Did Deer Cloud Live Before Columbus?

 

Indigenous People of the United States

Indigenous People of the United States

 In my book, Peyote Fire: Shaman of the Canyons, the protagonist Deer Cloud paints stories of his gods on the wall of a rockshelter overlooking a river. The rock art is still there today for people to see. But when exactly was it painted? How old is it? Did that happen before Columbus visited America?

I get asked these questions a lot. In general Americans are pretty foggy on events in North America prior to European settlement. As it turns out, people like Deer Cloud created the Pecos River style rock art in the canyons along the Rio Grande just west of Del Rio, Texas,  about the same time as the Minoans flourished in Crete. That’s about 4,000 years ago, or 2,000 years BC.

Below is a short timeline on human occupation of North America, with some comparative information to add context with the rest of the world. When you look at the timeline, notice what was going on around the world in 2000 BC, or about 4,000 years ago.  What happened before? What happened after?  Please note that all dates are rounded and open to debate and new evidence.

Be watching for a quiz later this spring to win a free copy of my book! I hope you win!

Who, When and Where: Rough Timeline of Human Occupation of North America

Buffalo, the mainstay of North American Plains Indians

Buffalo, the mainstay of North American Plains Indians

1879 Traditional life of the Great Plains Indians is over. Other Native Americans have either moved to reservations or died. The buffalo of the Great Plains are gone, over 65 million destroyed by white hunters.

1875  The last Comanche villages in Palo Duro Canyon (Texas) destroyed by U.S. Army

1776   U.S. Declaration of Independence from England

1730   Founding of San Antonio by Spanish settlers in Texas

1718 Founding of New Orleans by the French

 1700-1875   Comanche, Kiowa and Apache rule the Great Plains of North America

1642 Founding of Montreal, Canada by the French as Ville Marie

1620 Pilgrims land at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts

1610   Don Pedro de Peralta establishes Santa Fe in New Mexico as the capital of the province of New Spain

1532 Pizarro begins the defeat of the Incas in Peru

1521 Cortez conquers the Aztecs in Mexico

1492 AD   Christopher Columbus makes landfall in the Caribbean

1000-1400 AD   Navajo and Apache migrate south from present-day Canada

http://newmexicohistory.org/places/navajo-nation-from-prehistory-to-the-twentieth-century, http://www.ihs.gov/navajo/index.cfm?module=nao_navajo_nation, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apache, http://www.indians.org/articles/apache-indians.html

Cahokia, courtesy of Britannica.com

Cahokia, courtesy of Britannica.com

700 AD   Cahokia settlement first established near what is today St. Louis http://cahokiamounds.org, http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/01/cahokia/hodges-text, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cahokia

0 The Common Era Begins

44 BC        Death of Julius Caesar

776 BC     First Olympic games

449 BC     Construction begun on Acropolis in Athens

800 BC     Founding of Rome

1,000 BC  Adena culture appears in what is today Ohio http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adena_culture

2,000 BC     Pecos River style polychrome rock art along the Rio Grande

Lower Pecos rock art

Lower Pecos rock art

http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/pecos/art.html, http://www.rockart.org, http://www.shumla.org

  • 1790 BC Code of Hammurabi
  • 2000 BC Maya Pre-Classic period in Central America
  • 2000 BC Minoans worship the mother goddess in Crete
  • 2600 BC Stonehenge begun in Britain
  • 2750 BC First Egyptian pyramid begun at Saqqara

3000 BC Evidence of silk production in China

  • 3114 BC Beginning of the Maya Long Count
  • 3200-2340 BC cities begin in Mesopotamia
  • 3300 BC Bronze Age begins in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and perhaps Britain
  • 3300 BC “Otzi the Iceman” dies in the Alps between today’s Austria and Italy
  • 3700 BC invention of wooden carts in Central Asia
  • 3750 BC First evidence of cotton weaving in India
  • 3761 BC Origin of the modern Hebrew calendar

4,000 BC     Old Copper Complex emerges in what will one day be Wisconsin http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Copper_Complex

  • 4000 BC First Egyptian hieroglyphs

6,000 BC     Domestication of corn in Mexico http://teosinte.wisc.edu/questions.html, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maize

The bones of Kenniwick Man, courtesy of the Seattle Times

The bones of Kenniwick Man, courtesy of the Seattle Times

7,500 BC     Kenniwick Man lived on northwest coast http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kennewick_Man http://www.burkemuseum.org/kennewickman

  • 11,000 BC Clovis culture emerges http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clovis_culture

19,000-12,000 BC       Human beings arrive in North America http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buttermilk_Creek_Complex, http://www.gaultschool.org/Home.aspx, http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/gault/, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meadowcroft_Rockshelter

 

7th Annual Lower Pecos Archaeolympics at Seminole Canyon

Throwing a spear with an atlatl is one of the eventsof anicent skill at the Archeolymics.

