Artifacts, Archaeology and Cabeza De Vaca (Part II)

Cabeza de Vaca in the Interior

Cabeza de Vaca's activities on the margin of the coastal prairies, and then his journey through the interior to the Rio Grande raise several archaeological issues. For example, references to subsistence activities are of interest. While with the Mariames on the lower Guadalupe River (we assume), Cabeza de Vaca and his colleagues where involved in the processing of pecans. This may have involved ground stone manos and metates, or even the use of stone pestles. Alternatively, they may have used wooden mortars and pestles of the sort reported ethnohistorically in Nuevo Leon in the 17th century by Alonso de Leon (Brown 1988; see also Beals 1932), and archaeologically, from the lower Pecos area by Collins and Hester (1968) and Prewitt (1981). In addition, the harvesting and processing of tuna, the fruit of prickly pears might have involved similar gear, or just an earthen pit.

It is of great interest to me that when, in 1532, Cabeza de Vaca and colleagues are involved in the summer harvesting of prickly pear tuna, there is no mention of pottery, which would have been ideal for the storage of beverages made from tuna juices (cf Krieger 1956:53); indeed, he mentions a "lack of vessels" for the juice from the tunas. Either this is specific only to the group with whom Cabeza de Vaca's was associated, or his route across southern Texas was a bit farther south than the "southern route" currently suggests. I can say this with confidence in that the peoples of the southern Texas interior had begun making bonetempered pottery, including olla forms as early as A.D. 1200 1300 (cf. Hester 1980:126; Highley 1986) and continued making this ware through the Late Prehistoric and during the time they were residing in the 18th century Spanish missions. Pottery was being made as far south as Alice, and clearly north of a line running from Dimmit County down to Alice and eastward to Baffin Bay. Thus, the map of his journey might be more accurately drawn as running south of Alice (per Campbell and Campbell 1981 : Figure l) - or his route took a decided southern turn per Wells and Davenport (cf. Chipman 1987:131). I doubt the latter is the case as the Wells and Davenport route would have put the castaways in the South Texas Sand Sheet area, a patch of south Texas that Cabeza de Vaca would have surely remembered ! Indeed, if Cabeza de Vaca was among the Avavares, whose territory included the legendary great prickly pear fields, he would then have been in Webb, Duval and southern Jim Wells County, south of the pottery-making peoples.

