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Photo of view across shallow bay ringed by low vegetation
The Rio Grande Delta has many wide, shallow waterways ringed by extensive tidal zones. Most of the archeological sites are found on stabilized dunes and levees overlooking the marshes, bays, and river channels.

 

The peoples of the Rio Grande Delta were hunters, fishers, shellfish collectors, and plant gatherers who moved frequently as the seasons, tides, and food supplies dictated.

Conch shell gorget with notched edges and a cross pattern formed by half-drilled holes. Similar artifacts occur in Archaic burial contexts at inland sites.
Conch shell gorget with notched edges and a cross pattern formed by half-drilled holes. Similar artifacts occur in Archaic burial contexts at inland sites.
Shell-bead Making: The manufacture of round shell beads starts with "blanks," pieces of shell that have been broken or slightly rounded, such as the objects on the top row. On the middle row are roughed-out shell beads with drilled holes for suspension onto a necklace strand. Once the drilled beads were ground flat, they were tightly strung and the edges were ground and smoothed, strand-by-strand, creating uniform beads.
Shell-bead Making: The manufacture of round shell beads starts with "blanks," pieces of shell that have been broken or slightly rounded, such as the objects on the top row. On the middle row are roughed-out shell beads with drilled holes for suspension onto a necklace strand. Once the drilled beads were ground flat, they were tightly strung and the edges were ground and smoothed, strand-by-strand, creating uniform beads.
These shell projectile tips were fashioned out of the columella, or central column, of the conch shell. In the Rio Grande Delta, shell was used to make many tools that were ordinarily made of stone in inland areas of Texas.
These shell projectile tips were fashioned out of the columella, or central column, of the conch shell. In the Rio Grande Delta, shell was used to make many tools that were ordinarily made of stone in inland areas of Texas.
Olive shells were also used for bead-making. The spire and lower part of the shell were cut off and ground down to create a suspension hole through the central whorl.
Olive shells were also used for bead-making. The spire and lower part of the shell were cut off and ground down to create a suspension hole through the central whorl.
This is a photograph of a water jar traded into the Rio Grande Delta area from the region of Tampico, Mexico. Note the offset looped handles to aid in strapping the vessel to one's back with rope or cordage. The jar was found in pieces and has been glued back together. Much of the painted design has faded due to exposure to the winds and sand before the vessel pieces were discovered.
This is a photograph of a water jar traded into the Rio Grande Delta area from the region of Tampico, Mexico. Note the offset looped handles to aid in strapping the vessel to one's back with rope or cordage. The jar was found in pieces and has been glued back together. Much of the painted design has faded due to exposure to the winds and sand before the vessel pieces were discovered.

The Brownsville-Barril complex or culture is the name that archeologists have given to the remains left by the little-known Indian groups who occupied the Rio Grande Delta at the extreme southern tip of Texas during the time period of A.D. 1100-1700. The low-lying tropical delta area was one of the last parts of northeastern Mexico to be explored and settled by the Spanish. They did not turn their attention to the Rio Grande Delta until 1747, about 150 years after they first established towns in Nuevo Leon and Coahuila. The mid-eighteenth century accounts suggest that as many as 50 named Indian groups lived in the Rio Grande Delta. Based on the archeological record of the preceding centuries, the basic lifeway seen by the Spanish when they entered the region was little different from that of the later prehistoric peoples. There is little evidence of Archaic and earlier occupations in the Rio Grande Delta probably because earlier evidence has been buried by flood deposits or destroyed by hurricanes.

The peoples of the Rio Grande Delta were hunters, fishers, shellfish collectors, and plant gatherers who moved frequently as the seasons, tides, and food supplies dictated. They lived in a semi-arid, semi-tropical environment and camped on small rises along the many bays, lagoons, oxbow lakes, and estuaries. From these waterways they harvested shellfish and fish for food and seashells as raw material. The Rio Grande Delta is almost devoid of natural stone—instead it is built of mud carried down the river by floods and sand pushed up from the Gulf of Mexico by hurricanes and strong currents. Having no flint or other stone, the Brownsville-Barril people used seashells to fashion an amazing variety of shell tools and ornaments including projectile points shaped from conch shell, carved conch shell pendants, olive shell tinklers/bells, freshwater and marine shell beads, and many other tool forms.

These shell artifacts were traded to more settled peoples further to the south in northeastern Mexico along the periphery of Mesoamerica, the great heartland of civilization that stretched from northern Mexico to Costa Rica. In exchange, the Brownsville-Barril peoples received exotic items including pottery, jade, and obsidian that are rarely found in Texas beyond the Rio Grand Delta. In fact this is one of the most interesting archeological questions about the area: What was the nature of trade and contact between these nomadic delta peoples and the much more sophisticated cultures to the south?