Throwing a spear with an atlatl is one of the events of ancient skill at the Archeolympics.

Reporting today’s blog post is Vicky Munoz, Archaeology Intern at the Shumla Research and Education Center.

The 7th Annual Archeolympics was held February 22,2014 at Seminole Canyon State Park near

Vicky Munoz

Vicky Munoz

Comstock, Texas, about 35 miles west of Del Rio.  The Archeolympics is a primitive skills competition featuring atlatl and spear throwing, rabbit stick throwing, and frictiion fire starting. Ancient people who lived in the Lower Pecos region of Texas used these three basic skills for daily life, but few contemporary folks practice them today. It’s not unusual for today’s paleo-triathletes to compete in all three events.

Participants included Boy Scout groups from Del Rio, Texas; the Experimental Archaeology Club at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas; and a group from San Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas; as well as individuals with a special place in their hearts for Archaic skills, some coming from as far as Houston.

The rabbit stick throwing competition was first up. A rabbit stick is a non-returning boomerang, and was used all over the world as a primitive hunting device.  The paleo-athletes took turns lining up and throwing at two defenseless soccer balls that stood in for rabbits about 20 feet down range. Each competitor had three shots per turn. This event, or any of the events for that matter, isn’t as easy as it sounds. Most participants missed the targets, but the crowd went wild when one of those “rabbits” bit the dust.  Watch the short video below by Jack Johnson to see the power of a rabbit stick against a mighty opponent, the “Pumpkin.”

A few of the competitors even had hits on all three throws! The bar was set high in this year’s games. Winners had to be determined by sudden death.   Juan Carlos won in the youth category (second place went to Josh Allen), and Lauren Kempf in the adult (second was Fabian Castillo and third was Jerod Roberts).

Friction fire starting was the second event of the day.  This is definitely the sprint event for the games. The event was open to all ages, but only five competitors were brave enough to enter: Robin Matthews, Jack Johnson, Charles Koenig, Bryan Heisinger, and Jerod Roberts. The rules for this event are deceptively simple: Start a fire using nothing but a spindle or hearth-board as fast as possible. No bow drills, all muscle.

Charles Koenig makes fire

Charles Koenig makes fire

Competitors arrange their kits in front of them on the ground. When the flag drops, the race begins.  Within 30 seconds, two were beginning to feed their hungry embers to create that fire. Charles Koenig and Jerod Roberts were neck and neck, but it was the previous champion, Charles, who eventually came out on top with a blistering time of 46 seconds.

The other competitors had to be reminded that the race was not over, and that there were two more places on the podium still up for grabs. They quickly went back to trying to conjure fire. Jack Johnson, also a previous friction fire race champion, added drama to the race by dropping out not just once, but twice, citing exhaustion. He had been doing fire starting demonstrations most of the morning and didn’t have enough energy saved up for the race! Jerod Roberts had also burned most of his energy giving Charles Koenig a run for his money, but managed to get another ember going, only to lose it once more. Exhausted and somewhat defeated, Roberts took a timeout. Watch this short video to see how to start a fire with a sotol drill and hearth stick.

Meanwhile Bryan Heisinger (see www.aswtproject.wordpress.com, Feb. 25, 2014), with laser like focus and coaching from the new champion Koenig, began

Friction fire starting race

Friction fire starting race. Photo courtesy Megan Vallejo.

to get his embers glowing. A newcomer to the sport, Heisinger later recounted how he was so determined to get a fire going that he was forgetting that he also needed to breathe! Clocking in over 4 minutes, Heisinger took second place as the others looked on, clearly feeling the burn (pun intended) in their arms. At just over 6 minutes, Robin Matthews and Jerod Roberts declared a draw and were awarded third place.

After halftime, the atlatl and spear throwing competition began. The sport was divided into  amateur, skilled, and team events. This is the real crowd pleasing event and the one with the largest number of competitors.  Apparently launching pointed darts at animal targets really gets the adrenaline going. Some competitors are so serious that they bring their own darts and atlatls from home.

Robin Matthews throwing with atlatl and spear

Robin Matthews throwing with atlatl and spear. Photo courtesy Shumla.

Scoring is as follows: three points for hitting the target of the deer in the heart/vital area, two points for a hit on the neck and face of the deer target, one point for a hit on any other part of the flesh. The rules to this are also deceptively simple: earn the most points in three attempts.

As the shoot-out began, the wind began to calm down a bit which was a big help to the competitors as they were throwing into the wind. For most of the hunters, the prey eluded them and they went hungry that night but of course, there is always a winner. In the amateur category, Amanda Castañeda took first place with second to Joe Taylor. Amanda delivered a fatal blow to the deer as well as one to her competition.

