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On the Toyah Horizon in Deep South Texas

Photo of hearth and mussel shell

About 650 years ago, native peoples established a camp deep in the South Texas Plains overlooking a small, slowly flowing stream. First and foremost, the archeological evidence shows they were a hunting people who ranged out from the camp in search of preferred prey, hoofed animals: deer, antelope, and buffalo. But hunting big game animals was not what brought in most of the food—they also gathered, picked, dug up, snared, hunted, and grabbed all manner of smaller creatures, plant foods, and other natural resources.

That the Hinojosa site represents a substantial and repeated encampment of women, children, and men, is shown by the diverse range of tools, ornaments, cooking features, and animal bones they left behind. Many of their artifacts are characteristic of the Toyah culture, which spread across the Edwards Plateau of central Texas and deep into the South Texas Plains in the 14th century. Yet they were not immigrants who brought new ideas and things from afar; they were peoples who followed centuries-old ways of life in the South Texas Plains.

Here the story of the Hinjosa site is told in both broad stroke and gritty detail, arranged so you can learn as much or as little as you choose. The exhibit tells the story, but the supporting archeological evidence and particulars can be studied by reading sections of the technical site report (follow the icons), and by looking at the enlarged images (follow the icons). The details conveyed by the descriptions, numbers, special studies, and interpretations presented in the published archeological site report will be of interest mainly to serious students of archeology. Dig as deep as you like.

Toyah Cultural Horizon

We don't know what the people who camped at the Hinojosa site called themselves or in what tongue they spoke. Their descendants would have been among the many linguistically diverse native groups that came to be lumped together as Coahuiltecans, a somewhat troublesome word. Properly it is a geographical term, rather than an ethnic classification or tribal name. (See Who Were the "Coahuiltecans"?)

Although their ancestry was likely local, the Indians who camped along the creek had adopted key elements of Toyah culture, a phenomenon that spread across the cultural horizon of central and southern Texas during the latter part of the Late Prehistoric period, about 600-700 years ago during the 14th century (A.D. 1300-1400). Archeologists have also referred to the Toyah "culture" as a phase, interval, or horizon.

Archeologists have long thought that Toyah culture represents a rapid and widespread adaptive shift from a broadly based hunting and gathering economy to one based mainly on bison (buffalo) hunting. The impetus for this shift was said to have been triggered by the return of herds to the region around A.D. 1300, after hundreds of years of virtual absence. Some have suggested that Toyah culture was introduced and perhaps spread by immigrant peoples who followed the bison herds into the region from the Southern Great Plains far to the northwest. The Hinojosa site tells quite a different story.

The evidence reveals a campsite frequented by local peoples who hunted deer and antelope much more often than bison. These big game animals were supplemented by many smaller critters and an archeologically invisible wealth of plant foods. It does not look at all like they were newcomers to the region or visiting hunters following bison herds. All of their surviving artifacts were made from materials that came from the local area, no more than 50 miles away. They followed essentially the same way of life that generations upon generations of peoples had in the South Texas Plains. Yet, they had indeed adopted the trappings shared by dozens and perhaps hundreds of small societies over roughly 25% of the total area of Texas (67,180 square miles or 174,000 square kilometers).

In the concluding section—Hinojosa Revisited—the Toyah culture idea is reassessed based on what was learned from the site. But here is the bottom line: Toyah culture is a shared set of characteristic artifacts and technologies perhaps better thought of as a "cultural horizon." It is obvious that this pattern was shared by diverse groups with different names, histories, languages, and much more. Explaining the rapid and widespread spread of the Toyah cultural horizon is an ongoing research challenge. The earlier simplistic idea that Toyah culture reflects a broad adaptive shift to and emphasis on bison hunting is just that: overly simplistic. Most groups seem to have continued to follow traditional patterns of hunting, gathering, and consuming a broad range of plants and animals, adding bison whenever they could, but that probably wasn’t very often for most. The complex interactions among the many groups that were part of the Toyah phenomenon is the worthy subject of continued research. Now back to the campsite in deep South Texas.

Environmental Setting

The Hinojosa site overlooks Chiltipin Creek, a tributary of San Fernando Creek which empties into Baffin Bay within the famed King Ranch. In the broader perspective, the site lies near the southern tip of the Great Plains, that vast stretch of prairie grasslands that stretch for 1500 miles north to south through the central part of North America. This part of the South Texas Plains, however, is a savanna with grassy areas mixed with mesquite and scrubby thorny brush. The grassy prairies of the flat Gulf Coastal Plain lie less than 15 miles east of the Hinojosa site.

