The Buried City is just one, relatively isolated culture
in the Texas Panhandle. People have inhabited the plains and
canyons of the Panhandle for more than 10,000 years, from nomads
who followed the herds of mammoth and giant bison to more sedentary
groups who cultivated crops and built small villages. Jeff
Indeck reviews the history of these cultures.
When did people first inhabit the Panhandle region?
The earliest record of people on the South Plains dates to about
14,000 years ago, in Blackwater Draw near Clovis,
New Mexico [on the Texas-New Mexico border]. This is the first
group to make things that we recognize as tools. The Clovis culture
hunted big game, like the mammoth, the big bison -- which was
about 50 percent larger than the modern bison -- horses, camels,
sloths, and other animals that became extinct around the end
of the last glaciation.
The next group was the Folsom Hunters, who
were associated with the big bison. These cultures are known
as Paleoindians. They used big arrow points, often fluted and
ground at the base. They probably used them on spears or lances.
After that, the environment seems to deteriorate. Large animals
go extinct, so there’s a change in the way people live:
They become true foragers, exploiting almost everything, so we
see a much more diverse range of foodstuffs.
We also see a reduction in the number of sites. The assumption
is that as the environment gets worse, the animals go away, so
the people go away.
Was the region completely abandoned?
People didn’t go away completely, and we start to see
more sites in the Archaic Period, around 4,000 to 5,000 years
ago. An example is a site we worked in Stinnett a couple of years
ago. They were digging for a new swimming pool and excavated
a bison. While they were waiting for us to arrive, they found
a big projectile point. The conjecture was that people had speared
this animal. Carbon dating and the type of point tell us that
somebody was hunting bison here around 5,740 to 5,600 years ago.
What about more recent times?
Around 2,000 years ago, we start to see changes in the way people
1. The introduction of the bow and arrow;
2. The first pottery;
3. The introduction of horticulture, with a change to a semi-sedentary
I don’t know which came first, sedentism or horticulture,
but they seem interrelated. Many hunter/gatherer groups were
cyclical nomads following an annual pattern, collecting resources
as they ripened or became available. I have always assumed that
Indians quickly learned how to increase the yield from plants.
At some point, there is a threshold beyond which one is reluctant
to leave cultivated fields or tended crops, for fear of
loss to animals or neighbors. This may be responsible for increased
When did the first real settlements appear?
By 1,000 to 850 years ago, there were pretty well developed
groups living almost permanently in the drainage of the Canadian
River, which is the only river that crosses the Panhandle. These
were full-blown bison hunters, using Alibates Flint, a special
type of flint that was quarried from sites near present-day Lake
Alibates Flint has been used for 14,000 years. But a thousand
years ago, there were full-blown miners. There are hundreds of
quarry pits and all the tools for commerce. It’s clear
these people were traders; Alibates Flint has been found from
coast to coast. They didn’t trade directly with people
on each coast, but they were part of a vast trade network that
spanned the continent.
The environment was stable enough to farm, and people were growing
corn, beans, and squash. And we see hamlets of 25, 50, 75 rooms,
so there were more and more people concentrated in smaller areas.
This is what we call the Antelope Creek phase.
How long were these structures inhabited?
By around 1300 to 1500, the Antelope Creek people were gone.
We’re not certain why they left or where they went, but
they were gone.
When Coronado passes through this area in 1541, he comments
on sedentary farmers and nomadic bison hunters. The hunters were
probably Apache, and they came in from the north when the bison
moved in. They probably lived here at the same time as the Antelope
Creek people. We don’t know if they competed for resources,
but there are problems when you squeeze more people into the
same space: sanitation, diseases, competition for water resources.
Around 1700, the Comanche come in, hunting bison on horses descended
from the ones the Spaniards brought over. The Comanche, Apache,
and Kiowa have names that we recognize today. We don’t
know what earlier people called themselves.
How many people would have lived in this region at any
These were bare-level societies -- probably just extended families.
There’s always a limiting factor to population size, and
in the Panhandle that factor is water. The first well in this
region is 13,500 years old. There are other wells around, plus
springs and playas -- small natural depressions that fill with
rain water during the wet months.
There’s not much difference, really, in the people then
and the people who live in the Panhandle today. If you consider
the concept of “mining” grasses, there’s little
difference in hunting mammoth, big bison, or small bison, and
raising cattle today. You’re still using the natural resources
to live. The chronology doesn’t matter that much -- people
What were their houses like?
Early houses in this region were small and isolated, and built
with vertical stone walls. Over time, we start seeing more houses
built together. Some sites are used over and over, so the numbers
go up. The first round of building might have 12 to 20 rooms,
then the next has 40 or 50. Eventually, you get several hundred
at a site [as is the case at Buried City], but it’s hard
to come up with exact numbers of rooms that were in use at any
Most of these structures weren’t very large, but they
used the space efficiently. They probably did most of their activities
outside, so they weren’t inside that much.
Do any of these structures show astronomical alignments?
When archaeologists evaluate sites, they look at how the sites
relate to the environment: Do they line up with the prevailing
winds, or the Sun? At the time of Antelope Creek [a 29-room pueblo-like
structure occupied around 1150-1450], the predominant opening
in all the rooms is toward the east. Many Plains tribes have
their structures open to the east specifically to catch the Sun.
We don’t know if that’s specifically the case here,
but it’s certainly suggestive.
Specifically at Antelope Creek, there was a spot opposite the
door in a large room that people called “the altar.” Could
it relate to the Sun coming in? We don’t know for sure,
because the site was destroyed several decades ago. There were
long, low entrances in these rooms to help trap heat inside during
the winter, and to trap an enemy coming in on his knees. But
we don’t know for sure if the rising Sun might have passed
all the way through these entryways on important dates, like
solstices or equinoxes.
Dr. Jeff Indeck is Chief Curator and Curator of Archeology
at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum at West Texas A&M
University in Canyon, Texas.