University of Texas at Austin wordmarkCollege of Liberal Arts wordmark
Texas Beyond History
TBH Home
Trans Pecos Main
Prehistoric Texas Main

Organic Remains

This now familiar scene shows a variety of the food remains documented at Firecracker Pueblo. The man carries a large basket of corn on a tumpline. The women to the right are grinding seed and winnowing them. Against the building are two cultivated gourds used to hold water. Courtesy artist George Nelson and the Institute of Texan Cultures.
This now familiar scene shows a variety of the food remains documented at Firecracker Pueblo. The man carries a large basket of corn on a tumpline. The women to the right are grinding seeds and winnowing them. Against the building are two cultivated gourds used to hold water. Courtesy artist George Nelson and the Institute of Texan Cultures.
Coiled basketry impressions in baked clay.
Coiled basketry impressions in baked clay.
Chart showing the radiocarbon assays from Firecracker. For each assay, the black bars show the 95% probability age ranges while the open rectangles show the full probability range.
Chart showing the radiocarbon assays from Firecracker. For each assay, the black bars show the 67% probability age ranges while the open rectangles show the full probability range.
Egg shells and animal bone from fill of Room 25, a pithouse beneath the pueblo room block which was partially filled with trash by the pueblo occupants.
Egg shells and animal bone from fill of Room 25, a pithouse beneath the pueblo room block which was partially filled with trash by the pueblo occupants.

Firecracker Pueblo's setting in the northern Chihuahuan Desert and its relatively recent date—less than 600 years old—allowed the survival of many organic remains: burned and unburned wood, grass, stalks, wild and cultivated seeds, animal bones, and various other items. These organic remains have provided important information on the diet and lifestyle, construction methods, and the age of the site. The construction techniques are discussed in the Pueblo and Pithouses sections. Here we concentrate on the age of the site and its economy.

The Age of the Site

From the pottery types present at the site and other characteristics, we knew that Firecracker Pueblo was a fairly late site. The generally accepted age of the El Paso phase was A.D. 1200-1400 and it was expected that radiocarbon assays would place the site near the end of that period. Instead, most of the dates fell within the fifteenth century.

In the Southwest, wood is not the preferred material for radiocarbon dating because of the "old wood" problem. Simply stated, the dry conditions mean that wood can last several hundred years or more in some circumstances, particularly at residential sites where building materials are often reused. Thus, dating old wood provides an estimate of when the tree was felled, not when the wood was last used. To avoid this problem, only seasonally produced materials were dated—short-lived plants and plant parts—including corn, beans, grass, and agave stalks.

Eight radiocarbon assays were obtained as shown in the chart. As is often the case when there are multiple radiocarbon dates, some are in agreement with one another and other dating methods and some are not. In this instance there are two dates from Room 20 which are significantly different from one another and from the other dates. The older of these two dates would suggest occupation between the eighth and tenth centuries and is much too early as it falls long before the generally accepted beginning of the El Paso phase at about A.D. 1200. The second date for this room spans the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, is within the generally accepted date of the El Paso phase, but is still significantly younger than the other radiocarbon dates. This structure is one of the pithouses in the larger group of east-west oriented pithouses. The reason the dates from this structure fall considerably younger than the other radiocarbon dates is uncertain, but may well be because of contamination. This is the only structure on which recent trash had been deposited and mixed with the room fill. Among the debris were the remains of a calf, fireworks debris, and oil deposits.

There are two radiocarbon dates from Room 13, a pithouse in the group of four pithouses in the southern part of the site. The 95% probability range on the average of these two dates is A.D. 1401-1450, suggesting that the pithouse occupation occurred during the first half of the fifteenth century.

Turning to the pueblo, there are four radiocarbon assays. Rooms 2 and 4 are part of the initial or core group of four rooms of the pueblo. Feature 140 is a pit cut into the pithouse (Room 25) that is beneath rooms of the western part of the pueblo, and Feature 55 is a pit associated with the pueblo occupation and beneath the last rooms at the west end of the pueblo. The radiocarbon dates from these rooms and features are not significantly different from one another and have a 95% probability range of A.D. 1429-1491, perhaps suggesting a slightly later occupation than that of the pithouses.

Except for the dates from Room 20, radiocarbon dates from Firecracker Pueblo are not, in statistical terms, significantly different from one another. The six remaining dates have a combined 95% probability range of A.D. 1423-1473.

The radiocarbon dates from Firecracker are important because they provide the first hard evidence that the El Paso phase flourished in the fifteenth century. In fact, these dates narrow the gap between the collapse of the pueblo system in the Jornada region and the first Spanish entrada in the late sixteenth century. When the Spanish entered the El Paso area, they found hunters and gatherers who apparently did not make pottery and grow corn. These Manso Indians may or may not be related to the earlier peoples in the area.

Food Remains

The food remains found at the site are informative for several reasons. First they show that the inhabitants of Firecracker were ranging rather widely and making use of many plants and a fair number of animals. The bones from the site are mostly those of rabbits, jackrabbit and cottontail, with a few small birds, rodents, snakes, and lizards. In addition to local small game, an occasional deer or antelope was killed elsewhere, field dressed and butchered—only meat bones and a few bones useful for tools were brought back to the site. Animal bones were much less common than plant remains.

Among the identified plant remains that are probably food items or residue are corn cobs and kernels, common and tepary beans, the rinds of cucurbits (squash) and gourds, amaranth seeds, purslane seeds, mesquite seeds and pods, tornillo pods, yucca leaves, agave leaves, sotol leaves, datil seeds, prickly pear seeds, and pinyon nuts. A large number of flotation samples was analyzed from floors, hearths, room fill. Samples of the fill from many of outside features were analyzed. This study is the only analysis of this sort for a pueblo site and the largest and best-defined analysis for any El Paso phase site. The native plant species identified at Firecracker parallel wild food species reported for the Mescalero Apache of this region.

This chart shows the relative frequency of different kinds of plants in the 128 flotation samples that were analyzed from Firecracker.

One of the most significant findings is the widespread occurrence of both corn cobs and corn kernels in samples from many pueblo and pithouse contexts. This shows a heavy reliance upon corn and probably other cultigens. Sites from earlier periods in the region have yielded negligible amounts of corn and very low percentages of flotation samples with corn. Some have suggested that the reliance of El Paso phase peoples on corn may have contributed to the demise of their culture.


Students collecting flotation samples from the fill of one of the pithouses. The analysis of many such samples from Firecracker Pueblo provided a great deal of very useful information about what people were eating and how they used the landscape.
Students collecting flotation samples from the fill of one of the pithouses. The analysis of many such samples from Firecracker Pueblo provided a great deal of very useful information about what people were eating and how they used the landscape.

Click images to enlarge  

Charred corn kernels and beans in fill of Room 13, the southernmost pithouse at Firecracker. Most of the abandoned pithouses (or the depressions they left) were filled with refuse during the pueblo occupation.
Charred corn kernels and beans in fill of Room 13, the southernmost pithouse at Firecracker. Most of the abandoned pithouses (or the depressions they left) were filled with refuse during the pueblo occupation.
Exposing a burned corn cob on the floor of Room 20, one of the pithouses due west from the Firecracker pueblo.
Exposing a burned corn cob on the floor of Room 20, one of the pithouses due west from the Firecracker pueblo.
This chart shows the relative frequency of different kinds of plants in the 128 flotation samples that were analyzed from Firecracker.
This chart shows the relative frequency of different kinds of plants in the 128 flotation samples that were analyzed from Firecracker.