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Granado Cave: Prehistoric Life and Death in the Rustler Hills

Collage of images relating to Granado Cave
photo of the Rustler Hills
View of the Rustler Hills across the Great Gypsum Plain.
photo of Granado Cave
The entrance to Granado Cave is a sinkhole or circular depression that opens near the top of a low hill. The sinkhole and the solution cavity that forms the cave proper are characteristic of a karst landscape. Shown at the rim of the cave opening is the author's daughter, Amy Hamilton.
photo of typical vegitation
Typical local vegetation includes yucca, creosote and cactus. The cave is located at the center of the picture on top of the low hill in the background horizon.
drawing of the sitemap of Granado Cave
A portion of the site map and profile of Granado Cave. Click to see the full image.
photo of middens
View of one of the site's three ring middens. A ring midden is a donut-shaped pile of burned (fire-cracked) rocks with a central depression. Ring middens represent plant-baking pits surrounded by discarded cooking rocks. It is hard to make out in this photo, but the depression is the bare area just to the left of the center of the picture. The ring of rocks is clearly visible in the lower right.
photo of a spring
A spring on Two Mill Draw forms a nice-looking pool of water. Unfortunately, the water is so heavily laden with minerals that it tastes foul and is considered undrinkable today. The prehistoric peoples of the Rustler Hills obviously learned to drink it, but it gave them diarrhea. They may have consumed a local plant known as Morman tea to help remedy the dietary problems caused by the water.
drawing of a burial
Plan drawing of one of the burials in Granado Cave, that of a 30+-year-old female suffering from periodontal disease and arthritis. Some of the materials found in the grave, such as fragments of basketry and matting, may have been brought in by a pack rat. (From Hamilton 2001, Fig. 38.)

In the rugged Rustler Hills of far west Texas, a small cave has provided poignant insights into prehistoric family life. For more than 1200 years, small groups of hunters and gatherers visited Granado Cave, some making a temporary, or seasonal, home there. They left behind a wealth of evidence about their day to day lives: fragments of meals, cooking "appliances," tools, mats and basketry. They also left haunting reminders of tragic events long ago—the deaths of loved ones.

Judging from the burials in the cave, children, in particular, were accorded special attention in death. They were carefully covered by, or placed within, ritually "killed" woven bags and baskets containing fascinating offerings—a special rattlesnake rattle, a set of deer-hoof "tinklers," even the skin of a large bird head (probably a goose).

For archeologists, Granado Cave provides a window into the past and small glimpses of innovative and caring peoples trying to make a living in this harsh desert area. The cave's protective shelter and the region's dry climate have preserved fragile artifacts and other remains of prehistoric life that would not have survived in most other areas of the state.

Setting

Granado Cave is in the northeastern part of the Trans-Pecos region in eastern Culbertson County, about halfway between El Paso and Midland, Texas. This region forms the northeastern corner of the vast Chihuahuan Desert, North America's largest desert. Vegetation in the area is extremely sparse, as less than 12 inches (30 centimeters) of rain falls in an average year.

The cave is located on the western edge of the Ruster Hills, a chain of low hills that runs north to south between the Guadalupe and Delaware Mountains to the west and the Pecos River to the east. Flanking the Rustler Hills on the west is the Great Gypsum Plain, a desolate stretch with little vegetation and almost no surface water. The only waterholes near the cave are along draws where rainwater occasionally and briefly drains and where a few springs can be found. Unfortunately, the heavily mineral-laden water is all but undrinkable. The prehistoric peoples who lived in the Rustler Hills obviously learned to drink the water and, judging from evidence in the cave, suffered the consequences—habitual diarrhea.

The Rustler Hills are the eroded remnants of a dolomite (magnesium-rich limestone) geological formation that overlies the thick layers of gypsum, anhydrite, and sulfur that form the Great Gypsum Plain. This pockmarked terrain is known as a karst region. Through the eons, rainwater percolated through cracks and fissures in the porous rock and mineral layers forming solution cavities ("caves") and sinkholes.

Site

The Granado Cave archeological site consists of the cave itself, the opening or entrance area, and a variety of cultural features that surround the entrance. The cave proper is a solution cavity that extends for over 200 feet (about 60 meters) beyond the cave opening. The entrance to Granado Cave is a sinkhole or circular depression that opens near the top of a hill.

