Prehistory Introduction

The South Texas Plains (also known as the coastal plains of southern Texas) stretch south from the Balcones Escarpment, west to the Rio Grande, east to the Guadalupe River, and south to the Rio Grande Delta. The Nueces and Frio rivers, and their myriad tributaries, cut through the middle of the region. To the public, to deer hunters, ranchers and others, this vast area is simply “the Brush Country.” An ingrained mythology persists about the “invasion” of the mesquite and thorn brush, that great-grandfathers rode their horses through vast grasslands – “higher than the stirrup” – and untold thousands of acres in the region have been root-plowed, bulldozed, chained, poisoned and otherwise altered to “return the grasslands” to their “original” status. The real picture is much more complicated and most of these assumptions are simply wrong.

Archeological excavations at Choke Canyon recovered charred fragments of mesquite and other thorn brush along the Frio River dating back at least 7,000 years ago. Some Spanish expeditions got lost for days in the thick brush of Turkey Creek near Crystal City. Yet other Spanish explorers wrote of grassy plains grazed by buffalo herds. The likely scenario is that of a mosaic – much of the region was a grassland savannah with scattered mesquite (concentrated along the stream courses) and interspersed areas of native grasses. For thousands of years before the Spanish arrived, short and tall native grasses were well established and grew densely in flatter areas with deeper soils, especially during wetter periods. During drought cycles the grasses suffered along with many other types of plants, as well as animals and people. But thorn brush, too, was part and parcel of the landscape, and grew quite thick in the drier western part of the region, with its more-rugged terrain and thin-soiled uplands.

The expansion of mesquite habitat was doubtless aided in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the suppression of range fires and the introduction of barbed wire fences, with resulting overgrazing, erosion, soil damage, and the widespread use of deep-well irrigation. The first irrigation wells in parts of South Texas were artesian wells that flowed to the surface in the early 20th century. And, there were natural climatic fluctuations that may have played a part. Some of the major creeks in the region were perennial flowing streams up until the 1920s and 1930s. These are now dusty channels that carry only the runoff from heavy rain. Ruins in the mesquite brush near Carrizo Springs look like remnants of a lost civilization, but were merely the bathhouses at a county park on Carrizo Creek that existed well into the 1930s. The lowering of the water table from deep-well irrigation farming, and the choking of stream channels with soils eroded from overgrazed pastures, led to the demise of watercourses. The archeological record clearly shows that these now-dry creeks were once highly desired occupation zones; the banks and terraces are lined with ancient campsites dating back thousands of years.

Modern misperceptions about the historic environment of the South Texas Plains are much like those about the Native American peoples who lived there. In many accounts, the native peoples of the region are lumped together and called “Coahuiltecans,” as if they represent one ethnic group who all spoke a single language. As explained in the exhibit entitled Native Peoples of the South Texas Plains During Early Historic Times, this perception is wrong and does a great disservice to the region's native peoples. Painstaking examination of the ethnohistoric record clearly indicates that as many or six or seven separate languages were present in parts of the area. There were many individually named native groups who did not speak “Coahuiltecan,” whose locations or territories were known. To be sure, many groups did speak Coahuilteco, as linguists refer to their language. For many other named groups mentioned by the Spanish, we have no language they spoke. Thus the only valid use of the term “Coahuiltecan” is as a geographic reference equivalent in meaning to “the native peoples of southern Texas and northeastern Mexico.

Whatever label is applied to the Native American peoples of ancient southern Texas, their numbers decreased precipitously during the “missionization” process which was punctuated by deadly epidemics of Old World diseases. Those who left the missions on their own accord often carried diseases back with them. And then there were depredations upon the region's true native groups by the Lipan Apaches after 1720, and by the Comanches, after 1750. There were latter instances, as at Mission Espiritu Santo at Goliad, where the Aranamas (non-Coahuilteco speakers) were granted farm lands, only to have them appropriated by Anglo settlers in the 1830s. In the 1840s, there were still a few Aranama women making and selling pottery in Goliad. The few native peoples of the South Texas Plains who survived into the 19th century soon lost their distinct cultural identities, their languages became extinct, their tribal names were lost, and their ways of life forever gone.