The people of the Rio Grande Delta were also distinctive in the manner in which they buried their dead. Individuals were buried in tightly flexed positions, and graves were located away from living areas. The deceased was accompanied by offerings such as shell beads and pendants, animal and human bone awls, and bone beads or tubes used as jewelry. With some burials, red pigment powder was strewn over the burial. Others included Mesoamerican goods such as prehistoric pottery vessels from the Tampico, Mexico region, obsidian (volcanic glass) arrow points from sources in central Mexico, and greenstone (jadeite) jewelry, also from Mexico.

Much of what is known about the Brownsville-Barril complex is due to the efforts of a civil engineer and draftsman from Brownsville, Texas. From 1917 to 1941, Andrew Eliot Anderson, took extensive notes, drafted maps, and collected distinctive artifacts from archeological sites of the Rio Grande Delta and Laguna Madre of coastal south Texas and northeastern Mexico. After World War II, the area was drastically transformed by land clearing, agricultural modification, and urban development. Today most of the sites that Anderson visited have been destroyed. The A. E. Anderson collection, now housed at the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory, is a crucial research resource.

The Rio Grande Delta of today bears scarce resemblance to its appearance prior to the twentieth century. The great river has been reduced to a trickle by upstream dams and heavy agricultural demand. The fertile soils and mix of marsh, waterways, and raised areas have been homogenized—the smaller waterways filled in, the clay dunes flattened, and the area covered by expanses of agricultural fields, orchards, and urban areas. The majority of the archeological record has been destroyed, particularly the most fragile and most visible materials that were once common on and near the surface. The best potential for learning more about the Brownsville-Barril complex is a combination of renewed ethnohistoric research—combing the Spanish archives for eyewitness accounts of the native peoples of the Rio Grande delta—and analyses of the existing collections and notes.

Links

http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/
articles/view/AA/bba11.html

Article on the Ayala site in The Handbook of Texas Online

http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/texaswater/txgems
/laguatas/laguatas.htm

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge website

Credits

Today the Anderson Collection is being studied anew by UT-Austin graduate student William J. Wagner, III, who prepared this exhibit. Wagner is looking at the shell technology and how the tool and ornament-making industry was connected to the lives of those who lived in the Rio Grande Delta as well as the distant connections to the Huastec and other Mesoamerican peoples.

References

Anderson, Andrew E.
1932 Artifacts of the Rio Grande Delta Region. Bulletin of the Texas Archeological and Paleontological Society 4:29-31.

Hester, Thomas R.
1994 The Contexts of Trade Between the Brownsville Complex and Mesoamerican Cultures: A Preliminary Study. La Tierra 17(3):1-5.

Hester, Thomas R., and F. J. Rueckling
1969 The Floyd Morris and Ayala Sites: A Discussion of Burial Practices in the Rio Grande Valley and the Lower Texas Coast. Bulletin of the Texas Archeological Society 40:157-166.

MacNeish, Richard S.
1947 A Preliminary Report on Coastal Tamaulipas. American Antiquity 13(1):1-15.

1958 Preliminary Archeological Investigations in the Sierra de Tamaulipas, Mexico. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 48(6).

Prewitt, Elton R.
1974 Preliminary Archeological Investigations in the Rio Grande Delta Area of Texas. Bulletin of the Texas Archeological Society 45:55-65.

Salinas, Martin
1990 Indians of the Rio Grande Delta: Their Role in the History of Southern Texas and Northeastern Mexico. University of Texas Press, Austin.
[Out of print, but best source on ethnohistory of region.]

Wagner, William J., III
2000 A Preliminary Analysis of Huastec Ceramics Found in Brownsville-Barril Complex Sites. Unpublished Master's Report. Department of Anthropology, The University of Texas at Austin.


Prior to the mid-twentieth century, the Rio Grande Delta's extensive tidal zones, marshes, and periodic influxes of fresh water, created very productive estuaries.
Prior to the mid-twentieth century, the Rio Grande Delta's extensive tidal zones, marshes, and periodic influxes of fresh water, created very productive estuaries.

Click images to enlarge

Everyday tools, such as these beveled scrapers, were also fashioned out of conch shell.
Everyday tools, such as these beveled scrapers, were also fashioned out of conch shell.
The larger of these square beads may have been worn as gorgets suspended on a cord over the chest or neck. These are made of conch and clam shell.
The larger of these square beads may have been worn as gorgets suspended on a cord over the chest or neck. These are made of conch and clam shell.
Stone pipes such as this specimen are rare finds in the Rio Grande Delta. Similar artifacts are widely distributed in Texas, although never common.
Stone pipes such as this specimen are rare finds in the Rio Grande Delta. Similar artifacts are widely distributed in Texas, although never common.
These small triangular arrow points made out of chert are known as Cameron points. Chert was not available in the Rio Grande Delta and had to be brought or traded in.
These small triangular arrow points made out of chert are known as Cameron points. Chert was not available in the Rio Grande Delta and had to be brought or traded in.
These pendants were also made of conch shell columellas.
These pendants were also made of conch shell columellas.
A copy of the water jar, with a reconstruction of the painted black design.
A copy of the water jar, with a reconstruction of the painted black design.