Most of the sinkhole is filled with natural and human debris: a "talus" cone made up of the collapsed dolomite bedrock that formed the opening along with tons of fist-sized fire-cracked ("burned") dolomite rocks. The burned rocks are evidence of prehistoric cooking. Prehistoric cooks found that the sinkhole provided a convenient windbreak and partially sheltered place for baking plants such as agave lechugilla. To cook this semi-succulent desert plant, prehistoric peoples used layered arrangements of hot rocks and earth that archeologists call earth ovens.

Most of the interior of the cave is quite dark even on a bright, sunny day. Thus it is no surprise that the occupational debris is confined to what the archeologists called the anteroom, the area just within the opening where there is enough daylight to see what you are doing.

Outside the mouth of Granado Cave are a series of cultural features or activity areas used by the cave inhabitants. The most prominent outside features are three ring middens, donut-shaped baking pits ringed by mounded accumulations of burned rocks. Nearby are three bedrock mortars, small circular holes in the dolomite that were probably used for pulverizing seeds or other plant foods. Prehistoric toolmakers knapped stones into tools nearby, leaving behind a thin scatter of tool-making debris surrounding the entrance to the cave.

A total of ten prehistoric human burials were found in Granado Cave. These included at least five infants or children and five adults. Most of the graves included associated material probably representing offerings. Some of the skeletons show evidence of pathologies—bone damage caused by disease, accidents, or dietary stress. All of the burials except one were located fairly near the entrance of the cave. The other was placed in almost total darkness at the far eastern end of the cave,

Castile Culture

The native peoples who visited Granado Cave and other sites in the Rustler Hills can be called simply the Rustler Hills people or, more formally, the Castile culture (or phase). The relationship between the local inhabitants who lived here 450-1800 years ago and the Indian groups who lived in the region in early historic times (16th and 17th centuries) is not clear. The historically known groups include the Manso, Suma, and Jumano tribes. The Granado Cave research indicates that the original occupants of the Rustler Hills were a remnant group who may have spoken a language unrelated to the historically known groups. Researchers suspect that the Rustler Hills people were pushed into this harsh and uninviting environment by surrounding groups of people who were more numerous and lived in more favorable localities.

As a result of the work at Granado Cave, the Castile phase or culture has been defined to describe a hunting and gathering culture, with distinctive artifacts and lifeways, that occupied the Great Gypsum Plain and Rustler Hills from at least A.D. 200 to about A.D. 1450. Their economy was based on a narrow range of plant foods, including grasses, lechugilla, sotol, mesquite, and various cacti. Rabbits, rodents, and small reptiles were a regular part of the diet. Deer and antelope were hunted, but these larger and more desirable prey animals were rarely available.

Artifacts distinctive to this culture include the Rustler Hills Kiâhâ, a type of carrying basket, and the Rustler Hills Twined Grass Bag, made of large coils of retted grass. Also present are distinctive parching baskets and twilled sotol leaf mats. Fishtail sandals made of narrow-leaf yucca appear to have been worn primarily by children. These appear to be the only type of sandals found in this culture phase. Both cotton cordage and woven cotton were used by the Castile culture. The presence of Southwestern pottery at the cave speaks to trade contacts with people to the north and northwest.

photo of the entrance to Granado Cave
The entrance to Granado Cave.

Click images to enlarge  

photo of the entrance of the cave
Looking out of the cave from the anteroom.
map of Culbertson County
Map of Culbertson County and vicinity showing the Rustler Hills, the Great Gypsum Plain, and other landscape features in the area. The red X marks the location of Granado Cave, also known as site 41CU8. The approximate locations of several other archeological sites in the Rustler Hills are also shown. (Adapted from Hamilton 2001, Figure 2.1.)
photo of Granado Cave locaiton
View across the top of the hill within which Granado Cave is located. The rock formation visible in the foreground is dolomite or magnesium limestone.
photo of bedrock mortars
Three bedrock mortars found outside Granado Cave were used by the inhabitants to prepare food.
photo of water source
Granado Cave's nearest water source is Two Mill Draw, almost two miles (3 kilometers) north of the site.
photo of large carrying basket
A large carrying basket found ceremonially "killed" over Burial 1.
photo of yucca sandals
Bottom and top surfaces of two Yucca elata sandals worn by a child.