Those with more experience (and confidence) compete in the skilled category.  At this level, the competition is fierce with friends and couples being pitted against one another. Playful verbal jabs are slung at one another, especially within groups where they’re all vying to be the alpha atlatl hunter. It’s all-out war.

Charles Koenig, who also blazed his way to the top in friction fire race, took the top spot in the skilled category with Mallory Marcone taking second, and Jim (just Jim) taking third place. The youngest winner in the skilled competition was Willie Canseco, age 13.  Here’s a short clip of the atlatl event, courtesy of Michael Strutt and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

In the team atlatl category, the group known as the Eaglenesters took first place. Troop 255 managed to slip in and snatch second place, and the Sharknados defeated the remaining competition in sudden death for third place.  Each team got five shots at the target. Teams were composed of 2-5 people, with every member taking at least one shot.

Prize objects for winners

Prize objects for winners. Photo courtesy Shumla.

Ultimately, it’s important to note that these competitions aren’t just for pride or fun. Each first place winner received a beautiful Perdernales style projectile point knapped by Kinley Coyan from Sanderson, Texas. Unlike the recent Sochi Olympics, however, no national anthems were sung, nor flags raised.

The Archeolympics is the brainchild of National Park Service Archaeologist, Jack Johnson, Amistad National Recreation Area, and organized for the last five years by Park Ranger Tanya Petruney, Seminole Canyon State Park. The

Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson

purpose is to give the public the opportunity to get hands on experience while learning about the lifeways of the prehistoric Lower Pecos inhabitants, including demonstrations on flintknapping, fire starting, plant processing, cord making and, weaponry. The event is sponsored by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, The National Park Service, The Rock Art Foundation, and the Shumla Archaeological Research and Education Center. The event continues to grow every year but as of right now, this is one of Texas’ best kept secrets. Other events similar to this are held around the state year round. For more information on this check out the Texas Atlatl Association Meetup page (http://www.meetup.com/ATLATL/).

Well, that concludes this year’s Archeolympics! If you “like” the Seminole Canyon State Park Facebook

Great competition. Photo courtesy of Shumla.

Great competition. Photo courtesy  Shumla.

page, they will update you on when the next Archeolympics will be held plus all the other super cool things they have going on all year round. A special thank you to all the staff and volunteers! Without them this event would not be possible. Hope to see y’all next year!

Peyote Fire: Shaman of the Canyons

The sun which rises every day

The sun which rises every day

Some people have asked me about the novel I claim to be writing. I am happy to say that I have recently completed the first draft–over 86,000 words in about 19 months.  The book is tentatively called Peyote Fire, and is about the first peyote shaman.

The protagonist, Deer Cloud, is painting the stories of the Powerful Ones in a stone alcove high above the

Lower Pecos Canyonlands

Lower Pecos Canyonlands

river. His grandfather Panther Claw consecrated the alcove when Deer Cloud was a boy, especially for him to paint.  The two spent many years tracing designs on the ground to arrive at the best composition to honor the gods and preserve their greatness for generations to come. When Panther Claw dies, Deer Cloud’s life takes a dramatic turn.

The book is set in the Archaic Lower Pecos, or about 4000 years ago in the area of the confluence of the Pecos River and the Rio Grande, bounded on the east by the Devil’s River. The Rain Bringer clan lives in the canyons , river banks, and uplands of this territory. There are many magnificent, brilliantly painted rock shelters that tell the stories of their gods within their lands.

Rock Art from the Archaic Lower Pecos

Rock Art from the Archaic Lower Pecos

I have used archeological reports and treatises written about the people of the Archaic Lower Pecos as a factual base for the story.  I have tried to make descriptions of everyday life as accurate as possible, given what we know.  But we do not fully know the people’s understanding of their world. As a stand-in for their undoubtedly rich religious and philosophical life, I am relying upon ethnographies of the Huichol people of Mexico, whom some suspect may be distantly related.  I’ve had to strip out every  agricultural mention in the Huichol mythologies, and other modern strains, such as cultural changes brought on by contact with the Spanish, in order to seek an Archaic core.

From these core beliefs and descriptions of Huichol ceremonies, I have constructed a fictional world view that pervades the Rain Bringers’ lives.  This world view brings meaning to their lives and explains the natural phenomena that surrounded them; the same mysteries that surround us today.

I have a list of revisions two pages long which I am working through now.  When I get that done, I will start completely over to add characterization and nuance (hopefully) to the manuscript.  I hope to have it finished and ready to shop around by next June. (Which means I’d better get to work!)

I’m not sure how it will be published yet, but I know I want an ebook version.  My son Miles, the composer and computer dude,  is writing music for the electronic book.  I may also add a bit of video of the landscape, just to set the mood.  There will also be plain, unenhanced,  paper copies, whatever publishing route I choose.

