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Diorama and mural showing a rabbit hunt in progress in the Lower Pecos. In the background, smoke rises out of a large rockshelter in the canyon below. Studies have shown that rabbits were one of the most important animals in the diet. Courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Diorama and mural showing a rabbit hunt in progress in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands. In the background, smoke rises out of a large rockshelter in the canyon below. Studies have shown that rabbits were one of the most important animals in the diet of Lower Pecos peoples. Courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
The towering flower stalks of the sotol plant are a common sight in the Lower Pecos. Sotol prefers thin rocky soils and steep terrain and often grows in great abundance in such areas. Prehistoric peoples harvested sotol hearts or "cabezas" (heads) in quantity and baked them in earth ovens. Photo by Phil Dering.
The towering flower stalks of the sotol plant are a common sight in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands. Sotol prefers thin rocky soils and steep terrain and often grows in great abundance in such areas. Prehistoric peoples harvested sotol hearts or "cabezas" (heads) in quantity and baked them in earth ovens. Photo by Phil Dering.

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Prickly pear cactus was used for many purposes. The young pads (nopalitos) are edible with minimal cooking, as are the ripe fruits (tunas). The larger pads were used to line earth ovens to provide moisture and keep dirt off the baked goods. Large pads were also split open or hollowed out and used as containers. Photo by Phil Dering.
Prickly pear cactus was used for many purposes. The young pads (nopalitos) are edible with minimal cooking, as are the ripe fruits (tunas). The larger pads were used to line earth ovens to provide moisture and keep dirt off the baked goods. Large pads were also split open or hollowed out and used as containers. Photo by Phil Dering.
Mesquite beans ripen in the late summer and are an excellent carbohydrate source.
Mesquite beans ripen in the late summer and are an excellent carbohydrate source. They require minimal cooking, but preparing the beans is a time consuming process. The beans must be gathered before animals can devour them and then allowed to dry thoroughly. Dried, they must first be torn by hand into small pieces and then pounded until the tough, almost unbreakable, seeds can be removed. The seedless pod fragments are then pulverized into a fine powder that can be stored or used in a variety of ways. Photo by Phil Dering.
Lechugilla stand growing in rocky "soil." Photo by Phil Dering.
Lechuguilla stand growing in rocky "soil." Photo by Phil Dering.
Trimmed lechuguilla hearts are placed on top of a layer of prickly pear pads in this experimental oven. Beneath the pads are hot rocks. The pads protect the lechugilla from burning and add moisture. The lechugilla hearts will be covered with more prickly pear pads and then a thick layer of earth. The steamy heat inside will slowly cook the lechugilla and break down complex, inedible carbohydrates into simple sugars. Photo by Phil Dering.
Trimmed lechuguilla hearts are placed on top of a layer of prickly pear pads in this experimental oven. Beneath the pads are hot rocks. The pads protect the lechuguilla from burning and add moisture. The lechuguilla hearts will be covered with more prickly pear pads and then a thick layer of earth. The steamy heat inside will slowly cook the lechuguilla and break down complex, inedible carbohydrates into simple sugars. Photo by Phil Dering.
Quid, chewed lechugilla and sotol leaves, were found in large numbers in Hinds Cave. Lower Pecos peoples chewed on the lower part of the baked leaves until all the sugary carbohydrates were gone and then discarded the leftover fibrous quids. Photo by Phil Dering.
Quids, chewed lechuguilla and sotol leaves, were found in large numbers in Hinds Cave. Lower Pecos peoples chewed on the lower part of the baked leaves until all the sugary carbohydrates were gone and then discarded the leftover fibrous quids. Photo by Phil Dering.
The edible parts of a baked lechugilla hear, like that of an artichoke, are the lower parts of the inner leaves and the base of the plant to which the leaves are attached.
The edible parts of a baked lechuguilla heart, like that of an artichoke, are the lower parts of the inner leaves and the base of the plant to which the leaves are attached.


The basic economy of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands throughout the prehistoric era was hunting and gathering (also called foraging). Although hunting may have been the emphasis during intervals when bison were present in the region, as the Bonfire Shelter example clearly shows, plants probably played a much greater role in the day-to-day survival. The rich archeological record of the region has provided much data for the reconstruction of prehistoric hunter-gatherer economy in the region. The economy of the Archaic period has been studied through the analysis of many different kinds of materials including animal bones, plant remains, coprolites, and human skeletal remains.

What we think of as the characteristic Archaic economy of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands began developing at least as early as the Late Paleoindian period. This is well illustrated by analysis of a well-preserved hearth dating to 7000 B.C. in Baker Cave. The fill of this hearth contained the remains of 16 different kinds of plants, 11 different mammals (most of them rodents), 6 fish, and 18 reptiles. This diverse assemblage suggests that people were foraging widely and making use of practically any creature that moved as well as many plants.

By 4,000 B.C., if not sooner, agave, yucca, sotol, and prickly pear were used as staples, particularly during times of subsistence stress. These were prepared in earth ovens, the remains of which dominate the archeological record. Nonetheless, the diet was highly varied and included other plants, small and large mammals, reptiles, and fish. Because large game, if available, provides more meat than small game, one would expect evidence of large game (deer, pronghorn, and bison) in well-preserved habitation sites in the region. In fact, a sizable sample of bones from Hinds Cave revealed that rodents and rabbits provided most of the protein. In the Early Archaic burials from Seminole Sink, the largest single regional burial population studied to date, there was a high incidence of dental cavities, the result of a diet very high in carbohydrates. These individuals had even worse teeth than those of later agricultural peoples elsewhere in North America who relied heavily on corn. Basically, their teeth were rotten by early adulthood. Their bones also indicate dietary trouble including severe stress caused by periods of near starvation.

