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South Texas Plains Main
Prehistoric Texas Main

Natural Setting

The Richard Beene site is located adjacent to the Medina River along the northern edge of the South Texas Plains, about 12 miles above the confluence of the Medina and San Antonio Rivers. The native groups who camped along these riverbanks situated themselves in an ideal location near fresh water and aquatic resources such as fish and mussels, yet close enough to upland areas where they could hunt game and gather wild root foods. The site's location in an ecotone, a transitional zone between different plant communities, is key to understanding why native peoples repeatedly returned to the site for more than 10,000 years.

Resource Areas

Native peoples camping at the Richard Beene site positioned themselves near three resource areas, each of which supplied resources that were commonly exploited by the site's occupants; the uplands, the terrace, and the floodplain.

The upland areas of the Blackland Prairie and Post Oak Savannah lie just over a mile north and south of the site, respectively. Both of these ecological regions stretch from just south of the San Antonio River to the Red River in far north Texas. In prehistoric times the tall grasses of these upland areas were home to small animals such as rabbits as well as larger animals like deer, antelope, and occasionally bison. Though bone preservation at the Beene site was poor, there is ample evidence for the hunting of deer and small game. There are hints of antelope hunting, but nothing to indicate that bison were regularly taken by native peoples here.

map of texas' ecological zones
The Richard Beene site in relation to Texas' ecological zones (modified from Gould et al. 1960).
aerial photo of the richard beene site
Aerial photograph (1985) showing the location of the Richard Beene site in relation to source areas for the subsistence-related archeological remains recovered from each.
photo of the medina river floodpain
The Medina River floodplain as it looks today and likely looked throughout most of the site's occupational period.
photo of the medina river
View of the Medina River as it flows near the Richard Beene site.
photo of sandstone outcrop
Outcrops of sandstone on the floodplain and terrace similar to this likely served as a source of material for hot-rock earth ovens throughout the occupational history of the Richard Beene site.

Like the uplands, the terrace was home to a variety of large and small animals hunted by the occupants of the site. The wide terrace, however, played a far more important role as the source of a variety of root foods used extensively by the native groups at the site. The roots or bulbs of plants such as onions, lilies, and false-garlic would have been baked in earth ovens before being eaten. The tuna, or fruit, of prickly-pear cactus still found near the site today also would have been a sought-after food source. The earliest Europeans to visit the area near the site documented native groups harvesting prickly-pear tuna, and there is abundant evidence for the kinds of ovens used for baking root foods at Beene.

The site is located within the ancient floodplain of the Medina River. This resource area, which includes the river itself, was heavily utilized by the native peoples who camped nearby. Gravel bars in the river provided a source of stone for tool-making, and sandstone outcrops lining the floodplain provided cook-stone for use in baking plant foods gathered on the terrace. The Medina River not only provided water for the site's occupants, but also for trees such as pecan and hickory, which would have been a source of food and fuel. Remains of river mussels, turtles, and fish at the site attest to the importance of these resources in the prehistoric human diet. The propensity for large-scale overbank flooding was also important in that fine-grained flood sediments were routinely buried and thereby preserved the site's cultural materials for future generations.

Paleoclimate

Environmental conditions in the upland areas near the Richard Beene site changed throughout the last 18,500 years. Temperature, precipitation, and the relative proportions of grassland and woodland fluctuated considerably through time. Beginning about 15,000 radiocarbon years ago (16,500 B.C.) a relatively moist climate dominated the area. A shift to a relatively drier climate with periodic flooding occurred about 12,500 radiocarbon years ago (12,750 B.C.), lasting to about 7000 B.C. Conditions became much warmer with low moisture at this time, remaining this way until about 3000 B.C. when a moister climate similar to the modern one began to dominate.

In contrast to these changes on the uplands, the Medina River bottomland seems to have been relatively stable over the same period of time. Paleoclimatic data obtained from snail shells indicates that savannah vegetation occurred on the terrace, dominated by grasses, with only moderate occurrences of trees such as oak, pecan, hickory, and mesquite. Some of the same species of river mussels were exploited by prehistoric peoples throughout the occupation history of the site, indicating no major changes in the riverine environment. Analysis of 3000 year old pollen preserved at the site confirms this environmental stability, indicating that the same tree species found near the site today were present at that time. The relative environmental stability of the floodplain area may have been one of the main reasons that native peoples returned to the site over and over again throughout the last 10,000 years.

photo of common plant foods
Common plant foods available in the site area would have included many different species, including many geophytes (roots, tubers, and bulbs). From top to bottom, wine cup tap roots, prickly pear tunas, false garlic bulbs (left), and wild onion bulbs. Photos by Alston Thoms. "Enlarge" to read compiled list of likely plant foods.
chart of soil chemistry
Paleoclimatic reconstruction based on several lines of evidence from the Richard Beene site.