Thank you for reading my blog, and I hope you will read the book when it becomes available. Stay tuned for another year to find out.

The Great Transformer, Grandfather Fire

The Great Transformer, Grandfather Fire

Pecos Experience, Day 4

Figures in White Shaman shelter . Note little man in canoe at bottom of picture.

Figures in White Shaman shelter.

Today our objective was White Shaman shelter with Dr. Carolyn Boyd.  Dr. Boyd has studied the art in this shelter for over 20 years, and is as passionate about it today as she was when she started. We spent the morning in the shelter hearing her latest hypotheses about the meaning of the painting and the process of painting itself.

This complex mural was painted with four colors, black, red, yellow and white over 4000 years ago. The small alcove where it is located overlooks the Pecos River near the confluence with the Rio Grande.  Today, this confluence is heavily silted, with only a narrow channel of water actually trickling from the Pecos into the Rio Grande.

There are a number of mortar holes ground into the stone floor of the alcove, and also into nearby boulders. The

Hole drilled or ground all the way through boulder in front of paintings and overlooking river. You can see light at the bottom of the hole.

Hole drilled or ground all the way through boulder in front of paintings and overlooking river. You can see light at the bottom of the hole.

purpose of these is unknown, but one possible hypothesis is that they were used to make alcoholic beverages of some kind, perhaps to be utilized in ceremonies. There is no evidence of paint pigment in the holes, so probably they were not used for grinding pigment.

Our schedule was so full this past week, I am finishing this post at home in Austin. Our small group was proud of themselves because we all got in and out of the canyons without having to leave anyone behind for the buzzards! Although at one time the group I was riding with in the pickup did vote to leave me there, if I broke a leg, and bury me in a crevice in the flex position. It was a unanimous vote.

We had a great medic with us at all times, Dave Gage. I have no doubt all his reflexes would have kicked in had anything serious really happened, and he would have made heroic efforts to carry someone out.  I asked if he had brought anesthetic or something to knock us out, in a case such as that, and he said no, it was just gonna hurt like hell!   I voted for the flexed burial instead.  We kept hearing stories of someone who had broken a hip recently down in a canyon, and was carried out. It was not fun.

I mentioned the wonderful food we had in an earlier post. Therese, the cook, is wonderful!

Almond cupcakes with green tea icing

Almond cupcakes with green tea icing

She made chicken tagine with olives and carrots, lentils with kale, couscous, tabooli, and naan one night. The last night we had a baked ham with raisin sauce, garlic mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, green beans with mushrooms, homemade rolls, and

Semifreddo--Take five cups of cream, two cups of sugar, 12 egg yolks...

Semifreddo–Take five cups of cream, two cups of sugar, 12 egg yolks…

three kinds of pie!  To me, the best desert of the week was the Italian semifreddo, a type of light-as-air ice cream. Yes, we were very spoiled.

The morning of the last day we held a ceremony overlooking a small arroyo to dedicate our prayers to the powers that be. Dr. Stacy Schaefer of California State University at Chico lead the typical Huichol ceremony.  Stacy has studied the Huichol, a small group in Mexico, for about 30 years.

Offerings to the wind

Offerings to the wind

She conducted the blessing ceremony, and we left the Huichol-style offerings we had made in the rocks for the wind and rain. We had each gained something special from the week, and we each felt the glory of the landscape and the call of the paintings by the ancients.  The ceremony was an act of gratitude for these things, and acknowledgement of our small place in the history of mankind.

Future posts will elaborate on many of the sites and observations from the past week. A week in the Lower Pecos gives you a clean heart and a clear head–and lots to write about!

Pecos Experience, Days 2 and 3, Part I

Polychrome figure in Cedar Springs shelter near Devil's River

Polychrome figure in Cedar Springs shelter near Devil’s River

We hiked to Cedar Springs shelter and Mystic shelter, both near the Devil’s River, on the second day of the Pecos Experience, thanks to the folks at the Shumla School (see www.shumla.org). This involved crossing the river twice, scrabbling up a pretty steep boulder hill, then bumping over boulder beds in creek drainages to get to the shelters.  At the end of about seven hours, we got our reward by a dip in the cool, clean river, always my favorite part.

The figure above is in polychrome, or many colors, in the Lower Pecos style of painting. Notice the red, yellow, and black colors. White is also used on some figures.  Red and yellow mineral pigments were made from naturally occurring ochres in this area, and black from manganese. The white pigment was probably from kaolin, but that is another story, since there are no naturally occurring deposits in this area. There are in Big Bend, however. Does that mean people perhaps as long 7000 years ago were trading with others from the Big Bend area?  That question is still under investigation, as are many others concerning the rock art and lifeways of the ancient people of the Lower Pecos region.

