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Red hillslopes at the Alibates Flint Quarry National monument only hint at the brilliant colors of the stones contained within. Photo by May Schmidt.
Red hillslopes at the Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument in the Texas Panhandle only hint at the brilliant colors of the stones contained within. Photo by May Schmidt.
In this circa 1930s photo, an early researcher tests Alibates flint amid thick scatters of quarry debris. Photo by A. T. Jackson.
In this circa 1930s photo, an early researcher tests Alibates flint amid thick scatters of quarry debris. Photo by A. T. Jackson.
These reddish stones may have been chosen by ancient knappers for their unusual banding. The bifacial tool in the center has the look of beefsteak. Photo by Milton Bell.
These reddish stones may have been chosen by ancient knappers for their unusual banding. The bifacial tool in the center has the look of beefsteak. Photo by Milton Bell.
Paleoindian dart tips of Alibates flint. A Clovis point (left) and broken base of another show types of stone chosen by occupants of the Blackwater Draw site. Photo by Milton Bell.
Paleoindian dart tips of Alibates flint. A Clovis point (left) and broken base of another show types of stone chosen by occupants of the Blackwater Draw site. Photo by Milton Bell.
These colorful Alibates flint arrow points were made by Late Prehistoric folk who lived and hunted in the area roughly 600 to 700 years ago. Photo by Milton Bell.
These colorful Alibates flint arrow points were made by Late Prehistoric folk who lived and hunted in the area around 800 years ago. Photo by Milton Bell.
A visit to Bivins Ranch 1, Ruin 55, July 26, 1945, near what is today the Alibates Flint Quarry. Label reads: "Clarence Webb, Alex Krieger, Floyd Studer, and Clarence Webb, Jr., at ruin." Photo from TARL Archives.
Floyd Studer points across still-open trenches at Alibates 28 during aJuly 26, 1945 visit by archeological dignitaries. Behind Studer from right to left: Alex Krieger, Clarence Webb, and Clarence Webb, Jr. Photo from TARL Archives.
Variations in architecture in Antelope Creek dwellings, as identified through study by Dr. Christopher Lintz of excavated ruins. Drawing courtesy of Dr. Lintz and Oklahoma Archeological Survey.
Variations in architecture in Antelope Creek dwellings, as identified through a study of the excavated ruins by Dr. Christopher Lintz . Drawing courtesy of Dr. Lintz and the Oklahoma Archeological Survey.

Along the sloping canyon rims of the Canadian River Valley in the Texas Panhandle are signs of an industry that has spanned the course of human history in North America. Small pits and literally tons of stone manufacturing debris bear mute testimony to perhaps 13,000 years of quarrying a brilliantly colored stone known as Alibates flint. So prized was the material that prehistoric hunters traveled—or traded—over distances of a thousand miles or more to obtain it. Projectile points and other tools made of Alibates stone have been found in sites as far north as Montana, as far south as Central Mexico, and east to at least the Mississippi River.

Archeologists for years have puzzled over the scale and range of prehistoric activities that created these remarkable sites. It is likely that some workers in search of flint merely picked up exposed chunks or cobbles lying on the ground. In fact, knappable cobbles of Alibates have eroded down the Canadian River into western Oklahoma and as far as Fort Smith, Arkansas. Other, more enterprising, workers chiseled boulders directly from the bedrock. Their quarrying activities left holes ranging from small depressions to broad pits ranging from 5 to 20 feet across and up to 2 feet deep. But what catches the eye for hundreds of yards beyond the pit perimeters are the quarry wastepiles and tool-making debris blanketing the hillslopes: thousands of quarried chunks, tested cobbles, flakes, and tools in various stages of production.

Although termed "flint," the stone is technically a silicified or agatized dolomite occurring in Permian-age outcroppings. These deposits, exposed as slightly undulating layers, are unique to the Panhandle area. But regardless of what the stone is called, none of the terms captures its startling beauty. In hues and tones of the evening sky, colors range from pale gray and white, to pink, maroon, and vivid red, to orange-gold and an intense purplish blue.

Patterns in the stone are varied as well. Bands of alternating color create stripes and a marbled effect. Researchers have speculated about the statistically significant occurrence of red Alibates in sites, and whether the color might have invoked magical connections to the blood of animals. Clearly it was the exotic appearance of Alibates flint rather than its workability that attracted prehistoric toolmakers. Modern-day knappers report that the material has a resistant quality and hardness which makes it more difficult to flake and shape into tools than other stone, such as the Edwards cherts found abundantly in the Edwards Plateau to the south.

Trade or Travel?

Based on evidence at the Alibates locale and at sites further afield, prehistoric peoples throughout the millennia have used stone from the quarry to make tools and weapons. Late ice-age hunters apparently sought the material to tip the weapons used to kill now-extinct large game animals. Finely flaked and fluted Alibates flint projectile points were found at the Blackwater Draw site in eastern New Mexico. The scene of a mammoth kill, the site dates to 13,000 years ago at its earliest level.

