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A

Alluvium: Sediment (mud, sand, gravel, etc.) deposited by a stream or river.

photo of an alluvial deposited gravelbar
These sand and gravel bars are alluvial deposits (alluvium).

Alluvial Fan: A fan-shaped deposit of sediment that forms where a stream drops downward from a higher elevation and encounters the valley floor. The stream slows down, depositing fine silt, sand, or other sediments it is carrying.

illustration of an alluvial fan
An alluvial fan is forming as this stream flows downhill, depositing sediment (alluvium).

Archeology: Scientific study of the human past through the things left behind by humans, including artifacts, remains of shelters or buildings, campsites, cooking areas, and other traces. Also spelled Archaeology.

Arrowhead: An arrowhead is the same thing as an arrow point. It is the sharp tip of an arrow, the part that spears the target. In prehistoric times arrow points were made out of stone. In more recent times, most arrow points were made of metal. Arrowheads were attached to the end of a wooden or cane shaft, using srong fiber or leather cording and sometimes mastic (glue) to hold them in place.

Arrowheads, or arrow points.
Arrowheads, or arrow points.

Artifact: Something made or used by a person in the past, such as tools, containers, and weapons, as well as the bits and pieces (debris) left over from making these things. Archeologists often learn just as much from tiny, broken pieces as they do from whole artifacts. Even an animal bone is considered an artifact if it was used or modified by a human. Archeologists look for cut marks on bone, for instance, to show human use.

 

Association: Archeological term used to describe objects found together. When artifacts or other objects are found together or close by, they are said to be "associated" or "found in association" with one another. This may mean that the items were used together. Bones, stones, charcoal, and ash found together ("in association") may be the remains of a cooking hearth where meat was cooked.

photo graph of archeological evidence in association with each other
These cooking stones, bits of charcoal, ash, animal bones and snails were found in "association" with each other.

Atlatl: Short, hand-held piece of wood used as a lever to "throw" or propel a dart or light spear. This is an Aztec word pronounced "at-lat-til" or "at-til-lat-il".

How an atlat, or spearthrower, was used.
How an atlat, or spearthrower, was used.

B

Bison: Scientific name for buffalo.

photo of bison
Bison or Buffalo

Buffalo: Cow-like animal with a dark shaggy hide and short curved horns; also called bison. Millions of buffalo once roamed the Great Plains in the central part of North America. When white settlers moved into the area, hide-hunters used powerful rifles to kill thousands and thousands of buffalo. Within a few years, almost all the buffalo were gone (and in danger of becoming extinct). Fortunately, a few were saved by thoughtful ranchers. Today, the buffalo are becoming numerous again.

C

Cache: A group of hidden items found in a tight cluster indicating they were intentionally buried or placed together. Native peoples sometimes buried caches of tools or weapons at campsites, perhaps to use on future visits. They also placed caches of finely made items in the graves of loved ones.

photo of a cache
A cache of arrow points was found at
the George C. Davis site in east Texas.

Chert: A type of sedimentary rock, also called "flint." Prehistoric Indians used chert to make stone tools such as dart points. Chert flakes and tools can be incredibly sharp.

Chert tools.
Chert was used by native peoples to make tools and tips for their weapons.

Chronology: A system used to organize events and other information in time, from earliest to latest, in a time line. Archeologists develop cultural chronologies to help understand how cultures change through time.

A chronology of culture change though time.
A chronology of cultural change though time.

Colluvium: Loose sediment that accumulates at the base of a hill.

Coprolite: Dried feces of prehistoric people (in other words, prehistoric poop!).
Coprolite
Coprolite.

Climate: The long-term weather conditions, or patterns, in a particular region including the amount of rainfall and temperature. (For example, West Texas has an arid, or dry, climate.)

 
Clovis: Name given to the earliest known groups of people in North America. They are known for their distinctive spear points. Clovis peoples hunted big-game animals—mammoths and Ice Age horse—but smaller creatures, such as turtles, as well. They probably also ate a variety of plants.
Clovis spearpoint
A Clovis spear point, found at the Gault site in Bell County, Texas.

Context: An artifact's physical context is exactly where it is found within a site. After finding an artifact, it's very important to understand what the site's stratigraphy (layering of dirt and soil) is like and where other artifacts in the site are located.