A cool front blew in last night, and tents were flapping I understand.  For some reason I didn’t hear the wind. I think I finally fell asleep after the moon went down and quit shining in my eyes.  I have always been sensitive to

Figures in Cedar Springs shelter

Figures in Cedar Springs shelter

moonlight-it often wakes me up at home. About dawn today we had a six-inch rain, to use current Austin slang.  For the past several years we have been in severe drought in Austin, so we’ve lately been defining a six-inch rain as six drops of moisture, six inches apart. It has been mercifully cool all day, and I’ve  worn my fleece most of the day.

Today we went to Painted Cave, the type-site for the red monochrome style of painting found in this area. The wall once was covered in polychrome Lower Pecos style, then supposedly repainted in red monochrome. There is a lovely stream under the wall, where the paintings sometimes reflect. But not much reflection today because of the cloud cover.

Painted Cave has seen human occupation from the time of the Lower Pecos style, which could be as old as 7000 years ago, through the red monochrome people who are depicted here with bows and arrows, indicating they came much later, to the old ranch house and sheep herders dwelling within sight of the cave. The stories this wall could tell!

The reason for all this human activity is water. There is a beautiful spring,

Spring at Painted Cave. Ranchers in the 1880s used to draw water from this spring. As well as people thousands of years earlier.

Spring at Painted Cave. Ranchers in the 1880s used to draw water from this spring. As well as people thousands of years earlier.

with a great swimming hole, just up canyon a few yards from the painted wall. It is full of water even in this extreme drought.  The black brush was in bloom around this pool today, and young willows leafing out. Water was here, animals were here, plant resources were here. And people.

Dinner will be soon, so I will share more later. But first I want to mention the culinary experiences we’ve also been having this week!  Monday night was Italian wedding soup and manicotti stuffed with prosciutto (spelling, anyone??) and ricotta, and homemade focaccia. Tuesday night was Chinese beef and broccoli with egg drop soup and almond/green tea cupcakes for dessert. Oh yes, and homemade pot stickers!  Chicken is involved tonight, but I don’t know what yet!  My thanks to the cook, Therese!

More details next week. I hope to put together a slide show of the rock art at these magnificent places, but that takes more time than I have tonight.  We are busy with great stuff every minute!  Love it!

Presa Canyon

Rock Art in Presa Canyon

Rock Art in Presa Canyon

This is the first of several articles this week live from the Pecos Experience at the Shumla School, west of Del Rio, Texas.  I arrived Friday night so I could hike Presa Canyon Saturday, courtesy of the Texas Parks and Wildlife and Seminole Canyon State Park.

Black Cave

Black Cave

I had been warned that this was an “extremely strenuous” hike, and that warning is correct. I was so tired that I came back to camp and took a two hour nap, ate dinner, then slept another 12 hours. Got up today, had coffee, took a nap, and will go to be early tonight too.  I am sore in so many places!  But I made it in and out, and therein lies the tale.

The only way to see Presa Canyon is to join one of these tours that only go in cool months.  There were about 23 in our group, along with two guides from the Rock Art Foundation.  It is about four hours in to Black Cave, our final destination, and four hours out. We were lucky because there was a breeze and the temperature only reached the low 90s, even though the stone canyon was like a radiant oven.

This hike feels like it is mano a mano with nature. At least that’s what it feels like to an old woman like me. There are numerous boulder fields that must be climbed and gotten down from, and lots of thorny brush to push through. My mind was completely focused on where to put my next step so I wouldn’t sprain an ankle. That and drinking enough water so I wouldn’t get heat stroke.

I hadn’t slept a wink the night before because my monkey mind kept saying “heat stroke, rattlesnake, sprained ankle” like an evil mantra over and over. We did not see a single snake, although I am sure they saw us, and no one got overheated or injured. The buzzards didn’t circle, so you know we made it out alive!

Figures in Black Cave

Figures in Black Cave

When we could look up, we  got to see some wonderful rock art. Our destination was Black Cave, which contains a panel of quite vivid art.  The panel seems to be made up of several separate elements rather than being one continuous composition. But that’s just how it looks. Who knows what it really means?

Figures in Black Cave

Figures in Black Cave

The air was intoxicating with the sweetness of blackbrush, huisache and Mexican buckeye trees in mad bloom. More than one person commented that they felt like they were being seduced by the fragrance so as not to pay attention to the thorns and rocks that were brushing us and trying to grab our boots. Yes, it was another trick to get us.

We thought about the people who once lived here and made these paintings. How did they do it? The figures in Black Cave are very high up the wall. No one could have reached that high, so they had to have used some sort of scaffold. The paint is still vivid

Huisache ("we-sache")

Huisache (“we-sache”)

today, 4000 years at after it was applied, at least. How did they make such a paint? My house paint certainly won’t last that long. How did they even walk through the canyon? They didn’t have high-tech hiking boots and camel-backs. How did they carry water? What did they think about?  What did they mean to tell us with these figures?

