Tracing a History of Change, Innovation Among Texas’ Ancient Nomadic Peoples

By Andrew Stuart

From the Ice Age to the late 19th century, Native Americans had pursued nomadic ways of life in what’s now Texas for more than 12,000 years. It’s possible for a contemporary outsider to imagine those ways of life were timeless, unchanging. In fact, indigenous life here is a history of adaptation, innovation and change. As populations grew, hunter-gatherers developed new techniques to survive in this land.

It’s a process called intensification, and archeologists are just beginning to trace its history.

The first people to enter the Americas had diverse hunting and cooking technologies at hand. They knew how to make unleavened bread. They could roast plants in earth ovens.  

But they left it all behind – because they could.

Why dig roots or grind flour, when a single mammoth provides food, clothing, shelter and raw material for tools?

Dr. Alston Thoms is a Texas A&M archeologist, specializing in hunter-gatherer land use.

“They just get such huge rewards for comparatively little work,” Thoms said. “Those first people just lived off the cream of the land. It never could have been easier living. I mean, they killed elephants all over Texas.”

It’s a global pattern. Reaching a new land, humans started as big-game hunters. But there’s a hitch: our knack for procreation always outstrips the modes of food production. Along with climate change, growing human populations likely contributed to the decline in Ice Age mammals. Indigenous peoples turned to smaller game – rabbits, squirrels.

And they began to rely on wild plants and earth-oven cooking. The archeological record tells the tale.

“There is maybe one earth oven known in Texas 11,000 years ago,” Thoms said. “There are probably 30 or 40 known that are 10,000 [years old] or so. Their density in a given landscape also increases through time.”

In the desert, agave, sotol and lechuguilla were important. Across Texas, Native peoples slow-roasted wild onions. The camus plant is as rich as a sweet potato when cooked, and it was eaten across the continent. Earth-oven cooking was common even on the plains.

The hard work of root harvesting was done primarily by women. That likely changed social relations, Thoms said.

“When you start seeing a heavy use on plant foods, that’s when my guess is that women had crossed some kind of threshold to contributing disproportionately to the sustenance of families,” he said. “I consider that to be one of the first hints of inequality.”

To survive in a more crowded landscape, Native peoples developed methods of land management – fire chief among them. Burning landscapes made root grounds more productive. And the new growth after fire drew deer and other game.

On the West Texas plains, small populations could live well off fresh bison. But as populations grew, nomads found ways to preserve and carry their food. 

Sometimes called “Comanche bread,” pemmican is a mix of nuts, fruit and the dried meat of bison or other game. To bind the mix, Native cooks rendered animal fat to make tallow. “Stone boiling” was the preferred technique – heated stones were dropped red-hot into a vessel to boil water. The practice became prevalent a millennium ago. 

Today, there’s a tendency to think of agriculture in terms of “progress.” But, globally, the evidence suggests societies turned to farming not because it was attractive, but because wild food sources could no longer support their populations. Hunter-gatherers knew seasonal hunger. But the kind of famine farmers faced when crops failed was unknown to them.

“I don’t think there was ever a hunter-gatherer population on earth that voluntarily decided to be farmers,” Thoms said. “I think they could all see that those farmers suffer.”

Before being decimated by disease and violence, Native American populations were likely their highest ever when the Spanish arrived. In the United States, “Manifest Destiny” militated against nomadic life.

But elements of the legacy endure. Nopalitos – the green pads of prickly pear cactus – are popular in the borderlands. And “barbacoa” – the root of “barbecue” – was the term the Spanish used for all earth-oven cooking.

And in archeology, Native peoples’ sophisticated used of wild foods is beginning to get its due.

“It’s simply not very sexy when it’s competing with who has the longest projectile point, or the prettiest pot,” Thoms said.” Plant foods, and cooking in general, has taken a backseat. But that’s changing right now.”