NATURE NOTES:
Odyssey in Big Bend: Tracking the Continent’s First People in the Texas Desert

By Andrew Stuart

When it comes to understanding the deep history of human life in the Americas, our region has played a pivotal role. Sites on the plains of West Texas and eastern New Mexico yielded the first evidence of Ice-Age Americans. Indeed, a site near Clovis, New Mexico – where, in 1932, distinctive “fluted” spearpoints were found among mammoth bones – gives the continent’s earliest identifiable culture its name. “Clovis people” lived more than 13,000 years ago, and coexisted with ground sloths and camels, saber-toothed cats and short-faced bears. 

Yet there’s a growing consensus that the continent’s human story is more ancient still. The search for “pre-Clovis” sites is one of the hottest areas in contemporary archeology. An ambitious initiative called the Odyssey Project is on the case, and the Big Bend is one focus of the search.

At locales including Lubbock Lake and the Midland and Plainview sites, the West Texas plains are rich in evidence of the continent’s most ancient inhabitants. Yet such “Paleoindian” sites have proven elusive in the desert-mountain country of the Big Bend. 

It might be taken as confirmation of the familiar, if dubious, Spanish description of Big Bend as “El Despoblado” – “the unpopulated place.” But the experts think otherwise – including Dr. Rolfe Mandel.

“It’s that ‘out of sight, out of mind,’” Mandel said. “If you can’t see it, people think, ‘Oh, well, there weren’t a lot of people here during that time.’ Well, I think just the opposite – it’s just that you can’t see it. It’s the proverbial needle in the haystack. You’ve got to somehow focus your search.”

Mandel is the director of the Odyssey Archaeological Research Fund, at Kansas University. And he’s partnered with Alpine’s Center for Big Bend Studies to hunt Clovis, and pre-Clovis, sites here.

More than a decade ago, Center archeologists made a remarkable find on the O2 Ranch, south of Alpine. The steep-cut banks of an arroyo there had revealed deeply buried features of charcoal and ash. These were the remains of “earth ovens” or baking pits, dating back 11,000 years. Known as the Genevieve Lykes Duncan Site, or GLD, it showed that the practice of slow-roasting agaves stretched back to the Paleoindians.

The site underscores an important point, Mandel said: The record of deep time is often deeply buried – especially in a “dynamic landscape” like Big Bend, where even a single flash flood can transform the terrain. 

“I could show you sites that you can go 30, 40 feet below surface, and there’s archeology,” Mandel said, “and some of it’s really not that old. I’ve seen sites in the Big Bend region that are 1,500 years old that are buried under 20 feet of alluvium, which is sediment deposited by streams. For that reason, I’ve always thought that Big Bend has high potential for containing an early record – you have to look really deep.”

In addition to plants like agaves, the Ice-Age Big Bend abounded in mammoths and other big game. There are cherts here that were ideal for stone-tool making. Far from being “unpopulated,” Mandel said, the Big Bend would have been a rich place for Ice-Age peoples.

Yet how to narrow the search for their buried traces?

One place to start is with the desert’s most precious resource: water.

San Esteban Rockshelter, south of Marfa, is a massive cave system. And it’s situated near a spring-fed tinaja. The site puts Mandel in mind of archeology he’s done at isolated springs in the Egyptian desert.

“It reminds me of that in some ways,” Mandel said, “where there’s an oasis. It’s such an attractive environment, that’s where people tended to congregate. And San Esteban Rockshelter is no exception – it’s got an intense occupation.” 

In 2020, Mandel’s team and Center staff completed a second summer of excavation at San Esteban. There’s a history of looting at the rockshelter, but the team has made stunning finds. They’ve uncovered moccasins and baskets, and a cache of atlatls – spear-throwers used by the region’s ancient hunters.

The archeologists are working their way “down through time” at the site. The deepest layers could well contain Clovis, or pre-Clovis material, Mandel said. But there are obstacles – truck-sized chunks of rock that have fallen from the “roof” of the cave are buried beneath the surface. As they dig on, the team will have to “zigzag” around these roof-falls, to reach the deepest strata. 

Early Paleoindian finds were fortuitous – at one West Texas site, for example, heavy-equipment operators turned up Ice-Age animal bones, and human tools. Yet in recent decades, archeologists have refined their methods. This is where Mandel’s speciality comes in.

Mandel is a geoarcheologist. He’s done path-breaking work in understanding how geological processes “filter” the archeological record.

Building on the work of earlier researchers, he’s been able to link specific layers of soil in the Big Bend to specific environmental conditions, and periods of time, in the Ice-Age past. These buried soils are exposed in the deeply incised arroyos of the O2 Ranch. Armed with the knowledge of which soils correspond to Clovis, and pre-Clovis time, the archeologists can hone their search.

And the collaboration is already bearing fruit.

Dr. Bryon Schroeder is director of the Center for Big Bend Studies

“This is the first one that I know of that’s down in the Big Bend area, and comes from a buried context. And it’s made of local material, which means that somebody was making Clovis points, on a Clovis landform, in the Big Bend, which all starts to look like – there’s a buried Clovis site.”

Schroeder brought Mandel’s team to the GLD site this summer. In dirt from a trench dug at the site, the team found the “pre-form” of a Clovis spearpoint – the tool-in-progress was of local stone. They also identified the buried layer from which the point likely emerged. 

It appears to be the Big Bend’s first intact Clovis site. The team hopes to return next year – and to look deeper, for pre-Clovis material.

The Odyssey project, and Mandel’s personal history, have created a unique opportunity to probe these mysteries in the Big Bend. Raised in San Antonio, Mandel discovered a fascination with geology on a high-school field trip here. And the Odyssey Project has almost $8 million in funding – the bequest of Joseph Cramer, a petroleum geologist who admired Mandel’s approach. 

Mandel anticipates a total investment of about $1 million from the Odyssey Fund in research here.

“I’ve had this very strong interest in Big Bend for a long time,” Mandel said, “that goes back to practically my childhood days. So I’m really willing to invest in it. And the luxury of Odyssey is that there are funds to do that.”

The work could produce insights into the first people of the Big Bend – and of the Western Hemisphere.