Those are the questions that drew me here. Ones I’ll be exploring this week. I hope you will stay tuned for more!

Peyote: Plant Helpers of the Lower Pecos, Part III

Huichol indian yarn painting of peyote cactus

Huichol indian yarn painting of peyote cactus

Peyote was a powerful plant helper for ancient people of the Lower Pecos. Like the Huichol indians of Mexico today, ancient people probably considered peyote a sacred plant. Peyote contains the drug mescaline, which brings colorful hallucinations to those who consume it, along with nausea and other uncomfortable side effects.

Peyote has been used for at least 4000 years in the Lower Pecos and other areas for both medicinal and spiritual purposes. Mashed and dried peyote, radiocarbon dated to  4045-3960 B.C., has been found in certain rock shelters near the Rio Grande. Strings of peyote buttons have also been discovered in caves of northern Mexico.

Dried peyote buttons

Dried peyote buttons

Peyote use spread to Native American groups in the Great Plains and Southwest such as the Lipan Apache, Tonkawa, Mescalero Apache, and Pima by the 1880s. Today, only members of the Native American Church may legally consume peyote in the U.S.

Taken in small doses, peyote is a mild stimulant and reduces appetite. Tarahumara indians in Mexico often chew peyote during their foot races to strengthen them as they run 50 miles or more. The cactus also contains substances that possess antiseptic and antibiotic properties against many types of bacteria.  Mashed cactus can be applied to burns or wounds to prevent infection. The Kiowa also used peyote to treat illnesses such as flu and scarlet fever.

This shy little cactus was declared illegal in 1970 by the United States’ Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act.  The cactus continues to grows wild in south Texas and northern Mexico , but is under stress from several causes, according to Dr. Martin Terry of Sul Ross State University.Peyote_Cactus

Previous posts about mountain laurel and moon flower round out this short series on plant helpers of the Lower Pecos.

 

Rock Art Foundation

Rock Art Foundation tour to White Shaman Shelter on the Pecos River

Rock Art Foundation tour to White Shaman Shelter on the Pecos River

My guest today is Greg Williams, Executive Director of the Rock Art Foundation, which promotes conservation and education about the rock art of the Lower Pecos.  The Rock Art Foundation owns the White Shaman Preserve and offers tours there every Saturday.  To learn more, please see their website at www.rockart.org.

Greg Williams, Ex. Director, Rock Art Foundation

Greg Williams, Ex. Director, Rock Art Foundation

Hi Greg, thank you for being with us today. How long have you been with the Rock Art Foundation (RAF)?

It’s been about 20 years.  I first met Jim Zintgraff in 1993 – I had hired him to do a photo shoot in my business – so it’s been almost 20 years since I first became involved with the RAF.

Jim Zintgraff was a photographer, right?

Yes, he was a commercial photographer in San Antonio.  But in the early 1950s he started photographing rock art west of Del Rio, which was mostly unknown by the general public at the time because it was all on private land.  When the state of Texas decided to build Amistad Dam on the Rio Grande around 1963, Jim was commissioned to document many of the ancient pictographs that would be inundated with the filling of the lake. His images preserve this great legacy from the past.  Later Jim organized the Rock Art Foundation to continue this work.

What do you want the general public to understand about the ancient Image 5paintings in the Lower Pecos?

How important the art was to the people that left their stories for us to consider and what they could mean to us. The people who painted them had to be first concerned with survival in a harsh land but they took time from that to paint their mythology which was as important to them as their survival.

What is the biggest thrill you had with RAF?

Every trip I make to West Texas is a thrill. The country, the archaeology, the modern military and settler history, the tour participants – all are thrilling. Each time. It would be impossible to single out only one. I am as excited every time I go – just like the first trip.

Have you had any close encounters with snakes or other creatures of the wild?

Not many – we travel in a group and make a lot of noise. Most critters are long gone before we get there. It’s very hard to sneak up on a desert creature – most are nocturnal. In 30+ years of being in West Texas I’ve probably seen less that 5 rattlesnakes but we did see a mountain lion a few years ago at Meyers Springs. She was most likely tending to a hurt cub or we would have never seen her.

RAF Bunkhouse at White Shaman Preserve

RAF Bunkhouse at White Shaman Preserve

Besides tours of rock art sites in the Lower Pecos, what else does RAF do?

We are currently providing scholarships to the Shumla School in Comstock (associated with Texas State University) and outstanding seniors at the Comstock High School. We work with Landowners assisting in conservation efforts – in a recent example we contracted with Texas Tech University to provide a complete assessment of the prehistoric and historic cultural resources on a West Texas ranch for a new Landowner. The RAF keeps funds in reserve to protect endangered property through acquisition if needed.

