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Science and Serendipity Fuel the Hunt for the Big Bend's Earliest People

photograph by David Wellborn. Brooke Gerdes, a recent UTEP grad, holds a Paleolithic stone tool, which she's unearthed at the Genevieve Lykes Duncan site south of Alpine.

“The past,” it's famously been said, “is a foreign country.” But the deep human past is better described as another continent. We humans have had the same traits and abilities – for abstract thinking and sociability, for creating art, music and dance – for at least 50,000 years. Yet most of that story remains a mystery.

Archeologists work to push back that frontier, to map the unknown continent of the prehistoric past. It's not easy. Time has erased and buried the most ancient evidence. And though our Paleolithic predecessors almost certainly knew as much warmth and laughter, as much curiosity, wonder and danger as we do, their traces were light. Finding them requires both rigorous science – and serendipity.

So it is at the Genevieve Lykes Duncan site, on the O2 Ranch south of Alpine. Archeologists are digging there this summer – seeking insight into the Big Bend's Ice-Age inhabitants.

Bryon Schroeder is director of Alpine's Center for Big Bend Studies. 

“There's a hell of a lot of manual labor at both of these sites,” Schroeder said. “There's some T-shirt wisdom there somewhere: 'Paleoindian archeology ain't for the faint-hearted!'”

Schroeder and Center colleague Erika Blecha are coordinating a team at the Genevieve Lykes Duncan site, or GLD. It's Memorial Day, and they're midway through a 20-day excavation. 

The site is laid out in 1-by-1-meter grids, and beneath the imperfect sanctuary of shade structures, crew members dig the rock-hard ground with pickaxes. They place the dirt in buckets, which other volunteers run through eighth-inch screens, to recover tiny artifacts – like bits of bone, or flakes from stone-tool making.

The crew includes UTEP students, local volunteers, and archeologists from Kansas University's Odyssey Project. Odyssey is dedicated to seeking out “Paleoindian” sites – particularly those of the continent's oldest identifiable culture, the Clovis people, who lived more than 13,000 years ago.

And GLD is a promising candidate, Blecha said.

“We know we have Clovis-age dirt,” she said. “We know that we have Clovis artifacts at this site. So we know that they camped here, we just don't know exactly where they camped. Sometimes it takes a lot of excavation, a lot of poking holes in the ground, to really find out where they were.”

GLD's discovery speaks to the role of serendipity.

In 2010, O2 ranch manager Homer Mills was exploring an arroyo that had just been carved by flooding, when he noticed charcoal in the newly cut banks. He contacted the Center. The charcoal was an earth oven, where ancient people had slow-roasted agaves, converting the otherwise inedible plants into food. 

Ultimately, archeologists excavated multiple earth ovens here, the oldest dating to 11,000 years – the late Paleoindian period.

GLD is near the confluence of Terlingua and Davenport creeks, and across thousands of years, the site apparently drew people as a place to camp or congregate.

Work at GLD was wrapping up in 2020. But then, a volunteer approached Schroeder with an object he'd found in backhoe dirt.

“He came over and said, 'Is this anything?',” Schroeder said. “And our jaws hit the ground. 'Where did you find that?' And he said, 'I found it over here, in this pile of dirt.'”

It was a Clovis “pre-form,” a spearpoint-in-the-making. Most Clovis finds are at “kill sites” – spearpoints are found among the bones of mammoth or other Ice-Age quarry. But this find suggested GLD was a campsite, where Clovis people lingered and made tools from local stone.

Rolfe Mandel, the Odyssey Project's director, is a “geoarcheologist,” specializing in linking soil layers to time periods. In the deep strata at GLD, Mandel identified a Clovis-age soil. The team now knew that Clovis people had visited GLD, and in which layers to look for their artifacts. Rather than ending work, excavations here will continue through 2023.

There's no guarantee of success.

“It's a crap shoot,” Schroeder said. “There's a real potential that even with all this effort that we won't find anything Clovis. These sites are incredibly elusive.”

The work is slow and sweaty, as the crew digs down toward Clovis layers, through more recent Paleolithic deposits. But there's a boost at midday.

“Holy cow!,” Schroeder said. “We found a late Paleoindian thing! We're doing something!”

Brooke Gerdes, a UTEP grad, has found a tool – sharp-edged, fashioned of local stone. How was it used? To clean hides? To prepare agave for roasting? Prehistoric artifacts always raise more questions than they answer.

But suddenly the Ice-Age past is not just an idea. The Big Bend's deep human story becomes vividly present.

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