Rio Grande Artifacts May Yield New Clues

Oct. 18, 2004
News My Way

HARLINGEN, Texas (AP) – Archaeologists have discovered a cache of artifacts near South Padre Island they say could be up to 5,000 years old, potentially providing new clues about early peoples of the Texas coast.

The items, found in a protective clay dune about 6 feet underground, appear to be part of a fishing camp for a nomadic group of hunter-gatherers, archaeologist Robert Ricklis said. They include fragments of shell tools, chipped flint projectile points, and a fish earbone, or otolith, that can be analyzed for information about the bay environment of the time.

Ricklis said the find was significant because so little is known about the ancient Rio Grande Valley. Most early manmade items would have been eroded by sand and sea air, or washed out by the ever-changing course of the waterways of the Rio Grande basin near the Mexican border.

“We don’t have a chronology for the Rio Grande Delta,” said Ricklis, who works for Corpus Christi-based Coastal Environments Inc. “We really have no idea of what the culture’s prehistory was.”

The artifacts were found in May during an archaeological survey by Coastal Environments of the Bahia Grande, a 6,000-acre lowland between Brownsville and Port Isabel. The survey was required before the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service proceeds with plans to restore wetlands lost to the digging of the Brownsville Ship Channel during the 1930s.

Geologists say the Gulf of Mexico once reached as far west as Starr County and the Mexican state of Coahuila. Paleo-Indians – the term for ancient peoples who roamed the Southwest – may have seen the Gulf’s final rise and retreat about 10,000 years ago, said Tony Zavaleta, an anthropologist at the University of Texas-Brownsville.

Ricklis said he believes the artifacts come from a later group of peoples who belonged to the archaic period, 7,500 B.C to 750 A.D., which is characterized by grinding tools and certain types of projectile points.

The artifacts have not yet been carbon dated, so Ricklis bases his estimate on the shape of the projectile point and what’s known about the Laguna Madre, the bay between South Padre Island and the mainland. He said the items were at least 1,000 years old, and he believes more study will determine they are even older than that. He has recommended more digging be done.

Zavaleta agreed that the area is one of the most historically significant, yet neglected, sites in Texas.

Andrew Elliott Anderson, one of the few archeologists to concentrate on the area, documented nearly 400 Indian site locations between 1908 and 1944.

When the ship channel was being dug, Anderson scooped artifacts that fell from the mud, including fossil fragments of mammals from the Pleistocene era (1.5 million to 11,000 years ago) and a bright red pot with the cremated remains of a child.

Anthropologists know roaming groups such as the Coahuiltecans regularly visited the area to hunt, fish and gather fruits and berries, and that by the time Spanish explorers arrived, there were thriving villages. But scientists know little about earlier peoples.

“Once you get to five thousand and beyond that you get into a whole different type of archaeology,” Zavaleta said.

Tom Hester of the University of Texas-Austin, considered the authority on South Texas archaeology, said the early days of the Rio Grande Valley are full of mysteries, including evidence of cemeteries for otherwise wandering peoples.

“Why did they return to a special site to bury the dead? Was it their way of defining territory?” he asked.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife has decided to move at least one of the planned flooding channels so as not to disturb the site.

“We want to take a more detailed look at it to make sure there wasn’t something missed,” said John Wallace, manager of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. “The intent is to find a spot free of artifacts.”