We are also involved with restoration efforts on private ranches and are the official “Friends Group” for Seminole Canyon State Park helping them by conducting their weekend tours. The RAF operates a tour guide program with 15 experienced/trained Guides and we work with Landowners to develop access for this program (there is no BLM land in Texas – it’s all private property).

We also assist in research funding helping to defray the cost of field research and assist with publication funding. We have published our own book and CD ROM on Lower Pecos archaeology as well as the development and continued support of our website and have just established an electronic newsletter.

We also stage an annual fundraiser campout, the Rock Art Rendezvous, each October at Image 6the White Shaman Preserve and offer as many tours as possible that weekend. All these efforts are focused toward the preservation through education of the unique world class archaeology in West Texas. Our funding is all provided through private donations. We operate very efficiently – no one in our organization receives a salary.

Any advice for people new to exploring Lower Pecos rock art?

Yes – go to West Texas and listen to the country. Look at what appears around you and sit quietly. Be there at a sunrise, a sunset, sit beside the campfire – it will change you. If you’ve never been there it will introduce you to a part of yourself you didn’t know.

Thanks for being with us today, Greg.

Moon Flower: Plant Helpers of the Lower Pecos, Part II

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Moon flower, one of  the triumvirate of powerful helping plants in the ancient Lower Pecos, is known by many names: Jimson weed, loco weed, datura, stink weed, thorne apple and devil’s weed, to mention the most common.  These plants are members of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, which claims over 2,500 species such as potatoes, eggplants, and tomatoes. Datura stramonium, or moon flower, is a fragrant night-blooming plant that grows wild all over the world, including the Lower Pecos, and can cause delirium, anxiety, hallucinations, stupor, coma and death.

The plants contain the tropane alkaloids– atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine. These alkaloids have many uses in modern medicine, but also serious side effects. Atropine interferes with activity in the brain stem, ranging from motor impairment to rapid heart beat, to overheating of the body. Internal bleeding and stroke can occur. Scopolamine and hyoscyamine are also sometime known as  “zombie drugs” because of the delirium and unpleasant hallucinations they can cause.

Spiny seed pods

Spiny seed pods

The seeds and leaves are the most potent, but all parts of the plant are toxic.  Uncomfortable effects generally begin 20-30 minutes after ingestion. Effects can  last from eight hours to three days.

Many researchers agree that ancient people of the Lower Pecos used moon flower, or datura, as a plant helper to converse with the ancestors and gods.  Their shaman were undoubtedly familiar with the plant and learned to dose themselves and others carefully to prevent dire reactions.  Some images in rock art have been interpreted as datura seed pods.

Spiny dots could be datura pods

Spiny dots could be datura pods

The Hopi used this plant for divination purposes, and Carlos Castaneda wrote about it in his famous book from 1968 The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. In the European Middle Ages, the  deadly nightshade known as belladonna was often used in magical brews.

A large moon flower plant grew at the base of our back door steps when I was a child. I was fascinated by the aromatic flowers that bloomed as the summer twilight deepened ,  and I wanted to pluck them for my hair.  But my mother always cautioned me strongly not to even touch the plant, and especially never to eat it. (It was not unknown for us kids to eat a little grass with our mud pies, but then, those were simpler days, when kids made up their own games outdoors.)

There must have been a note of truth and urgency in my mother’s voice when she cautioned me, for I obeyed her on this. And I was not known for being obedient.

Once my grandfather and I were riding horseback through a field when we came upon a moon flower plant.  I still remember the sharp distaste my grandfather conveyed as he said, “Don’t let the horse get into that!  That’s loco weed.  Now I have to get out here and get rid of it.”

I asked why he didn’t want the horse to nibble it, and he said, “because it will make him loco, crazy.  Don’t let him get into it, and don’t you touch it!”  And we quickly turned the other way.P1040172

The Center for Disease Control reports a number of datura or moon flower intoxications over the past few years which resulted in trips to  emergency rooms and admission to intensive care units. In one case, a family accidentally ate datura leaves in a stew, thinking it was an edible wild herb. Six members of the family were taken to the hospital, two of them unconscious.

Moon flower is not regulated in any way in the United States, even though it can cause severe reactions. It carries no warning signs in gardens or in the wild. Archaic people knew the power of this plant, after generations of dangerous trial and error.  Modern people should be aware that even one seed is poisonous and can cause severe discomfort.

The ancient people of the Lower Pecos used all parts of their environemnt, including toxic hallucinogenic plants. A  post in January discussed mountain laurel in Part 1 of this series, and an article on peyote is coming in March.  Nature is beautiful and complicated, as we learn over and over again. Four thousand years ago in the canyon lands near the Pecos River and the Rio Grande, the people knew this well.