Prehistoric hunters about a thousand years later left behind Alibates flint projectile points of a different style as well as a variety of other tools at the Plainview site in what is now Hale County, Texas.

There is more evidence to suggest that later visitors to the quarry mined the quarry stone more intensively than their forebears. They used Alibates flint to outfit all parts of their "toolkit" as well as to trade for other materials from other areas.

Ruins of Early Villages

Near the quarry site and along the Canadian River valley are ruins of complex slabhouses and small villages attributed to the later peoples who lived in the area from about A.D. 1150 to 1450 or later. Their culture, termed the Antelope Creek phase by archeologists, is believed to have developed from indigenous Plains Woodland groups who moved south into what is today the Texas-Oklahoma panhandle region. Some researchers believe the migrants were drawn by the water reserves of the Ogallala aquifer. The Antelope Creek folk built their homes and hamlets close to springs or near the river and were able to cultivate crops—beans, corn, and squash—on a small scale. Nonetheless, hunting and gathering remained an important part of their livelihood.

Various farming-related artifacts and other types of evidence speak to a transitional time in the area's cultural history when hunting and gathering peoples became more settled, planting small fields, making pottery, and trading within large networks. In exchange for Alibates chert and bison products, Antelope Creek people received painted pottery, shell and turquoise jewelry, pipes, and obsidian from groups in the southwest and to the north.

Archeologist Dr. Christopher Lintz has conducted an extensive study of the Antelope Creek culture, tracking changes over time in the size, architecture, interiors, and lay-out of Antelope Creek houses and hamlets. His studies—some based on WPA-era excavations of ruins at Alibates—reveal complex and interesting modifications within house interiors that would not be evident to visitors to the ruins today. These features clearly were designed to improve daily work and comfort as well as to stave off the vicissitudes of nature. In some houses, stone benches lining the walls were perhaps used for sleeping and work platforms; storage pits were filled with foodstuffs in advance of winter. Central hearths were used for cooking as well as to provide warmth, whereas entryways, or vestibules, were carefully designed to trap cold air. In some houses, recessed floor channels extend from the doorway through the center of the house, encompassing the central hearth, and ending in a raised platform perhaps designed as an altar. Lintz believes these channels were dug to contain debris from the work area activities and prevent it from spreading into the sleeping areas. In all, Lintz identified 11 different patterns of house types.

Today, these important village ruins and quarry sites are protected and preserved, thanks to the efforts and foresight of the Potter County Historical Survey Committee and concerned individuals. In the early 1960s, then-vice-chairman Harry Hertner mounted an extensive campaign to bring the site to the attention of Congress. With letters of support from noted archeologists across the country and with Sen. Ralph Yarborough and Rep. Walter Rogers carrying the legislation, the Alibates flint quarries were established as a national monument, the only such site in Texas. The Visitor Center for Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument is on Cas Johnson Road off of Highway 136 between Amarillo and Fritch, Texas. Arrangements for tours of the quarries Monday-Friday may be made by calling 806-857-3151. More information is available on the NPS website.


Unusual colors are a trademark of Alibates flint. Photo by Milton Bell.
Unusual colors are a trademark of Alibates flint. Photo by Milton Bell.

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Other stones have speckled concentrations of color creating mottled or parti-colored patterns. Photo by Milton Bell.
Other stones have speckled concentrations of color creating mottled or parti-colored patterns. Photo by Milton Bell.
A large mottled-red cutting blade (left) and dart point of white Alibates were among artifacts found at the Plainview site. Photo by Milton Bell.
A large mottled-red cutting blade (left) and dart point of white Alibates were among artifacts found at the Plainview site. Photo by Milton Bell.
Game might have been butchered and processed with large, beveled-edged knives, such as these of banded-white Alibates flint. Photo by Milton Bell.
Game might have been butchered and processed with large, beveled-edged knives such as these of banded-white Alibates flint. Photo by Milton Bell.
Hide-scraping and other tasks could have been accomplished with these small, steeply edged flake tools which some archeologists term "thumbnail scrapers." Photo by Milton Bell.
Hide-scraping and other tasks could have been accomplished with these small, steeply edged flake tools which some archeologists term "thumbnail scrapers." Photo by Milton Bell.
Unknown researcher poses in front of Ruin 55. Label reads: "Partly excavated pueblo ruin (digging by Studer, Mason, Moorehead, et al.) Photo by A.T. Jackson, 1935." Sign warns trespassers against disturbing investigations at site. TARL Archives
Floyd Studer poses in front of Alibates Ruin 28. The image label reads: "Partly excavated pueblo ruin (digging by Studer, Mason, Moorehead, et al.) Photo by A.T. Jackson, 1935." The sign on the far right warns trespassers against disturbing the site. Photo from TARL Archives.
Letter from Smithsonian archeologist Robert L. Stephenson, one of many pleading the case for national monument status for the Alibates Quarry.
Letter from Smithsonian archeologist Robert L. Stephenson, one of many pleading the case for national monument status for the Alibates Quarries.