 

Culture: Knowledge about life and traditions that we learn from our parents, friends, and community that are passed on to our children (and then their children). An example of American culture: we celebrate birthdays with parties, cakes, and candles. Some cultures don't! Instead, they may have other celebrations or rituals that we don't share.

 

D

Dart point: A sharply pointed piece of stone shaped by skillful chipping. The dart point is attached to the tip of a dart (light spear) thrown with an atlatl.

Dart points.
Dart points.

E

Earth oven: Layers of coals, heated rocks, food (especially roots) and green plants used to keep the food clean and provide moisture.A thick layer (or cap) of earth seals in the steamy heat. Earth ovens sometimes cooked for two or three days because the roots had to cook a long time before they tasted good and were tender enough to eat.

An earth oven in use.
An earth oven in use.

Excavate: To uncover (dig) and document (map and take notes about) artifacts and sites of the human past in a careful, planned way.

An excavation in progress.
An excavation in progress.

Extinct: Usually refers to types of animals or plants that have died out. In North America, many large mammals became extinct at the end of the last Ice Age about 12,000 to 14,000 years ago.

Mastodons, now extinct.
Mastodons, now extinct.

F

Fauna: All the animals of a particular region or time period, considered as a group. For example, the fauna of south Texas in prehistoric times included pronghorn antelope and bison as well as white-tailed deer, rabbits, and many other animals, from frogs to fish.

Fauna of south Texas and the hill country regions

Feature: Distinctive patterns of related things that often represent individual events and that stand out in contrast to their surroundings. For instance, stones found in a circle with bits of charcoal and burned animal bone may be hearths or cooking, features where people cooked a meal.

photo of hearth features
Hearth features from a prehistoric site.

Fire drill: A two-part wooden tool for starting fires. A wooden stick was rapidly twirled in a hole in a piece of wood (fire hearth). When twirled long enough, the stick would heat up and make a spark, which started a fire when it landed on a small bunch of dried grass or crushed bark.

Twirling a fire drill into a hearth.
Twirling a fire drill into a hearth.

Flint: see Chert.

 

G

Geology: The scientific study of the history and structure of the earth and its rocks and minerals. Archeologists use methods and techniques from geology to learn about the sites and environment in which ancient people lived.

Geologist
A geologist studies rock layers in an ancient shelter.

H

Hafted: Attached to a handle or shaft. Stone arrow points and other tools were hafted in a notch or slot on a stick or shaft. The tool was held tightly in place by using a sticky glue (like tree resin) or by wrapping it with cord made of fiber or animal sinew.

Dart points hafted on a foreshaft.
Hafted dart points.
Hamlet: A cluster of houses forming a small village. The Caddo Indians of East Texas lived in hamlets as well as larger villages. (Question: Did people living in hamlets eat omelettes?)
hamlet
This early Spanish map depicts numerous hamlets within a large Caddo settlement called "Nasoni on the Red River" near present day Texarkana.

Hearth: A campfire or cooking area often marked by a circle or cluster of fire-cracked rocks. Native people built hearths for cooking and for warming themselves.

Hearth
A hearth inside a rockshelter.
Hide tanning: The process in which animal hide is converted into leather. Indians used this process in order to create longer-lasting, more durable clothing. The first step in this procedure was to remove the skin from the animal. After scraping away the remaining flesh and removing the hair, Indian women set the hide in the sun to dry. To complete this operation the hide was treated with tannin, which made it softer, yet stronger. Indians had several sources of tannin. The most commonly used source was campfire ashes which were mixed with water.
Hide tanning
An Indian group removing the flesh from the hide in preparation for tanning.

Historic Period: The period of history covered in written records. In Texas, the historic period began in the mid-1500s with the coming of the first Spanish explorers.

historic document
A historic Spanish document from The Alamo (mission San Antonio de Valero).

History: Chronicle (true stories) of what happened in the human past, usually a written account. Oral histories are those that are passed on from person to person as memorized stories, told out loud.

 

Holocene: The name for the geologic time period beginning about 11,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age.