Recent experimental studies and botanical analyses of earth ovens have demonstrated that Archaic period earth ovens in the Lower Pecos region would have yielded only modest quantities of food (as measured by calories) compared to the amount of labor required. Furthermore, intensive reliance on plant baking would have led to the quick depletion of local lechuguilla and sotol fields, and the large quantities of wood needed to fire the ovens would have exhausted local fuel supplies. The tremendous amount of refuse generated by lechuguilla and sotol processing in earth ovens created the impression of an economy driven by plant resources that in reality do not produce that many calories. The overwhelming archeological visibility of earth-oven debris may have led archeologists to overestimate group size and length of stay, and to underestimate the degree of mobility.

Nonetheless, the remains of earth ovens are found in almost every prehistoric archeological site in the region. A special exhibit on earth oven cooking is being planned for Texas Beyond History. In the meantime, here is a quick review. All sorts of archeological terms have been applied to earth ovens and their residue including roasting pits, baking pits, sotol pits, mescal pits, ring middens, crescent middens, burned rock middens, pit hearths, and large hearths. In essence, these are all the result of earth oven cooking. Here is how it works.

Earth ovens have been used all over the world, in the past and even today. Although there are many variations, the basic theme is the same. First a pit is dug. Then wood is added and a fire is started. Rocks are placed atop and amid the fuel. When the rocks are hot and most of the fuel is consumed, the rocks are arranged (using long poles) to form a flat or bowl-shaped "oven bed" (or hot rock bed). The hot rocks form a "heating element" which will hold and release heat for lengthy periods. The first thing placed on top of rocks is a thick layer of green plants such as green grass or prickly pear pads. This layer does two things: it keeps the food from burning and it provides the moisture needed for steam heating. Next, the food is added. In the Lower Pecos Canyonlands this often meant the trimmed hearts or bulbs of lechugilla and sotol. The food is covered by another green layer, providing more moisture and also keeping the food clean. Finally, a thick layer of earth is added that seals in the moist heat. A properly constructed earth oven will keep a temperature of right at 100º C (boiling temperature) for many hours. After a long cooling period during which the heated plants continue to cook, the earth oven is opened. The total cooking time can be up to three days.

Sotol harvesting as envisioned by artist Nola Davis. (Sotol bulbs are somewhat larger and less onion-like than depicted.) Courtesy of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Sotol harvesting as envisioned by artist Nola Davis. (Sotol bulbs are somewhat larger and less onion-like than depicted.) Courtesy of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

 


Sotol bulbs added to the hot rock bed of an earth oven in the making as envisioned by artist Nola Davis. (Ordinarily, a layer of green plant material would have been added first to keep the bulbs from burning, but the finding of numerous burnt fragments of sotol leaves suggests this step was sometimes skipped.) Courtesy of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Sotol bulbs added to the hot rock bed of an earth oven in the making as envisioned by artist Nola Davis. (Ordinarily, a layer of green plant material would have been added first to keep the bulbs from burning, but the finding of numerous burnt fragments of sotol leaves suggests this step was sometimes skipped.) Courtesy of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

 


Cooked lechugilla could be stored by scraping off the sugary starches from the leaves and forming a paddy like the one shown here. Such paddies are almost pure sugar, well OK, impure sugar. Dried, these sugar cakes can be stored for months and even longer. Photo by Phil Dering.
Cooked lechuguilla could be stored by scraping off the sugary starches from the leaves and forming a patty like the one shown here. Such patties are almost pure sugar, well OK, impure sugar. Dried, these sugar cakes can be stored for months and even longer. Photo by Phil Dering.

Archeologist Harry Shafer holds a wooden digging stick found in a dry cave. Digging sticks were probably the most important tool for Lower Pecos peoples because they could have served many different purposes in addition to digging.
Archeologist Harry Shafer holds a wooden digging stick found in a dry cave. Digging sticks were probably the most important tool for Lower Pecos peoples because they could have served many different purposes in addition to digging.
Bedrock mortar holes such as these are common in the Lower Pecos. Many different foods require pulverizing, especially hard seeds and seed pods such as mesquite beans. Photo by Phil Dering.
Bedrock mortar holes such as these are common in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands. Many different foods require pulverizing, especially hard seeds and seed pods such as mesquite beans. Photo by Phil Dering.
Mesquite bean processing. At top are inedible seeds. At the bottom are the pieces of the bean pods before initial pounding. In the middle row from left to right are , the seed husks, the partially pulverized powder, and the fine mesquite flour. Photo and experimental work by Phil Dering.
Mesquite bean processing. At top are the seeds. At the bottom are the pieces of the bean pods before initial pounding. In the middle row, from left to right, are the seed husks, the partially pulverized powder, and the fine mesquite flour. Photo and experimental work by Phil Dering.
Lechuguilla is one of the smallest members of the Agave family and one of the most important plants in the Lower Pecos.
Lechuguilla is one of the smallest members of the Agave family and one of the most important plants in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands. Its tough fibers were the preferred material for making sandals, mats, baskets, and many other items. Its heart or leaf base was a major carbohydrate source. Large quantities of lechuguilla hearts were baked in earth ovens. Recent work has shown that lechuguilla yields more food than the same amount of sotol, but that both plants require a tremendous amount of labor for the return in calories. In other words, people must have eaten these plants only when they had no other choice. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.
Archeologist and paleobotanist Dr. Phil Dering of Texas A&M University chomps into a cooked lechuguilla heart. Properly cooked, the inner leaves and base of the plant taste sweet.
Archeologist and paleobotanist Dr. Phil Dering chomps into a cooked lechuguilla heart. Properly cooked, the inner leaves and base of the plant taste sweet.