Archeology and late quaternary environments of the southern high plains

Eileen Johnson, Vance T. Holliday

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

30 Scopus citations


The Late Quaternary archeological and paleoenvironmental records of the Southern High Plains are well preserved in the draws, dunes, and lake basins of the region. The fill in the draws historically is most closely linked to the human history of the region because several nowrenowned archeological sites have been discovered in these settings. The draws also provide the most complete and sensitive regional environmental record so far available. At the beginning of the Paleoindian occupation, the environment of the Southern High Plains was for the most part relatively cool and moist. The draws had perennial flowing water, and lake basins probably had permanent water. By Folsom times, hydrologic conditions had changed. Less flowing water was available in the draws as spring discharge and runoff declined. Streams were replaced with ponds and marshes. Eolian sedimentation appeared in the stratigraphic record between 11,000 and 10,000 b.p., and eolian deposition in the draws, dunes, and playas became more widespread through the Early Holocene. This deposition culminated in the Middle Holocene in significant filling of draws and construction of sand dunes. This eolian activity likely marked peak aridity in the Late Quaternary in response to increased temperatures and lower effective precipitation relative to the preceding or following periods. By about forty-five hundred years ago, a change in climate toward more moist and cooler conditions, relative to the Middle Holocene, brought landscape stability and environmental changes that have more or less persisted to the present. This stability resulted in little Late Holocene sedimentation in the region, other than in the draws. This stratigraphic and paleoenvironmental scheme generally follows earlier reconstructions of the paleoecology of the Southern High Plains (see, e.g., Wendorf 1961; Wendorf and Hester 1975) but differs considerably in detail. The various Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene climatic intervals proposed in earlier schemes are not identifiable in the stratigraphic record now emerging due to problems of dating, stratigraphic correlation, and pollen preservation in the work that led to the earlier schemes (Holliday 1987, 1995d, 1997). The known archeological record for the Southern High Plains provides a lengthy and rich heritage for the region. People have lived on and used the Southern High Plains for at least eleven thousand years, and perhaps for as long as people have been in the New World. Although varying through time in variety, quality, and plenitude, the environments of the Southern High Plains have provided ample natural resources for the various peoples inhabiting the region. This resource base is spread over large parameters of seasonality, space, and time, and the abundance or scarcity of such resources as lithic materials, water, and wood on the Southern High Plains has influenced the adaptive responses to environment and environmental change as conditions went from pluvial, to xeric, to mesic. The relationship between environment and the people that occupied that environment, then, potentially could be well defined in such settings. High-quality lithic materials were a localized resource at best, represented by Alibates agate at the northern edge of the region along the Canadian River and by Tecovas jasper at the eastern edge of the escarpment near Quitaque (e.g., Banks 1990; Holliday and Welty 1981). Ogallala Formation quartzites and cherts (generally of much poorer quality) were available along the escarpment and at localized outcrops within the draws (Holliday and Welty 1981). Due to this limited distribution, imported lithic resources, particularly from central Texas (Edwards Formation chert), played a major role in the adaptive strategies utilized on the Southern High Plains. Resource availability of wood and water closely mirrored the climatic changes of the region. Both commodities were available regionally and were locally abundant during the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene but became much more scarce and localized during the Middle Holocene (Holliday 1989b, 1995c, 1995d; E. Johnson 1987b; Meltzer 1991). Surface waters in playas and draws increased again in the Late Holocene (Holliday 1995c, 1995d), with limited wood resources available only within the draws (E. Johnson 1987b). An episodic pattern of droughts for about the past two thousand years (Holliday 1985b, 1995c, 1995d, 1997b) undoubtedly affected long-term adaptive strategies. Coupled with the drought pattern for at least the last five hundred years were the steady influx of various groups of nonlocal peoples, from the Athabascans and Comanche to the pastores and Anglo- Americans, and the replacement of the indigenous people. The long occupation of the Southern High Plains was primarily by huntergatherer peoples, presumably practicing a seasonal series of annual activities. In general, Clovis peoples had a broad-spectrum, meat-related subsistence base in which they were hunting and scavenging a wide variety of game animals. With widespread extinctions, bison became the major game animal of post-Clovis peoples. Later Paleoindian peoples had a very narrow- spectrum, meat-related subsistence base, systematically cropping both small cow-calf herds as well as large mixed herds of bison. By the Middle Holocene, Archaic peoples had a mixed desert plantand meat-related subsistence base, and they were forced to rely on wells for water in the western and southern part of the Southern High Plains. A mixed plantand meat-related subsistence base continued throughout Late Holocene Ceramic through aboriginal Historic times, but with more mesic vegetation and abundant surface water (E. Johnson 1987b, 1991, 1994a; E. Johnson and Holliday 1986; Meltzer 1991). The occupation of the Southern High Plains through time by these huntergatherer peoples appears to have been undertaken by small groups of people for both economic (hunting, plant processing, and tool production and rejuvenation) and short-term residential uses, with repeated use of the landscape as well as differential use of landscape features. Key aspects missing from the record are longterm home bases and quarries for lithic resources. Quarries must have existed along the outcroppings of Alibates and Tecovas, but they have not been documented. Quarrying of outcrops of Ogallala Formation materials has been documented on the Rolling Plains just off the eastern escarpment in the Brazos River drainage (E. Johnson 1994b). Various Late Holocene peoples along the Canadian River and associated drainageways, in particular the Antelope Creek peoples (see Brooks, chapter 11, this volume), practiced agriculture that modified or changed lifeways and social organization. This lifeway was brief on the Southern High Plains, being practiced for much less than one thousand years and apparently coming to an end in the a.d. 1400s as outsiders moved into the region. From then on into the 1800s, aboriginal occupation of the northern Southern High Plains was again by hunter-gatherers. By the 1860s, a quick succession of non-native peoples began using the Southern High Plains for economic purposes and then settling the region. By the late 1870s this intrusion brought the aboriginal occupation of the region to a close. The use of land and other resources changed dramatically from the aboriginal patterns to patterns of the non-native peoples. The buffalo hunters decimated the bison herds while the pastores and ranchers used the plains grasslands to pasture domestic stock (sheep, then cattle). The early settlers plowed the grasslands to raise domesticated crops. By the turn of the twentieth century, towns were being established on the uplands, away from the traditional aboriginal resource bases of the draws and playas.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationPrehistory of Texas
PublisherTexas A and M University Press
Number of pages13
ISBN (Print)1585441945, 9781585441945
StatePublished - 2004

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)
  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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