Hunting and Gathering: A way of life in which people obtained food and all the other resources they needed directly from the land. For thousands of years, people hunted animals and gathered plants in the wild, instead of growing crops or raising animals such as cattle. They did not have grocery stores for food, or hardware stores for tools, like we do today. In some countries, people, such as the Aborigines of Australia, still practice a hunting and gathering lifestyle.

Painting of Hunters and Gatherers
Hunters and gatherers live off the land.

Hypothesis: An educated guess used as a trial explanation. That means the hypothesis is used until the archeologist knows "for sure" that they are right (or at least pretty sure!). Remember, archeologists hardly ever know anything for sure. Instead, they just try to make really intelligent guesses about things that happened a very long time ago—long before they were alive. So instead of making a wild guess, the archeologist is using knowledge and training to help make an educated or "smart" guess.

Here's an example. If your mom wasn't home but you saw the car was still in the driveway, you might guess that she was taking the dog for a walk. Would that be a wild guess?READ MORE

 

I

Ice Age: Periods of time where ice sheets, or glaciers, covered most of the earth. The height of the last Ice Age in North America was 18,000 years ago and ended in the late Pleistocene. (see Pleistocene)

 

Indian: The name mistakenly used by early European explorers for the native people living in North and South America. The explorers thought they had found India. But the mistake stuck and now the term Indian means "Native American." Some Native Americans do not like the term "Indian." Most Indians or Native Americans actually prefer to be known by their tribal name such as Caddo or Comanche.

Caddo Indian.
Caddo Indian.

Inference: A conclusion made from evidence. For example, if you found charcoal, ashes, and burned animal bones together, you might infer that this was the scene of a cooking fire. Archeologists use their training and imagination to decide what clues (evidence) tell us about human history. Their conclusions are called inferences.

 

J

Jump site: A place where prehistoric Indians herded hundreds of buffalos over a cliff or high bluff in order to kill many animals at once.

buffalo jump
Buffalos plunge to their deaths after being driven off a cliff.

K

Knap: Chipping and shaping stone (such as flint or chert) to make tools, like arrow heads.

Making stone tools, or knapping.
Native men knapping stone tools.

L

Lithic: Pertaining to stone. In prehistoric times, people used stones or lithics to make tools and weapons.

collage if different lithic material

Lower Pecos: The name used to describe the dry desert-like area along the Pecos River in far southwest Texas. Prehistoric peoples lived in rockshelters along the river and left behind tons of trash, such as food, clothing, baskets, and tools, that archeologists can study. The dry climate of the region has preserved the artifacts, unlike in humid areas where most fiber and bone artifacts decay and disappear.

Lower Pecos
Lower Pecos

M

Mano and metate: A pair of tools used together to grind up corn and other seeds. "Mano" means hand in Spanish. In this case, a mano is a round stone held in your hand and rubbed against a larger, flat rock with a worn spot in its center called a metate. You could say that a mano and metate were used like our kitchen blenders!

Making flour. Woman grinds seeds into flour using a metate.
Making flour. A woman grinds seeds into flour using a metate.
Megafauna: Large North American animals that lived during the last Ice Age (Pleistocene Era) and became extinct around 10,000 years ago. Scientists think either human hunting or climatic change, or both, led to the disappearance of these animals. Texas megafauna included mastadons, giant sloths, horses, camels, wolves, lions, and bison.
camel
The Western Camel (Camelops hesternus) was taller (7 feet at the shoulder) than the modern camel.

Midden: A trash pile, especially kitchen trash—animal bones, ashes, charcoal, broken dishes, and all sorts of other junk that gets thrown away. Middens formed near or around cooking places, which is to say, near where people lived. Because of all the organic (natural) matter —rotting plant parts, bone, etc. —middens usually have very dark soil. Many Texas Indians used hot rocks (rocks heated in the fire) to cook certain foods, so their middens often contain lots of "burned" rocks cracked by the fire's heat. Some of the most interesting things archeologists find are discovered in middens!

Burned Rock Midden
A burned rock midden that has been dug into by a collector. Note the many rocks and dark soil.

Mission: A specific area containing a chapel (church), houses, and workshops organized by Spanish Catholic priests to spread their faith and educate local Indians.

photo of a model of Mission Espiritu Santo
Mission Espiritu Santo in south Texas, as it may have looked in the mid 1700s. The tall tower is part of the chapel.

