NATURE NOTES:
Lubbock Lake Landmark: A One-of-a-Kind “Archive” of Life on the Llano Estacado

By Andrew Stuart

It was WPA site 17 dash 1. In 1936, federal works crews were using heavy equipment – the likes of which had never been seen in West Texas – to try to rejuvenate springs in Yellow House Draw, at the north end of Lubbock. The spectacle drew onlookers, including local high schoolers Clark and Turner Kimmel.

In the debris, the Kimmels saw something unusual – strange animal bones, and a stone tool. Wisely, they sought professional advice.

Dr. William Curry Holden, director of the West Texas Museum, recognized what they’d found: a Folsom spearpoint, at least 10,000 years old.

So began a process of discovery that continues today. Native Americans visited this prairie oasis for 12,000 years. Owned by Texas Tech University, the Lubbock Lake Landmark preserves a one-of-a-kind record of life on the plains.

Spanish explorers called it La Punta de Agua, “the Point of Water.” George and Rachel Singer built a store beside its spring-fed lake in the 1880s – and launched the community of Lubbock. In the Ice Age, the draw flowed, part of the Brazos River system. Later, it was a freshwater marsh, then an alkaline marsh. Until irrigation lowered the Ogallala Aquifer, this stretch of Yellow House Draw always had water.

And it was a destination for hundreds of generations of Native peoples.

Dr. Eileen Johnson has been the landmark’s director since 1972.

“So all the products of the grasslands, from the plants to the animals, were here, with the water,” Johnson said. “Bison were here. You had basically everything that you needed to survive. I tell people, since people came into the New World, there was like this big sign saying, ‘Head to Lubbock!’ Even in hard times, this was the place to live.”

For the earliest people, there were mammoth, horse and camel to hunt – and short-faced bear and saber-toothed cat to avoid. Later hunters pursued bison and pronghorn. For 12,000 years, nomadic peoples butchered and cooked their kills here, camped and fashioned tools.

The teeth and skeletal remains of bison reveal the age at which they were killed. They show that people spent summers here. People likely camped in one place for a few weeks, perhaps spending the entire season along Yellow House Draw. In winter, bands likely moved down the Brazos River.

Periodically, the draw flooded. The remains of an occupation – butchered bones, hearths, discarded tools – were buried, sealed in silt and mud. The process continued over millenia, and the chronology of visitation was preserved in distinct strata.

That stratigraphy sets the landmark apart.

“And so we basically have one of the more continuous records of people inhabiting the New World,” Johnson said, “from the end of the Ice Age all the way to the founding of the community of Lubbock. So it isn’t a particular time period that makes the Landmark significant – it’s all of this wrapped together. And the size of the Landmark is just amazing.”

Early archeologists estimated artifacts were centered on a 5-acre area. The national landmark contains about 300 acres. But archeologists now know that the site spans a 12-mile stretch of the draw. Bones and artifacts are concealed, in startling abundance, beneath thousands of acres.

The deposits tell a human story. They also reveal the Llano Estacado’s changing plants and animals.

“We have exotic animals in the early period – the mammoth, the camels, the horses, the giant bears, what have you,” Johnson said. “But we also have the fish that were there at the time, and the mice and the snakes and the birds, so you get a much richer understanding of what the ecology was at the time.”

Curry Holden led public tours from his earliest excavations, and outreach remains a cornerstone of the landmark’s mission. From age 13, volunteers can participate in lab and fieldwork in the Summer Youth and Community Volunteer Program. There are programs for younger students. Visitors can hike trails. The Nash Interpretative Center – open Tuesdays through Sundays – vividly tells the landmark’s story.

Eighty years on, archeologists have studied only 5 percent of the landmark. A 45-year veteran, Johnson said her own fascination is undiminished. This ancient West Texas oasis has much more to reveal.

“We’re excavating the past so to speak for today, and for tomorrow,” she said. “It is an incredible archive, what we have here.”

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