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What is the Austin Phase (and the Late Prehistoric)?

Artist's depiction of an early hunter using weaponry introduced during the Austin phase in central Texas-the bow and arrow. Painting by Charles Shaw.
Artist's depiction of an early hunter using weaponry introduced during the Austin phase in central Texas—the bow and arrow. Painting by Charles Shaw.

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Archaic dart points from the Graham-Applegate site. Photo by Milton Bell.
Archaic dart points from the Graham-Applegate site. Photo by Milton Bell.
Scallorn arrow points from the Graham-Applegate site. Photo by Milton Bell.
Scallorn arrow points from the Graham-Applegate site. Photo by Milton Bell.

What happened to the Austin phase people is unknown.

Around A.D. 700, the aboriginal hunters of central Texas began using the bow and arrow and eventually discarded the older atlatl and dart that had been in use for thousands of years. The arrival of this new weapon technology is signaled in the archeological record by the appearance of small, thin, stone points that tipped arrows, in contrast to the larger, heavier ones used on darts or spears. Arrow points mark the end of the Archaic era and the beginning of what most archeologists call the Late Prehistoric period.

Early archeologists were aware of the late appearance of the bow and arrow in Texas (and the rest of North America), but it was not until excavations in Texas rockshelters between the mid-1950s through the early 1960s, that two distinct bow-and-arrow-using culture groups were identified.

The earlier of the two cultures is called the Austin phase. The earliest arrow points had notches flaked into the corners of the bases to facilitate hafting to the arrow shaft. Archeologists have identified several different styles of corner-notched arrow points in central Texas but the most common and widespread are the Scallorn type, the same type used at the Graham-Applegate rancheria. Scallorn points are found over wide areas of Texas and adjacent states. For this reason, some archeologists speak of an Austin horizon, meaning a set of cultural traits, principally the Scallorn point style, that extends over very large regions. This style of arrow point was used by the agricultural Woodland cultures of the midwest and early Pueblo cultures of the Southwest, as well as hunter-gatherers of south and coastal Texas. But in central Texas, the people who used Scallorn points had a different culture that grew out of a long and successful tradition of hunting and gathering among the hills and villages of central Texas. The Austin peoples reoccupied campsites of Late Archaic folk, built nearly identical house forms, and, in some cases, re-used Archaic-period earth ovens.

There were differences from the Archaic, however, besides just the use of the bow and arrow. Formal cemeteries came into use for the first time in central Texas during this late period (although earlier Archaic-period cemeteries have been documented in sites south and east of the site). What is most unusual about the Austin phase cemeteries is the finding of Scallorn arrow points embedded in some of the skeletal remains. This suggests that warfare—perhaps borne of territorial disputes or population pressures—may have may have been a concern for the peoples of this time period.

Based on what was found at sites such as Loeve-Fox in Williamson County and Pat Parker in Travis County, burial grounds were unusually compact, occupying an area of around 100 square feet. The bodies are invariably in a flexed position, with the heads often oriented towards the north. Isolated burials are also known, such as that found in the late 1930s in San Saba County near the Colorado River and a later discovery at Cottonwood Terrace, also near the Colorado River in Burnet County. Both these burials were covered by large rocks, either as grave markers or to protect the bodies from scavenging animals. Although the sample is very small, it is interesting that the known cemeteries occur on the prairies east of the escarpment, while only isolated burials are known to the west on the Edwards Plateau (including the Llano Uplift). It is likely that Austin folk living on the Plateau continued a long tradition of using natural sinkholes as burial places, a practice that often leaves little or no permanent trace.

All the burials discussed above have been assigned to the Austin Phase because they contain Scallorn arrow points in or near the skeletons. One could make the argument that some of the points were included in the burials as grave goods, but in many cases, such as with some of the burials at Loeve-Fox, the position of the points suggests that they were embedded in the people buried there. Scallorn points were also apparently what killed the individuals from the two isolated burials mentioned above. The San Saba individual had two points in the chest cavity, while the Cottonwood Terrace skeleton had a point embedded in the neck area. It should also be pointed out that there are Austin phase burials, such as the two from Kyle Rockshelter in Hill County that do not contain arrow points.

Much of what is known about Austin phase culture comes from excavations of burial sites and rockshelters. Comparatively few are open campsites, especially ones with only (or even mostly) Austin phase occupation. The Graham-Applegate site is helping to provide a more-complete account of human life in central Texas in the last centuries of prehistory. For example, it is now known that Austin phase people used earth ovens that resulted in the formation of large burned rock piles (or middens), a cooking technique that archeologists once thought belonged exclusively to the earlier Archaic period. It appears that the Austin phase came to an end sometime in the fourteenth century, or at least the evidence of their culture diminishes or changes.

Long after the Graham-Applegate rancheria was abandoned, a late Austin phase group, perhaps a hunting party, returned to the site and cooked a meal on a stone hearth. They repaired their arrows and tossed away broken Scallorn points. A radiocarbon date from the wood they burned fell to between A.D. 1285 and 1405, a very late time for these people. What finally happened to the Austin phase people is unknown. While it is possible they were wiped out by warfare, more likely they simply adopted the trappings of the succeeding Toyah phase folk and no longer made tools that we can identify with the Austin phase.


 

Warfare, perhaps borne of territorial disputes, may have been a concern for peoples of this time period.

Remains of a cooking hearth used by late Austin phase peoples sometime between A.D. 1285 and 1405.
Remains of a cooking hearth used by late Austin phase peoples sometime between A.D. 1285 and 1405.