Leaving aside the uncertainties of early historic South Texas Plains, archeology can trace the hunting and gathering lifeway back to Paleoindian times, as early as 13,500 years ago (11,500 B.C.). Clovis, Folsom and other distinctive Paleoindian point types, many of which we are still wrestling to understand today, are found across the region (see Earliest Peoples and Golondrina Complex). Like other areas of Texas, the Archaic era is marked by technological changes, a broadly based hunting and gathering economy, and population expansion beginning about 8000 B.C. But unlike nearby regions, such as the Canyonlands and Plateaus, the internal chronology of the Archaic in the South Texas Plains is poorly known. The kinds of settlements used by the native peoples of south Texas (see Streamside Settlement) generally do not lend themselves to stratigraphic archeology. For over 7,000 years the prehistoric peoples of south Texas tended to make their projectile points in triangular forms (Early Triangular, Tortugas, Abasolo, Matamoros, Catan), which, when broken and reworked or extensively resharpened, blur typological distinctions (see Unstemmed Point Tradition and Stone Tool Recycling). Fortunately, in the relatively few sites that have been excavated, there are often a few stemmed points typical of the Lower Pecos or Central Texas that provide helpful cross-dating and there are deeply stratified sites in some places, such as the Richard Beene site along the Medina River the northern part of the region.

During the long span of the Archaic from about 8,000 B.C. until A.D. 800, hunting and gathering peoples lived throughout the region but most of their base camps, and most of their lives, were spent in the stream and river valleys where many food resources were concentrated. Although scientists have not yet been able to accurately reconstruct the climatic history of the region, it experienced major and minor cycles of drought and intervening periods of moist conditions. We expect that human populations also waxed and waned, although the general trend through time was probably higher population levels. One of the best lines of evidence about population levels and health come from comparative studies of cemetery sites (see Mortuary Traditions and Diet and Health). The recent documentation of the 7,000-year-old Buckeye Knoll cemetery in the lower Guadalupe Valley, suggests that groups had already begun to stake out territories, implying that population pressure was already a factor. So far, most studies of the skeletal remains from the region show relatively healthy people with an adequate diet, especially in comparison to the southern Edwards Plateau and Lower Pecos Canyonlands where Archaic peoples suffered from poor diets too heavy in carbohydrate-rich foods (plants, especially roots and bulbs).

One of the distinctive patterns in the South Texas Plains is the predominance of woodworking tools, adzes and gouges, beginning in Late Paleoindian times and continuing throughout the Archaic and into the Late Prehistoric period (see Woodworking Tool Tradition). The persistence of this tradition and that of the unstemmed point tradition, as well as other patterns, suggests unbroken tradition. There is very little evidence that "outside" groups with different material culture or adaptation patterns moved into the region until historic times. There are plenty of indications that the people of the South Texas Plains interacted with the peoples of neighboring regions including the coast and the Edwards Plateau (see Morhiss Mound and Biface Caches). There are even hints that south Texas natives participated in long-range trade systems that brought items such as pieces of obsidian from thousands of miles away (see Distant Connections.)

Though hunting and gathering persisted into Late Prehistoric times, which began in the South Texas Plains, as elsewhere in Texas, by the introduction of the bow and arrow, it is still unclear whether a distinct chronological “sequence” of different arrow types is present. Several carefully excavated sites have yielded mixtures of point types that seem to have been in use at the same time. But, nothing is unclear about the Toyah Horizon, with its Perdiz points, beveled knives, bone-tempered pottery, end scrapers and related technologies. Toyah culture can be clearly distinguished at such sites as Hinojosa and Possum Hollow (see Choke Canyon).

Indeed, for many of the local native groups in south Texas, the Toyah material culture was what they were using when the Spanish, and later the Spanish missionaries, arrived. This is the case, without doubt, at Mission Espiritu Santo, where Aranama and Tamique peoples lived. Far to the west at the Gateway missions along the Rio Grande, native peoples began using a new arrow point style, termed Guerrero, which spread rapidly among natives in the region. The first European to record some of the Native American groups of south Texas was Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. Given his route, as set forth by Alex Krieger and T. N. Campbell in separate publications, Cabeza de Vaca was likely on the edge, or just south of, Toyah Horizon influence when he traversed deep south Texas, crossing into Mexico near modern-day Falcon Lake.