While among the Avavares, Cabeza de Vaca was told of the myth of Mala Cosa, the Badthing. Among his deeds was the use of a "flint knife two palms long and a hand wide" (Covey 1961:90) to inflict wounds on hapless individuals. There is no raw material in southern Texas that would have allowed the Avavares to even envision a stone tool of that size (the Uvalde and Rio Grande gravels used for points and everyday tools are relatively small cobbles). A description of such a massive biface may reflect what we see archaeologically in the region, and that is the presence of large, thin bifaces ("knives") that have been traded into the region from the Edwards Plateau (e.g. Taylor and Highley 1995, Hester and Barber 1990). [Such specimens are in both the Witte and TARL collections.] Cabeza de Vaca's projected entry into Mexico near what is today the Falcon Reservoir district is probably accurate. We are just now learning about the Late Prehistoric peoples in that region, and are literally awaiting receipt of radiocarbon dates on several burials (with associated grave goods) that might shed new light on the people of that region in the 16th century (cf. Hester 1995). It should also be noted that this area, especially Starr, Zapata and Jim Hogg Counties, has a high density of prickly pear, but little in the way of creeks or other surface water (Hester 1981). This area and the area to the east could have been the territories of the Avavares (at least seasonally), and certainly the Arbadaos (Campbell and Campbell 1981), and the dire descriptions of their subsistence, during Cabeza de Vaca's eight months in the monte , would certainly fit with the settlement pattern and low-density resource modeled that I have put forth for the region [Hester 1981; why Covey (1961 :92) equates this locale with the Texas "hill country" is indeed a mystery]. Cabeza de Vaca's stay among the Cuchendados (Campbell and Campbell 1981:393 on the Rio Grande demonstrates his adaptation to life in the region (Wade 1996) and his skills at making items of material culture, such as mats, which were greatly prized as house coverings in what appear to have been at least a couple of sizable villages. Cabeza de Vaca offers other insights into subsistence that have archaeological implications. He notes bison in the area of the Mariame (which Covey for some inexplicable reason places in the area of Austin), and clearly there were bison at this period on the coastal prairies (cf. Hester and Parker 1970, Ricklis 1996). He also points to the fact that the Mariame and related groups ate practically everything. This is borne out by the long lists of faunal remains at Late Prehistoric sites in the region (e.g., Black 1986, Highley 1986; Hester and Hill 1975). It is intriguing that he notes the pulverization of bone, to reduce these materials to bone grease to be mixed with other foods. This is a well known practice among southern California Indians (Bean 1972:66). However, faunal remains are so extensive and so well preserved at most Late Prehistoric sites in south Texas that this technology must have been used either with certain species or at certain times of the year (or, in cases of famine/ hunger). Krieger (1956:53) reports that snails (land, or prairie snails; Rabdotus sp.) were also eaten, though I cannot locate this reference in the published translations. Campbell (1983) also reports the eating of snails by the Mariame while they were in the tuna fields. The archaeological evidence is overwhelming in terms of snail consumption. Along the central and southern coast, on the coastal prairies, and into the interior, Late Prehistoric sites have abundant land snails in the middens. Some archaeologists attribute their presence to the scavenging activities of land snails, but this is a facile argument that ignores the archaeological data (e.g., their association with hearths and food processing areas; cf Scott 1982; Black 1986, Highley 1986); if the snails got incorporated into the middens as casual scavengers, then they have clearly changed their feeding habits in South Texas since late prehistory (Hester 1995)! Snail shells are so common at sites in Starr and Zapata Counties, the territory of the Arbadaos (and Cuchendados?) that archaeological sites can be easily recognized during survey‹while riding in a truck‹by the glistening white sheen of the mass of snails eroding out of the sites (Nunley and Hester 1975).

Cabeza de Vaca refers to digging of roots, this would have been done with digging sticks, of the kind that survive today only in dry caves (e.g., examples from the Lower Pecos caves in the Witte Museum collections). He also describes the use of earth ovens for cooking roots. Archaeologists working in the region have not conclusively identified such pits, though there are a variety of hearths, including charcoal and rock filled features that might have served in this fashion (as at Choke Canyon, Scott 1982, Hester et al. 1975 report deep rock filled pits from McMullen County that were clearly earth ovens). While Cabeza de Vaca disparages the Indians' use of fire to burn off the prairies, this was a widespread practice in Texas and the Great Plains. Archaeological evidence of such activities is, of course, hard to come by, though McGraw (1983:91) recorded thin lines of charcoal in excavation profiles near Laredo that might reflect such activities. I have always been bothered by Cabeza de Vaca's descriptions of hunger, famine and low quantities of food just about everywhere he went (these descriptions have been embellished; cf. Krieger 1956). This simply does not fit with the archaeological evidence, in terms of faunal remains (animals, fish, marine or freshwater shell, snails, etc.) that occur in sites in the area where he must have traveled. Perhaps his eight months in the monte in the south Texas interior reflected seasonal variations in food availability as recorded by Alonso del Leon (Brown 1988). Or perhaps he was there in a time of drought; having just been in the area currently suffering from a significant drought, I can imagine the shortage of resources he encountered. Or perhaps his descriptions reflect his bias as a European who had to subsist on unfamilar and distasteful foods. The settlement pattern described for the Mariame and associated groups, to be near wood and water, fits what is seen for the placement of prehistoric occupation sites in the region [Cabeza de Vaca later contradicts himself by noting that the Indians "have no familiar places for getting water" (Covey 1961: 83). Perhaps here he referred to groups deeper into south Texas, where creeks and water sources were indeed fewer (the low-density zones described by Hester 1981). The brevity with which the sites were occupied likely suggests repeated occupations over the years, again fitting with the "settlement zones" seen in the areas of higher density resources in the region (Hester 1981). Some sites were apparently occupied long enough for houses, albeit flimsy ones, to be set up. Archaeological evidence for such houses is limited to a few postmolds or trash distribution patterns from a few sites (cf. Black 1986: 266).

The Summary will have to wait for another post...

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