Big Bend's First Inhabitants

Boot Canyon in the Chisos Mountains
At the end of the last ice age the climate was cooler and wetter and woodlands covered much of Big Bend.

NPS Photo/Cookie Ballou

Late Paleo-Indian Period (ca. 8000–6500 BCE)


At the end of the last ice age, the climate was much cooler and wetter, and woodlands covered much of the Big Bend. Since about 9000 BCE. the climate has gradually become warmer and drier, and there has been a gradual influx of heat- and drought-adapted plants. Evidence of Paleo-lndian presence has been recorded in the park but no studies have been done which explain local human adaptation during this period. The earliest inhabitants lived a nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle that was adapted to the cooler and wetter climate that prevailed in that age. Throughout the Paleo-lndian period, people hunted large game animals as their primary source of materials for food, clothing, and shelter.

 
middle archaic hornfels arrowhead4
A Middle Archaic arrowhead made from Hornfels, a type of metamorphic rock found in the park that was useful for tool making.

NPS Photo /Jennette Jurado

Archaic Period (ca. 6500 BCE – CE 1000)


After the last glacial episode, woodlands gave way to arid-adapted plant communities at lower elevations. The slowly changing climate caused a decline in the numbers of large game animals, primarily bison. Native American groups of the Archaic Period adapted to the changing climate by developing a hunting and gathering lifestyle so successful that it remained virtually unchanged for about 7500 years. The Archaic Period people hunted smaller game with a spear that was propelled by a spear-thrower, called an atlatl. This period is characterized by a strong dependence on plant foods, and a more structured social organization. People learned skillful ways to exploit the environment and developed a rich material culture that involved the intensive use of available plants and animals. A higher density of late Archaic sites indicates a more efficient adaptation and larger, denser population. An expansion of the Jornada Mogollon culture from southeastern New Mexico into extreme West Texas occurred at the close of the Late Archaic.

 

Prehistoric Period (ca. 1000 CE – 1535)


By 1000 CE the native people of the Big Bend had come under the influence of the Jornada Mongollon, with its ceramics, agriculture, and sedentary lifestyle. During the Late Prehistoric, Indians of the Big Bend began using the bow and arrow, and groups northwest of the area were producing pottery. Agricultural villages existed near present-day Presidio, Texas, and horticulture or simple agriculture was practiced by Indian groups in the area that is now the park. In most areas to the east, the Late Archaic hunting and gathering lifeway persisted into the Historic Period. The period is characterized by increased interregional trading.

 
Archeology Data Recording2
An archeologist recording data in Big Bend National Park.

NPS Photo

The Historic Era (1535 CE – present)


During the early Historic Period several Indian groups were recorded as inhabiting the Big Bend. The Chisos Indians were a loosely organized group of nomadic hunters and gatherers who probably practiced limited agriculture. The name Chiso (Chizo) originally referred to one band (also known as the Cauitaome or Taquitatome) but the Spaniards extended it to include at least six closely associated bands. Their origin is not known but they were associated with the Concho speaking Indians of northeastern Chihuahua and northwestern Coahuila. Their language group is a variation of Uto-Aztecan, a language whose speakers ranged from central Mexico to the Great Basin of the U.S. and includes the Aztec, Toltec, and the modern Hopi. The Jumano were a nomadic people who traveled and traded throughout western Texas and southeastern New Mexico but some historic records indicate they were enemies of the Chisos. Around the beginning of the 18th century (1700 CE), the Mescalero Apaches began to invade the Big Bend region, eventually displacing or absorbing the Chisos Indians. The last aboriginal group to use the Big Bend was the Comanche who passed through along the Great Comanche Trail on their way to and from periodic raids deep into the interior of Mexico. These raids continued until the mid-1800s.

 
As you explore Big Bend National Park, there is a good chance that the sites and artifacts you see have never been recorded or studied. Please help the park protect these important resources by leaving them as you find them, and by reporting what you see to a park ranger. Remember, the removal of any cultural or natural object, or the disturbance of these objects from their natural state, is illegal in all national parks. Please take only photographs and leave only footprints.
 

Last updated: April 17, 2020

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Big Bend National Park, TX 79834-0129

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