The South Texas Plains will be an archeological mystery for a long time to come – much more so that the adjacent Plateaus and Canyonlands. As explained in many places in this exhibit set, the region is archeologically challenging for many reasons. First and foremost are two factors: poor organic preservation at most sites and the lack of well-stratified sites. These factors also help explain why the region's climatic history is so poorly known. Like many areas of the state, the prehistoric record of the South Texas Plains is continuously diminished by modern development and by legions of artifact collectors. Artifact collecting has been a popular pastime for area residents and their visitors over the past century, but the continuous removal of more and more artifacts from the surfaces of sites with few buried deposits makes archeological research harder and harder to accomplish. And some artifact collectors these days aren't content to pick up artifacts from the site. Some dig up sites, destroying the buried evidence that survives. Fortunately, there are landowners who strive to keep their lands intact and do not allow access for artifact digging (sometimes even for legitimate research).

The region's diminished archeological record is all the more regrettable because scientists have developed new and refined techniques that are helping to overcome some of the research challenges. Improved palynological (the study of plant pollen) analyses are starting to contribute to improved paleoclimatic and paleoenvironmental. Geoarcheological research in a few areas has revealed much potential in sorting out the sequence of landscape alteration through time, which helps date archeological deposits and contributes to paleoenvironmental and paleoclimatic research. High-power microscopy of stone tool wear patterns, and other technological advances will help archeologists understand how different kinds of tools were used. But well-designed regional surveys and large-scale excavations are needed to provide the breakthroughs to a better understanding of the ancient cultures – and perhaps put to rest the continuing myths of unchanging peoples who all spoke the same language and who lived just above barbarism on the breezy grasslands of southern Texas.

The prehistory of south Texas has been summarized in some detail more than a few times by Dr. Thomas R. Hester, who contributed many pieces to the South Texas Plains exhibit set. His 1980 popular book Digging into South Texas Prehistory has long been out of print. It was the first regional synthesis written for the public of the archeological research of any area of the state. Although aimed at a more specialized audience, later of his publications synthesize more current research. His 1995 article “The Prehistory of South Texas” was later slightly revised and included in the 2004 book, The Prehistory of Texas, edited by Timothy K. Perttula. The 1995 version can be downloaded below.


Black, Stephen L.
1989 South Texas Plains. In From the Gulf to the Rio Grande: Human Adaptation in Central, South and Lower Pecos Texas, by T. R. Hester, S. L. Black, D. G. Steele, B. W. Olive, A. A. Fox, K. Reinhard, and L. C. Bement, pp. 39-62. Research Series No. 33. Arkansas Archeological Survey, Fayetteville.

Hester, Thomas R.
1980 Digging Into South Texas Prehistory: A Guide for Amateur Archaeologists. Corona Publishing Co., San Antonio.

1989 Historic Native American Populations. In From the Gulf to the Rio Grande: Human Adaptation in Central, South, and Lower Pecos Texas, by T. R. Hester, S. L. Black, D. G. Steele, B. W. Olive, A. A. Fox, K. Reinhard, and L. C. Bement, pp. 77-84. Research Series No. 33. Arkansas Archeological Survey, Fayetteville.

1989 Texas and Northeastern Mexico: An Overview. In Columbian Consequences, Volume 1: Archaeological and Historical Perspectives on the Spanish Borderlands West, edited by D. H. Thomas, pp. 191-211. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

1989 Perspective on the Material Culture of the Mission Indians of the Texas-Northeastern Mexico Borderlands. In Columbian Consequences, Volume l: Archaeological and Historical Perspectives on the Spanish Borderlands West, edited by D. H. Thomas, pp. 213-229. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

1995 The Prehistory of South Texas. Bulletin of the Texas Archeological Society 66:427-459.

1998 Notes on South Texas Archaeology 1998-4. "Coahuiltecan": a Critical Review of an Inappropriate Ethnic Label. La Tierra 25(4):3-7.