N

Native American: See Indian.

 

Nomads: People who moved from place to place, usually in search of food or other resources. Many prehistoric peoples lived a mobile lifestyle, moving every few days or weeks or months to new camping spots where more game or food plants or firewood was available.

Nomadic Plains Indians.Nomadic Plains Indians.
Nomadic Plains Indians.

O

Obsidian: A beautiful, black, glass-like stone that Indians chipped into tools and weapons. The rock does not come from Texas, but other areas to the north and west, such as Idaho and New Mexico.

obsidian
Obsidian

Ocher: Iron-rich minerals in red and yellow tones used by native peoples as pigment. People all over the world have used ocher pigment for thousands of years for body decoration, art work, and in ceremonies. Red ocher, which may have symbolized blood, was often used in human burials.

Red Ocher
Red Ocher.

P

PaleoIndian: Term used to describe the earliest Native Americans. They lived in North America as early as 13,500 years ago. "Paleo" means old.

PaleoIndian peoples butchering a mammoth.
PaleoIndian peoples butchering a mammoth.
Pithouses: Built by prehistoric people on the Texas plains, pithouses were very well suited for the plains environment, as they took advantage of the natural insulation provided by the earth.

The first stage of building such a house was to dig a pit. A frame made of wood logs and branches would be built, and then the earth (dirt) dug out of the pit was often used to make the roof.

Early pioneers in the Texas Panhandle built dugouts that were very similar to prehistoric pithouses. Even today, some residents of the Panhandle build underground homes because they are energy efficient and protect people from severe weather better than any above-ground dwelling.

 
pithouse
Drawing of a pithouse as it might have looked 700 years ago. The artist has drawn the house with one side cut away so we can see the inside.

Pleistocene: A geologic term used to describe the time period from about 1.8 million to about 11,000 years ago. During this time wooly mammoths, saber tooth cats, and giant sloths roamed across Texas and North America. These animals are now extinct.

Painting of the Pleistocene
Artist's depiction of what the late Pleistocene may have looked like.

Prehistory: The time before written history. Writing came into use in different areas of the world at different times. For example, when the Greeks and Romans were thriving 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, they had writing. At the same time in history, the Indians in Texas were living in traditional prehistoric ways and did not have writing. They did have their own history—but their histories were spoken aloud (in storytelling) and remembered, then passed down to children and their children.

 

Preserve: To protect artifacts and sites for the future by preventing looting (stealing) and vandalism (damage).

 

Presidio: Small fort in which Spanish soldiers were stationed. Often presidios were built near missions to protect the Spanish priests and Native peoples living there.

photo of the ruins of Presidio San Saba
The ruins of Presidio San Saba in central Texas.

Projectile Points: Another term for a spear point, dart point or arrowhead.

 

Q

Quarry: Places where people dig out (or quarry) stone for various uses. Ancient peoples found places where good quality stones were concentrated. They dug up stone to make into tools and weapons, such as spear and arrow points.

Novaculite Quarry
Novaculite stone quarry

Quids: The chewed leaf parts from certain plants cooked by prehistoric peoples. Once plants such as yucca, sotol, and lechuguilla were cooked, prehistoric people chewed the sugary, nutritious food off the leaf bases. Then they would spit out the wads of fiber, called quids.

quids
Quids

R

Radiocarbon Dating: An age estimate based on the amount of a natural radioactive carbon isotope (carbon-14) that remains in any organic matter (formerly living things such as bone or plants or material made from living things such as cloth and leather).

Rancheria: Spanish word that means temporary village or hamlet.
(See the Graham-Applegate exhibit)

Groups of temporary houses or a small village, called rancherias. Spaanish explorers encountered many rancherias of native peoples.

Ritual: A special ceremony or religious observance. Native Americans took part in many rituals as part of their belief system.

Caddo Indian with antler headress dances in a ritual ceremony marking the death of a special chief or leader in the tribe.
Caddo Indian with antler headress dances in a ritual ceremony marking the death of a special chief or leader in the tribe.

