.”
“I think you’re right,” I told her.
“I am right.” Sassy, yes. But when your kid is right, what can you say?
Before we reached the main attraction, we stopped at the Lifeways Village, a model of a hunter-gatherer camp circa 2500 B.C. Reproductions of tools, including arrowheads—”I know how to make those,” Rayna proudly told our guide—were strewn about as though the camp were still being used. Rayna went inside a wickiup, a lean-to made from the stalks of the native sotol plant, which still grows abundantly in this area. Our guide demonstrated how to throw an atlatl (pronounced “at-uh-lat-ul”), a spear that was thrown overhand using a separate launching device. As we started down the steep, rocky one-mile trail to the White Shaman site, a red-tailed hawk soared through the canyon. “We saw an eagle’s nest when we were canoeing,” Rayna boasted to our guide.
When we finally got to the overhang and saw the pictograph of the white shaman figure—an elongated form with outstretched arms—there was a collective moment of awestruck silence. In ancient tribal societies the shaman acted as a medium between the physical and spiritual worlds, and here the ghostly image appears to be floating. Many of the other, smaller shamans seem to be upside down, “representing death,” our guide suggested. Rayna’s opinion was that they are “just flying.” She tilted her head back to look upside down at the shamans while the guide pointed to the intricate use of thin red, black, and mustard-yellow lines in the pictographs: “This is world-class rock art,” she told us. “White images are rare.”
Fate Bell Shelter (named after Fate Bell, who once owned the land) was our final destination. We checked out the park’s exhibits on the early humans who roamed the area 12,000 years ago and on the extinct species of mastodons, camels, bison, and horses that once dotted the landscape. The shelter, tucked into Seminole Canyon, contains some of the state’s most spectacular rock paintings, most about 4,000 years old. As our guide spoke, Rayna was almost reverent. In a whisper she asked me for a drink of water. Then she asked, “How could they drink the water? It wasn’t safe.” I was gratified to see the wheels turning in my child’s mind as she pondered the ancient past.
One of the most interesting finds in the shelter is a triad of shamans. The central figure is the deer shaman, part human, part animal. Rayna began to explore on her own and announced, “I found a sun! I can see arrows!” In the meantime, the adults gazed at the walls, each sharing his or her interpretation of other images, like the spitting cat and the boxlike figure with two legs.
“I wish this was longer,” Rayna said when the tour was over. So we stuck around and hiked to a remote spot. We sat in total solitude, and Rayna found a sharp rock to draw with. She proceeded to etch her own pictograph, which looked like a yin-yang symbol with a squiggly line over it, into the rock we were sitting on.
“What is that?” I asked.
“It’s a sunset,” she said.
An hour later we stopped in Brackettville, where we fueled up the car and bought Blue Bell chocolate ice-cream cones. As we headed back to Austin, we noticed telephone and utility poles with arms outstretched parallel to the ground, torso and legs long and perpendicular to the earth.
“Mom, I think I see a shaman,” Rayna said.
I thought I did too.
Amistad National Recreation Area (830-775-7491; nps.gov/amis/home.htm); entrance to Pecos River boat launch 42 miles west of Del Rio on U.S. 90; camping $4 per site per night (no water or electricity); park open daily; free. Pecos Jack’s Wilderness Adventures (281-261-9184; [email protected]); call for tour information and prices.
Fate Bell Shelter at Seminole Canyon State Historical Park, 41 miles west of Del Rio on U.S. 90 (915-292-4464; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/ seminole/). Tours Wednesday through Sunday at 10 and 3; adults $3, children 6 through 12 $1, 5 and under free. Camping $8 (with water) or $11 (with water and electricity) per site per night. Park open daily; $2, children 12 and under free.
Galloway White Shaman Preserve, one mile west of Seminole Canyon State Historical Park on U.S. 90 (210-525-9907 or 888-762-5278; www.rockart.org); tours every Saturday at 12:30; $10, children 17 and under free.