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Jeff Indeck

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 do things:

1. The introduction of the bow and arrow;

2. The first pottery;

3. The introduction of horticulture, with a change to a semi-sedentary lifestyle.

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 sedentism.

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 Meredith.

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 given time?

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 are 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 one time.

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.

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