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Desert Dwelling in Deep Time: Archeologists Catalog Big Bend National Park's Rich Human Past

david keller considers a petroform.jpg
Drew Stuart
David Keller, and crew member Casey-Wayne Riggs, left, document a suspected “petroform” during an archeological survey in Big Bend National Park. Keller's crew has found similar rock alignments in the park, which, though clearly created by people, are ambiguous in their purpose and meaning. Like effigy mounds and other earthen sculptures in the Americas, these Big Bend features may reflect aspects of prehistoric ceremonial life.

Today, Big Bend National Park is a place to escape from the modern world and into the wilderness. But this harsh and majestic place was also home to countless people, from archaic hunters to 20th-century farmers.

Think of Big Bend National Park, and isolation and solitude come to mind. There's truth to it. While the park set a visitation record in 2021, with half a million visitors, this is still some of the most remote country in the continental United States. Journey into the backcountry, and, in quieter months, you may see few if any other visitors.

Yet this overwhelming terrain, of mountain fastnesses and desert wastes, this landscape of “terror, grandeur and deathlessness,” as writer Edward Abbey put it, has also been home to generations of people, from archaic hunters to 20th century farmers and herdsmen. The enduring traces of these Big Bend lives are subtler than the park's desert-mountain panoramas. But for those with eyes to see, archeological and historical resources are ubiquitous here.

Archeologists are working now to document and record them. Because even with national park protection, these resources face threats.

David Keller is former historian at Alpine's Center for Big Bend Studies.

“Just to think of that in terms of millennia,” Keller said, “and surviving millennia, is really hard for me to grasp. And you think about all the human activity that's occurred out here too, that has the potential to destroy things and to impact things – I think it's a miracle that almost anything survives intact.”

It's November, and Keller is leading an archeological crew along the Rio Grande near Castolon, in the park's southwest corner.

The research is an extension of a monumental undertaking. Between 1995 and 2010, Center archeologists surveyed more than 60,000 acres in the park — in perhaps the largest foot survey in Texas history. They recorded 1,500 archeological sites, and collected some 2,300 artifacts. Unsurprisingly, the evidence of human occupation was densest along the Rio Grande. Now, with park-service funding, the Center has launched a multi-year project focused on the river corridor.

“We're going to do a transect or two,” Keller said. “I guess we'll skirt around this – that may be the easiest way up there. Okay – y'all ready? Let's go!”

The crew spreads out, each member responsible for a 30-meter-wide “transect.” Using handheld GPS devices to steer course, they scan the surface as they walk. The search, Keller said, is for “anomalies,” features that aren't purely natural. To the sensitive eye, some features speak unmistakably of human activity: the flint debris from ancient stone-tool making, the blackened rock of prehistoric cooking sites.

Then, there are finds that are far more ambiguous.

“We started seeing these during the big survey,” Keller said, “and puzzled over them, but started recording and mapping them separately, and over time developed some ideas about what they might be.”

The crew has come upon a series of rock clusters, like tiny cairns, on open, level ground. There's no blackening – these rocks weren't piled as campfires or hearths. Researchers initially thought they might be the work of early ranchers, securing fenceposts. But evidence suggests greater antiquity. And the archeologists observed that rabbits were drawn to these rock clusters, for sanctuary. They now think that, outfitted with snares, the rock piles may have served as prehistoric rabbit traps.

The crew moves on to a new survey block, and encounters something more evocative still.

“This is very interesting,” Keller said. “This was not accidental. It's eroded. It's deflated. So we don't know exactly what it looked it, but the fact that they're all together and they're very different from those rocks is interesting. I think it is a petroform. It's been disturbed, so we're not seeing it in its pristine form.”

On a terrace above the river, with a view of the soaring Chisos Mountains to the north, are a series of rock formations. Below a cairn, surrounding by bits of flint or chert, there are stones arranged in large circles and oblong shapes.

These, Keller suspects, are petroforms – a sort of ancient “land art,” created by the Big Bend's Native people, perhaps for ceremonial purposes. And there's cause for that speculation.

Decades ago, archeologists identified a feature in the park known as “the Spider.” More than 300-feet across, the Spider has a central cairn, with rocks laid out in radiating spokes. It echoes Indigenous ceremonial creations found far to the north, known as “medicine wheels.” In the park survey, Center researchers found two more “medicine wheels.” And Keller and his crew found rocks laid out in what appeared to be the shape of turtles.

Then there's a site known as Lizard Hill. Here, two immense serpentine rock alignments form a “V.” At the apex of the V, nestled in the earth, Keller's team found a cache of a dozen 4,000-year-old dart points. The points were resting in open mussel shells, like “cupped hands,” Keller said, in what appeared to be an offering.

They dated to a period called the Middle Archaic, when Big Bend populations appear to have surged. Keller believes petroforms here represent a Middle Archaic “cultural florescence,” when mobile bands gathered near the river for seasonal celebration and ritual.

The crew records the GPS locations and details of the suspected petroforms. But not all the sites they're cataloging are from such a deep past.

“Here we are at a cemetery,” Keller said, “which is a really robust site type. It's visible even from the road, so you would think it would have a site number and be recorded archeologically, but it hasn't. That goes to show that there's a lot that remains to be done, even in areas that are readily accessible.”

coyote cemetery.jpg
Drew Stuart
Researchers in Big Bend National Park document the cemetery of Coyote, an early 20th century riverside community whose residents farmed and sold their produce to the mining town of Terlingua.

It's a poignant site, and a sublime setting. On a promontory above the river, Keller's crew painstakingly records the details of a cemetery. The lone date on a cross records a death in 1926. Below are the stone ruins of the community of Coyote. The hamlet endured only a few decades. Its residents farmed crops, to sell to miners in Terlingua.

Documenting these resources empowers park officials to know what they're safeguarding and “what we stand to lose,” Keller said. Because they face ongoing threats.

There's visitor use, of course — it's imperative visitors respect archeological resources, and don't tamper with them. The movement of immigrants, and the Border Patrol's efforts to interdict that movement, can also impact sites, Keller said.

But perhaps most significant are the effects of horses and cattle, which Mexican ranchers allow to graze in the park. Trespassing livestock are ubiquitous along the river here — and for park managers, countering that is a daunting challenge.

Yet securing these resources is worthwhile. Big Bend National Park today is a place to escape – from the modern world, into wildness. But Keller said it's vital to remember that for countless people, this harsh and majestic place was home.

“It's absolutely captivating landscape,” he said, “in and of itself. But then when you learn of the past cultures that lived here, it gives it a whole other layer of depth, a whole other dimension. It's a richness that's beyond description.”

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