Today the site is surrounded by cultivated agricultural fields, remnant strips of narrow wooded bottomland, and brush-covered pasture. The historic impacts of livestock grazing, farming, irrigation, fencing, paving, housing, and many other modern developments have transformed the area so much that it wouldn’t be recognizable to the native peoples who once lived here. Reconstructing the ancient setting of an archeological site is an integral part of modern archeological research. Scientists with specialties in animal bones (zooarcheology) and paleobotany were among those who helped analyze and interpret the evidence from the Hinojosa site.

When the Hinojosa site was an active campsite some 650 years ago, the climate was somewhat more favorable (wetter), the vegetation more varied with more grass and less brush and trees, and there were more wild animals including some which are no longer native to the region (such as antelope, bison, and certain small mammals that are today present only in the wetter Eastern Woodlands). The site was occupied near the onset of the Little Ice Age, a worldwide climatic shift to cooler and wetter conditions. Although the impact of changes in global climatic patterns is never uniform, most of the region probably did experience wetter than average conditions for several centuries.

Chiltipin Creek was a small, shallow, spring-fed, mud-bottomed stream that flowed constantly. This reconstruction is based on solid evidence including the presence of several species of freshwater clams (mussels) and numerous aquatic animals including water snakes, turtles, fish, and muskrat. Today the creek flows only during floods and extended rainy periods. The Amargosa Springs upstream from the site ceased to reliably flow in the early 20th century as a result of overgrazing, vegetation transformation (less grass, more brush and trees), and ever growing demands on water resources.

The drawing on the right shows the inferred environmental setting of the Hinojosa site, about 1350 A.D. Three major habitats surrounded the site: (1) a tall grass savanna on the deeper soils within the stream valley (today’s prime agricultural land); (2) a narrow band of riparian (streamside) woodland along the creek; and (3) an upland area dominated by short grass and thorn brush on relatively thin soils. The local topographic relief is quite subtle and varies no more than about 60 feet within a half-mile radius of the site. Even so, the distinct habitats supported different mixes of animals and plants, variation that can be clearly seen in the animal bones.

To learn more about the site setting, study the accompanying photographs and drawings and read Chapter 4 of the site report, Environmental SettingEnvironmental Setting.

photo of the site area
View of the site area looking west during the 1981 excavations.. The white vehicle and equipment trailer are parked near the north limit of the site; low back dirt piles flanking the main excavation area can be seen to the right of the vehicle. The line of larger trees marks Chiltipin Creek. Across the creek the upland terrain has relatively thin soils and is covered by thorny brush. The agricultural field in the foreground occupies the relatively deep soils across the broad flat floodplain (terrace). The muddy patch and darker linear pattern in the foreground marks an old abandoned creek
channel. Enlarge
= image can be enlarged.
the table of contents
Dig through the report by opening the
Table of Contents.

map of the site
Hinojosa site (41JW8) map showing the site limits and the excavation areas. Black 1986: Figure 1. See full map.
photo of Chiltipin Creek
Chiltipin Creek looking upstream. The archeological site is on higher terrain to the left. Today the creek flows only during floods and extended rainy periods. When the Hinojosa site was an active campsite some 650 years ago, the creek was a small, shallow, spring-fed stream that flowed constantly. This reconstruction is based on solid archeological evidence including the presence of several species of freshwater clams (mussels) and aquatic animals including water snakes, turtles, fish, and muskrat.

The nearby Amargosa Springs are known to have flowed as recently as a century ago. The water quality may not have been so great—Amargosa is the Spanish word for “bitter”—but bitter water is far better than none at all.
illustration of the reconstructed environmental setting
Reconstructed environmental setting of the Hinojosa site, ca. 1350 A.D. This reconstruction or ecological model is based on the local soil types, topography, hydrology, and early historic accounts of the general landscape. The sites rich assemblage of animal bones includes species typical of a mix of different habitats including riparian (streamside) woods, a flowing creek, tall grass savanna, short grass and brush.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that the site location has the most diverse mix of soil types of any nearby area of Jim Wells County. Different types of soil support different types of vegetation. Thus, those who camped at the site would have been able to find resources from diverse habitats (econiches) within easy walking distance. Black 1986: Figure 2.