Snake Story: Life and Death in a Bedrock Pool

Bedrock Pool in Seminole Canyon

Bedrock Pool in Seminole Canyon

I’m pleased to introduce my guest blogger today, Jack Johnson, park archeologist for the Amistad National Recreation Area near Del Rio, Texas.

Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson

Thanks for joining us today Jack.  I’ll bet you run into snakes frequently as you hike the area around Lake Amistad, either in the course of your work or recreationally.   Ever see any rattlesnakes?

Weirdly, most of my rattlesnake stories involve trying to capture and relocate snakes that have placed themselves in the path to a restroom or latrine, and in one case done so repeatedly over several days.

Well, I’m glad that’s your job, not mine. What’s your favorite story about a snake?

Well, those rattlers were not especially big ones, nobody came close to being bitten, and this will not be that story.  The snake that features in my most memorable herpetological happenstance was small, non-venomous, and was not a threat to anybody. In fact, it couldn’t hurt a bug.

Please explain.

One day I was leading a hike in Seminole Canyon State Park, down the dry canyon in the direction of its eventual confluence with the Rio Grande.  We had passed Fate Bell shelter, the impressively large and pictograph-adorned rockshelter visited by the park’s daily tours.  We were on our way to a major side-canyon called Presa Canyon, on an all-day trek that allows park visitors to explore the otherwise off-limits canyon bottoms and to experience more of the striking landscape and ancient rock art of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands. We walked over smoothly sculpted bedrock, and past two of the small permanent springs that would have provided Fate Bell shelter’s nomadic inhabitants with fresh drinking water for thousands of years.  These canyon floors also have many other bedrock pools that are not spring fed, but because they are shaded part of the day by high canyon walls they can hold water for weeks after seasonal rains.  The pools are an oasis in this semi-arid land and magnets for wildlife.  They are home to countless insect larvae, tadpoles, and other aquatic critters and are frequented by deer, raccoons, birds, and just about every other animal out here.

Folks on tours often ask me about snakes, and inquisitors generally fall into two very different groups.  The first group asks with trepidation, and if I told them there was a good chance that they would see a rattler during their visit to the park, I think some of them would go straight back to their RVs and drive until they thought it was safe to step outside again. The second group asks eagerly, and often these are snake hunters — either herpetology students or collectors or people in the pet trade — and we have to keep an eye on them as they often try to poach snakes from the park.

I tell the tour that here in the canyon bottoms they are most likely to see ribbon snakes, small and harmless relatives of garter snakes. These are pretty little snakes, almost black with bright orange and yellow stripes running from head to tail. The ones I see are usually about the diameter of a pencil and maybe 18 inches long.  They live in and around the pools, where they eat the tadpoles and such.  I tell people that if they think they are afraid of snakes, it goes the other way too and they should just see the urgency with which a ribbon snake tries to be anywhere else when beset by two-dozen enthralled elementary school kids on a field-trip.  I tell them that if we approach each pool quietly, we may get to see one, and possibly frogs and other critters.

I had just finished so introducing the ribbon when we came around a corner and saw some commotion in the next pool down the canyon. A small snake was writhing furiously, locked in combat with something.   I assumed that a ribbon snake had caught a frog or something that had more fight in it than the snake had bargained for.  I was reminded of that cartoon of the frog with its hands around the neck of the water bird that is trying to eat it, with the caption “Don’t give up!”   I’d never actually seen a ribbon snake feeding before, so I got out my camera and tried to think what David Attenborough would say.

Beetle attacking ribbon snake

Beetle attacking ribbon snake

As we got closer to the pool it became clear that the ribbon snake was not the predator here but the prey.  A diving beetle, perhaps an inch and a half long, had a firm grip behind the unfortunate snake’s head with its pincers.  Whenever the snake struggled to free itself, the beetle’s legs would unfurl and it would ride out the thrashing like a bull-rider, eventually wrestling the snake into submission.  The beetle’s legs then folded back against its body, and it once more looked exactly like a floating brown leaf instead of the terrifying and thankfully small creature that it is.  I had seen pictures before of diving beetles grasping little minnows, but this snake was nearly a foot long! Also, still

Struggle between beetle and ribbon snake

Struggle between beetle and ribbon snake

photos of a diving beetle nibbling on an already dead minnow did nothing to capture the violence of the life and death struggle going on in the pool before us.

Diving beetles grasp and stab their prey with huge, hollow piercing pincers that they also use to suck out their prey’s juices.  When diving, they carry a supply of air with them under their wing covers, like scuba tanks. They can fly.  I thought of Starship Troopers, and was very, VERY glad that diving beetles don’t get big enough to be a threat to people. I would never go near the water again! No thanks, I’ll stick with predators that aren’t so terrifying.  Like big gosh-darned rattlers.

Thanks for telling us this fascinating story, Jack.  And, uh, watch where you step.