Artifacts, Archaeology and Cabeza De Vaca (Part I)

In Southern Texas and Northeastern Mexico

By Thomas R. Hester

Introduction

Of all the various routes published for Cabeza de Vaca over the past century, none make any sense, in terms of the archaeological record, except those of Krieger (1961) and Campbell and Campbell (1981). This route (see also Chipman 1987: 143,145), hereafter referred to as the "southern route," (Figure 1) takes Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and his group from the upper and central Texas coast, across southern Texas, and into northeastern Mexico. Since the archaeological record of this region has existed for only a few decades, earlier scholars could not have made full advantage of the Cabeza de Vaca chronicles in considering the various alternatives for the route. Even today, we can push the "southern route" a bit further south than Krieger, Campbell and Campbell because of what Cabeza de Vaca did not record‹and what we have learned archaeologically about the region in the past 30 years. Most importantly in this planning document, and in the Witte Museum/ Southwest Texas State University planning meetings, we can be fairly confident of this "southern route" and use it to predict the kinds of cultures and cultural materials that Cabeza de Vaca encountered. Then, appropriate artifacts and archaeological cultures can be selected from extant collections for interpretative exhibits.

Cabeza de Vaca and Coastal Native Groups

Based on the recent archaeological studies by Robert Ricklis (1994) on Galveston Island, new insights can be added to the initial phase of Cabeza de Vaca's capture and subsequent movements among coastal peoples. There is little doubt that the Narvaez expedition, of which Cabeza de Vaca was a member, was shipwrecked on Galveston Island or a nearby area of the upper Texas coast. The descriptions of the peoples they encountered match closely the archaeological remains found by Ricklis, though they are perhaps broadly representative of upper coastal cultural adaptations in the early 16th century. Cabeza de Vaca records the use of the bow and arrow, fish weirs or traps and a heavy reliance both on fish and roots during fall and winter on the island. Special mortuary treatment was reserved for children and for "medicine men" (who were cremated). Though the current political situation prevents us from utilizing, in a museum exhibit, any burial materials, Ricklis found that most grave goods were lavished on adult males and children. One adult burial contained what Ricklis (1994:476) describes as a "rat-tooth bloodletting instrument," which he infers to be a "shaman's possession," albeit not with a cremation. If one looks at the Cabeza de Vaca chronicle, the reference to the use of such an item in bloodletting involved a child (probably in northern Mexico or in the Southwestern United States), and the bloodletting, with the use of "sharp mouse teeth" (Covey 1961: 113) was apparently not done by a shaman or medicine man. I will return to this matter at the end of this paper. Ricklis' excavations also produced examples of dwellings (postmold patterns and artifact concentrations) that would be more in line with a long-term occupation by a sizable group of up to several hundred people, perhaps in the fall-winter situation described by Cabeza de Vaca, although he did not specifically describe their houses. Whether these peoples were Karankawa, Akokisa, or some other group, they are more complex in term of social organization and belief systems than Cabeza de Vaca recorded. Clearly, some of the domestic artifacts dating to the early 16th century from Ricklis' excavations, now housed at the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory [TARL], at The University of Texas at Austin would be especially appropriate for exhibit. These include arrow points and other stone tools, bone and shell artifacts, and pottery (Covey 1961:55 notes that an "earthen pot" was one of the objects stolen from a native hut on the island; a recent translation of Cabeza de Vaca by Maria Wade of the UT Austin Department of Anthropology indicates that this "pot" was an olla) In addition, reconstructions of house floors (postmold patterns) and food processing areas (hearths) could be done. As I noted above, use of burial goods or even photographs of burials/burial goods would likely result in complaints from Native American groups.

It is during Cabeza de Vaca's presence among the coastal groups that we learn the most about material culture, especially the kinds that survive archaeologically. This is the role of trader that Cabeza de Vaca begun in 1530 when he lived among the "people of Charruco" in the coastal zone south of Galveston Island. Much has been written about Cabeza de Vaca's role as a trader (e.g., Corgan 1969; Wade 1996), but here I will focus specifically on the material goods that he exported and imported, and what that tells us archaeologically. Wade (personal communication, 1996) in her translation of Cabeza de Vaca, indicates that the items he took with him from the coast were: pieces of "sea snails" (conch or other gastropods) and their "hearts" [here, he must be referring to the columella of the conch, widely prized as a raw material], and shells to cut a fruit-like bean with which they cure and make bailes and fiestas [this "bean" would not have survived archaeologically, though a discussion of the identify of this vegetal item would be important].

With these goods, Cabeza de Vaca was able to travel into the interior, apparently crossing territories without conflict. I think this is the result of a trading system of great time depth in southern Texas, in which he just happened to get involved. There is ample archaeological evidence, on which I have written a number of times, of prehispanic trade in southern Texas (cf. Hester 1971a,b, 1980,. 1995). Once in the interior, he traded his coastal goods for the following items, again based on Wade's recent translation: "skins," "red dirt with which they grease and paint their faces and hair" [hematite or red ocher], chert (pedernales) points of arrows, hard cane to make arrow shafts (flechas). glue, and "some tassels which they make of skin of deer and dye red."

Cabeza de Vaca's trading endeavors closely match the archaeological record of the central Texas coast and southern Texas, perhaps even into central Texas and the lower Pecos. Covey's (1961) suggestions of his incursions going into East Texas and Oklahoma can be discounted. The Texas coast was without chippable stone (chert or "flint") and since Archaic times, there is ample evidence of south and central Texas cherts being obtained by coastal peoples to make spear and arrow points. This may have even accelerated in Late Prehistoric times, roughly the era of Cabeza de Vaca, when bison hunting became important on the coastal prairies‹and thus the need for more chert for arrow points, end scrapers, knives, and perforators (Hester and Parker 1970) Chert of pretty good quality is available on the lower Nueces and the lower Guadalupe 15-50 miles upstream from the coast (Chandler 1984). Red ochre or hematite appears in coastal burials (e.g., Hester 1969), as well as in those on the coastal/interior ecotone, such as the Archaic cemetery at Loma Sandia (Taylor and Highley 1995). Skins, arrow shafts, and tassels have left no archaeological trace. I am not sure what "glue" the coastal peoples desired from the interior, perhaps sap from mesquite or similar trees which make a good mastic, however, they had available, and had used since at least 600-800 B.C., asphaltum that washed up on the beaches, and which could be melted and used as an adhesive.

In the interior, marine shell is present at many sites (cf. Hester 1971 a,b, 1980, Black 1986; Highley 1986). Indeed, ornaments of marine shell imported from the Texas coast are found as early as 5800 years ago at the Bering Sink mortuary site in Kerr County (Bement 1994). Marine shell usually occurs as scattered specimens, especially conch shell fragments, conch columella (often made into either tools or disc-shaped beads), and fragments of ribbed cockle shell such as Dinocardium robustum. Here again, it is my distinct impression that the very late Late Prehistoric peoples had more of this material, as at the Hinojosa site near Alice (Black 1986) and site 41LK201 on the Frio River west of Three Rivers (Highley 19860). An alternative to trade would be interaction between coastal and interior groups; Ricklis (1996) has suggested contemporary cohabitation of a coastal margin site, 41RF21, and perhaps during such events, trade would have taken place. But given the time depth of such trade in the interior of south, central and lower Pecos Texas, I suspect that some other mechanism led to an intensification of exchange in the Late Prehistoric. Certainly once shell artifacts had been obtained by interior groups, they could have been "redistributed" through trade during the annual prickly pear harvests.

Cabeza de Vaca in the Interior will have to wait for another post...

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