For too many in San Antonio and South Texas, the historical narrative begins in 1836 with the Battle of the Alamo.
Even for those with a more nuanced appreciation of the past, the early 18th century arrival of the Spanish and the establishment of the Missions is the first chapter in our history.
The truth is far more fascinating, found on the layered limestone walls and within the remote rock shelters of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands along the present-day Texas-Mexico border.
There, along the Balcones Escarpment between the Rio Grande, the Pecos and the Devil’s Rivers, archeologists have found a deeply rich record of rock paintings, petroglyphs, human habitation and survival that dates back 12,000 years.
For 80 years, archeologists and others associated with the Witte Museum have explored, chronicled and protected the evidence of this ancient people and culture, but a renewed effort to celebrate archeological advances and scholarship is introducing the canyon lands people to new generations of San Antonians.
“Painters in Prehistory: Archeology and Art of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands,” edited by Dr. Harry J. Shafer, the longtime Texas A&M University archeologist, and published by Trinity University Press, lifts the curtain anew on this extraordinary epoch in local prehistory.
Shafer, the curator of archeology at the Witte Museum, will do a book signing and presentation next Thursday. Nov. 14, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the Witte. Both are free and open to the public.
Shafer, a King William resident and the founder of the Southtown Men’s Book Club, is a rare species: an accomplished archeologist who happens to be a superb writer and published author.
His new book, commissioned by the Witte and underwritten by the late Kittie West Nelson Ferguson, showcases Shafer’s writing and his deft editing of 14 scholars, three artists and several photographers.
One of those photographers is fellow Southtown resident Al Rendon, well-known for his documentary work of Latino life in San Antonio, whose “Retrato” portraits are well-known to Rivard Report readers.
Rendon can now say his work helps document what we know about the region’s earliest known people.
“What we have right here in our own backyard is the best laboratory in North America, one of the best in the world, to study prehistoric hunter-gatherers,” said Shafer, an expert on Texas, Mexican and American Southwest prehistory. “We have magnificent rock art equal to any found elsewhere in the world, we have stone tools, intact woven basket and other materials, and we have coprolites.”
Coprolites is archeological speak for desiccated human excrement found in ancient occupation sites, and it, too, tells a story.
“Technology advances have led to extraordinary new insights,” Shafer said. “We now know what these people ate, and and what they ate seasonally. There were some surprises: They would eat whole mice — all of the animal. They ate grasshoppers, crickets, snakes.
“It once was thought that the rock art of the canyon lands was 2,000 years old, but advanced carbon dating techniques now allow us to get within plus or minus 30 years of the time the cave paintings were made, and we now know they go back 3,500 to 4,000 years ago.”
The canyon dwellers were the first known people to live in what is now South Texas and Northern Mexico, and the mesmerizing evidence that survives them, including fantastic rock paintings of shamans, hunters and animals, and pregnant women. Lithic tools, expertly woven baskets, cactus spine fish hooks, bone awls — offer a compelling connection to those of us who live here today.
The human tapestry in San Antonio and South Texas, it turns out, was woven not over the centuries but over the millennia. There are very few places in North America where the human continuum has been so definitively established and explored.
No one has done more to build and protect that record than the Witte Museum, dating back to digs and expeditions dating back to the 1930s when many of the region’s hundreds of rock shelters and caves were first excavated.
Countless sites have been looted, and others on private ranches remain to be explored. many are still accessible by boat on Amistad Lake, where they are federally protected but left largely unguarded.
The Witte’s efforts in the 1980s led to extensive new research and documentation, and the opening of the Ancient Texans permanent exhibition, and the publication of “Ancient Texans: Rock Art and Lifeways Along the Lower Pecos,” written by Shafer and including the great photographs of Jim Zintgraff.
“Now there has been a new renaissance of activity in the canyonlands,” said Marise McDermott, president and CEO of the Witte. “No one has been more important to this effort than Harry Shafer. “He’s a master archeologist, a beautiful writer and a generous editor of his fellow scholars.”
Rendon, who has photographed many of the city’s most notable contemporaries, said it was a spiritual experience to hold and document artifacts once held by people in tis region more than 10,000 years ago.
“My favorite was the shaman’s bag,” Rendon said. “It was incredible and the artifacts inside it were even more amazing.”
Visitors to the Witte can explore the museum’s permanent exhibition and then venture south to experience the Lower Pecos Canyonlands and the rock art.
Seminole Canyon State Park has multiple shelters, and Texas Parks and Wildlife guides conduct guided tours.
The Rock Art Foundation, based in San Antonio, has access to multiple sites on the Pecos River and also operates daily afternoon site tours.
The SHUMLA Archeological Research and Education Center is dedicated to research and teaching and its director and one of the contributors to “Painters in Prehistory,” Dr. Carolyn Boyd, is working on an ambitious program to document all of the rock shelters and other significant prehistoric sites.
Her team is using 3D laser scanning to convert faded rock art images into newly visible murals. Click on the link to learn more about Boyd’s work at White Shaman Cave and important sites, including her ground-breaking insights into the visual language of ancient artists.
“Exquisite in detail and masterful in execution, The Pecos River-style rock art panels document myths, histories and rituals of people living in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands thousands of years ago,” Boyd writes in the new book. “They represent the oldest religious narratives in North America.”
Both non-profit foundations are seeking funding and more supporters to help them carry on and complete their important work and create a permanent digital record and archive for future generations, which should ensure that the story of the region’s first people is not forgotten again.