Rock art: Paintings and carvings done by Native Americans on boulders, cliff faces, and cave walls. While the colorful paintings are often very artistic, most were done as part of a ritual (a celebration or religious service), not just to create something interesting to look at.

Close up of an animal figure, maybe a deer.
Close up of an animal figure, maybe a deer.

Rockshelter: Shallow caves or overhangs formed in cliffs. Prehistoric Indians often camped in rockshelters because they offered protection from the winter winds and rain and were cool and shady in the summer.

A rockshelter in southwest Texas.
A rockshelter in southwest Texas.

S

Sedentary: Describes people who stayed in one place, such as in a village, most of the time, rather than people who moved from place to place (see Nomads).

Sedentary pueblo villagers.
Sedentary pueblo villagers.
Shaman: A member of certain Native American tribes who serves as magician, healer of the body and spirit, keeper of traditions, and artist. Groups of prehistoric peoples likely had shamans as well.
Shaman
Shaman

Sherds: Pieces of pottery vessels (like clay pots), also called shards. It is common for an archeologist to find sherds at a site. Pottery was used for many purposes including cooking, holding water, and collecting food. Because dried clay is so fragile, it often shatters into sherds. When an archeologist finds a whole pottery vessel (even with cracks or chips), they have gotten really lucky!

Pottery sherds.
Pottery sherds.

Site: A place where people in the past lived or stopped to do something long enough to leave behind evidence (like artifacts, middens and firepits) that shows they had been there. Prehistoric sites are those created before written history—like Indian campsites. Historic sites are those that aren't from as long ago. Some famous historic sites you might know about are the Alamo, the shipwreck of the Belle, and Washington-on-the-Brazos (Texas' first capitol).

 

Stratigraphy: The study of the natural and cultural layers that make up an archeological site. Archeologists study these layers of deposits (soil and sediments) to understand the processes by which the site was formed, including flood deposits, ancient camp litter, and wind-blown sand. Generally, younger layers are deposited on top of older layers. In geology, stratigraphy is the study of layers of rock, including their geographic extent, age, classification, characteristics and formation.

stratigraphy
Strata, or layers, of earth are studied to interpret the stratigraphy of a site

Stratum: (plural: strata) A distinct natural or human-made layer. For geologists, the textbook example of strata is successive horizontal layers of rock arranged like a layer cake. The strata that archeologists often encounter, however, are rarely so neat and often inclined, irregular, intermixed or otherwise challenging to trace. See Stratigraphy.

T

Trowel: A small hand-held digging tool like the one Dr. Dirt holds. Trowels are archeologists' favorite excavation tool.

trowel
Trowel.

U

Ungulate: An animal with hoofs. Pronghorns (antelopes), deer, bison, and javelina hogs are examples of wild ungulates. Cows, horses, goats, and pigs are examples of domesticated ungulates. Hoofs help animals walk or run over grasslands.

ungulate
Pronghorns are among many animals with hoofs, known as ungulates. Pronghorns can run very fast on those hoofs!

V

Vandalize: To destroy or damage artifacts or sites.

Painting graffiti on archeological sites is one form of vandalism.
Painting graffiti on archeological sites is one form of vandalism.

W

Wickiup: A small, temporary shelter used by prehistoric peoples for camping. Made of tree branches and covered with bundles of grass or reeds, a wickiup (pronounced wicky-up) provided protection from the wind and rain and shade from the glaring sun. Check out other prehistoric “houses.”
Wickiup

Winnow: To separate seeds from dirt and other material, so that the seeds could be used as food. Plant materials were first placed in a flat basket or tray and then tossed gently in the air on a windy day. The lighter leaves and dust would be blown away, while the heavier seeds would drop back into the basket.

A woman winnows seeds she has collected.
A woman winnows seeds she has collected.

X-Z

Yucca: A desert plant with sharply pointed leaves found throughout Texas and the southwest. Prehistoric Indians ate many parts of the yucca and similar plants. They dug out the base of the plant (called the heart) and cooked it for several days in an earth oven with hot rocks. Learn more about hot rock cooking and other thorny plants used for food in What’s for Dinner?
Yucca
Yucca.

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Texas Beyond History
TBH WebTeam
2 May 2007