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In Sandals, Ropes and Baskets, Caves in the Guadalupe Mountains Preserved the Handicrafts of Ancient Life

photograph courtesy the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico. Archeologists are taking a new look at “perishable artifacts” – like the sandal pictured above – that were collected decades ago from caves in the Guadalupe Mountains.

The Guadalupe Mountains are seductive for their wooded canyons and high forests. But they're as notable for what's hidden beneath and within them as they are for their peaks.

Carlsbad Caverns is famous, but there are caves and rockshelters throughout the Guadalupes, and these spaces have a distinctive significance for scientists. They've yielded a bonanza in paleontology – the bones of Ice Age mammoths and sloths, short-faced bears, camels and horses. And – artifacts of human life.

Archeologists are taking a new look at those artifacts.  

Robert Dello-Russo, of the University of New Mexico, is leading the research. “Perishable artifacts” – sandals, textiles, baskets – are the focus.

“I've always had a soft spot for sandals,” Dello-Russo said.

These objects are rarely preserved outside dry confines. Early archeologists knew it, and the Guadalupes' caves, in Texas and New Mexico, were excavated in the 20s, 30s and 40s. In one – Burnet Cave – stone tools were found among the bones of now-extinct bison and muskox. A site near Clovis, New Mexico would get the recognition a few years later, but this was likely the first evidence of humans in North America in the Ice Age.

Artifacts from the caves are now dispersed – in museums from Santa Fe to Philadelphia. Dello-Russo and his colleagues will travel to these institutions, to take photographs and samples.

With radiocarbon testing, they'll date perishable artifacts. They'll determine plants from which they were made. If artifacts are intact, they'll study weaving techniques and styles.

Many sandals were often recovered from a single rockshelter. Fashioning sandals from yucca or other plants wasn't easy, and Dello-Russo thinks people likely produced – and cached – many at a time.  

“So I've always had this idea that rockshelters served as the shoe stores of the Southwest in prehistory,” he said. “So when somebody's sandals start to blow out or wear out, they say, 'Well, look, your sandals are wearing out – don't forget to stop by this rockshelter over here, that's 2 miles over there, and pick up another pair of sandals.'”

Many objects were likely woven and dyed in decorative fashion. Colors fade with time – which can lead us to envision a past in “black-and-white.” Dello-Russo points to the discovery of well-preserved ancient murals in the Southwest.

“They're just outrageously beautiful,” he said. “The colors are just unbelievably bright – still, after hundreds of years. I can't imagine the rest of their world wasn't the same way. We're just seeing a very pale, diffuse remnant of what that was, and you just have to imbue the rest of it yourself, with your imagination.”

Dating could reveal the antiquity of weaving and sandal-making here. The researchers may explore the development of styles over time. There's been extensive study of sandals elsewhere in the Southwest. Those could be compared with styles from the Guadalupes.  

“The idea is that styles are maybe regional in their distribution, or even temporal in their distribution, or both,” Dello-Russo said, “and we're hoping to maybe identify that and see if the styles we identify here are local to this area, or maybe not – maybe they're similar to styles we see in other parts of the Southwest, or further afield.”

Such similarities could demonstrate cultural affinities and trade relationships.

“Because we know that people traded over great distances,” Dello-Russo said. “They traded raw materials in stone tools. They traded ceramics. They traded other types of things, like maize. So there's no reason to think that they might not be trading other things – textiles, sandals, baskets.”

Early excavations were not done with respect. Human remains were carried away – including from the Guadalupes – and sometimes displayed. Dello-Russo's project will begin in conversations and negotiations with tribes connected to the Guadalupes. No ceremonial objects will be analyzed, and any human remains will be returned to tribes. 

Dello-Russo's team will return to several caves in the Guadalupes, and use drones to document others. But existing collections are the focus. Objects that have been in museums for decades could provide new insight into the richness of prehistoric life here, at the intersection of the plains and desert-mountains. 

“There are always things that will surprise you in those collections,” Dello-Russo said. “And I think that's what we're hoping to discover here, is that there's stuff there that no one has looked at for 80 years or more. We're keeping our fingers crossed that there's going to be some surprises there.”

Drew Stuart is the producer for the Marfa Public Radio series Nature Notes.