Austin-area dig gives rare clues to how people lived 16,000 years ago


Highlights

Prehistoric humans began gravitating to the Gault Site about 16,000 years ago, Texas State researchers say.

The Gault Site is preserved forever because an archaeologist bought it and gave it to a conservation group.

You can hardly walk 10 steps along Buttermilk Creek about 45 miles north of Austin without finding evidence that people lived here thousands of years ago. The ground is littered with flakes of chert, a plentiful stone from which projectile points, blades, cleavers and other tools were fashioned.

Archaeologists who have dug as deep as 14 feet found layer after layer of stone tools, weapons and flakes that accumulated over time, indicating that prehistoric humans began gravitating to this area about 16,000 years ago.

The Gault Site, as this tract in southern Bell County and northern Williamson County is known, and a parcel just downstream known as the Debra L. Friedkin Site are among a handful in North America with compelling evidence of human occupation predating what is known as the Clovis period. The makers of Clovis-era tools lived about 13,000 years ago and were for decades considered the earliest humans in the New World.

Researchers say the Gault Site also has yielded evidence of the oldest known house site in North America, rock carvings that are among the oldest artwork found in the Americas and bones from a mammoth.

Thanks to the generosity of one of Texas’ most respected archaeologists, who purchased the Gault Site and donated it to a conservation group, the property will be preserved for all time. The Texas Historical Commission recommended last month that the site be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The National Park Service, which decides such matters, typically goes along with state historical agencies. The Historical Commission previously designated Gault as a state archaeological landmark.

“Why were people here?” Michael B. Collins, a Texas State University research professor and the site’s benefactor, said during a recent tour. “I think we’re closing in on the answer: It’s an ideal habitat.”

Besides the spring-fed creek, which flows even in drought, the tract features a wide variety of animals, plants and other resources for sustaining life because it occupies an ecotone, an area where environmental regions converge, in this case the Blackland Prairie and the Edwards Plateau, including the plateau subregions known as the Balcones Canyonlands and the Lampasas Cut Plain. There are limestone outcrops rich with chert for tool-making as well as deep soils nourishing abundant plant life.

“Living in an ecotone like that is like living between H-E-B, Randalls and Home Depot,” said D. Clark Wernecke, an adjunct professor at Texas State, director of the university’s Prehistory Research Project and executive director of the Gault School of Archaeological Research, a nonprofit group that administers the site.

Preserving the past

Excavation began in 1991 and continued in off-and-on fashion into 2013, but researchers at the university continue to study some of the 2.6 million tools, weapons, flakes and other artifacts that the project yielded, including the largest pre-Clovis assemblage found in North America.

Collins’ purchase of 74 acres in 2007 means the site will never be developed. He donated 54 acres to the Archaeological Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that protects about 500 sites nationwide, and gave the remainder to the Gault School, which he chairs.

“It is one of the most important Paleo-Indian archaeological discoveries ever made,” said James B. Walker, senior vice president of the conservancy.

Collins, who joined Texas State in 2009 after working at the University of Texas, said he agreed to pay the Lindsey family, the property’s former owners, a sizable premium over the market value after his efforts to drum up donations failed. He declined to reveal the purchase price. He said he fills gaps in the Gault research budget with his own money and draws no salary from Texas State.

Collins inherited oil and gas holdings from his father, who was an executive of Humble Oil and Refining Co., a predecessor of Exxon Mobil Corp. “They pay me a comfortable living so I can afford to feed my archaeological habit,” he said.

Few academics have such wherewithal and fewer still would spend it this way, said Tom Dillehay, an anthropology professor at Vanderbilt University.

“Most people would take the money and run off, go casino hopping, live in the Caribbean,” Dillehay said. “This is a man who is modest and honest. I’ve seen Mike get up to speak in professional meetings in overalls and a straw hat.”

David Meltzer, a Southern Methodist University professor of prehistory, said Collins’ financial support of the Gault site is “astonishing and admirable, both. It’s an extraordinary site and Mike’s an extraordinary individual for what he has done on behalf of that site and on behalf of archaeology.”

Treasure trove of artifacts

The Collins-Wernecke archaeology lab is housed in the Pecos Building, a nondescript structure on the San Marcos campus. Shelves are lined with plastic bags stuffed with projectile points, knives, scraping tools, drilling tools, flakes and other materials, all labeled with the precise location where they were found. The people who dwelt along Buttermilk Creek made tools and weapons from chert by striking it with harder rocks like granite and perhaps pieces of wood and antler.

The artifacts provide clues to human behavior in the past. For example, the trove includes nearly 200 stones with grids, spirals or other designs carved into them, some dating to 13,000 years ago, among the oldest dated art in the Americas, Wernecke said. The designs are impressive, with some consisting of perfectly parallel lines and herringbone patterns. This suggests that the hunter-gatherers had time for artistic creation, he said.

Archaeologists also found a small stone floor dating to more than 13,000 years ago, evidence of the oldest known excavated house in North America, Wernecke said. The discovery of the lower jaw bone of a Columbian mammoth — prehistoric relative of the modern-day elephant — along with stone tools suggests that it might have been killed and butchered at the Gault Site. The jaw bone, with teeth that look like the tread of a running shoe, occupies its own shelf at the lab.

The age of the stone artifacts was determined using a technique known as optically stimulated luminescence, which discerns when particles of quartz and feldspar in soil samples around artifacts were last exposed to sunlight. Runoff, flood deposits and wind action buried layer upon layer of artifacts over time, and the lack of organic material meant that the radiocarbon dating method would have been useless.

“This is a place that people came back to time and time again and throughout 16,000 years,” Wernecke said. “It was a huge manufacturing site; people were making tools there for a long time and left a lot of debris. There are 22 archaeological cultures in Central Texas. We have all 22 plus an unnamed one that is older than Clovis. The cultures get defined by the styles of stone tools, much like harvest gold kitchen appliances are associated with the 1970s.”

Clovis projectile points are fairly long with sides that are roughly parallel, a form known as lanceolate, with grooves called flutes chipped out of both faces, creating a fairly thin base where a wooden spear or dart could be hafted onto the stone. Pre-Clovis points look altogether different, without fluting and instead with a kind of stem that could have been attached to a spear or dart.

The excavations produced evidence of leather-working — “hide scrapers, things used to cut and work hide or punch hide, the equivalent of an awl,” Wernecke said. “Sometimes people say these are really primitive cultures; you’ll see one of us cringe because they invented all these tools, and we still use every single one of the tools they invented.”

More than 2,000 volunteers from around the world assisted in the excavations over the years. And although just 3 percent of the site was excavated, that was more than enough to get the measure of its history because it is so rich with artifacts. The site has been known in amateur and professional archaeological circles for decades, and previous owners charged visitors to dig. That turned out to be serendipitous.

“They did not dig very deeply. We didn’t have to fool with the first 8,000 years,” Collins said. “That would have added 15 years to our project.”

The analysis and cataloging of the artifacts has been underway since 2001, spinning off eight Ph.D. dissertations and 13 master’s theses. Collins, Wernecke and their team are working on a book about the site.

Michael Waters, a Texas A&M University anthropology professor who led excavations at the nearby Friedkin site, said artifacts unearthed there provide evidence that people were in North America by 15,500 years ago.

“Our excavations ended in 2016. We’re separated (from the Gault Site) by another property, but it’s basically the same deposits,” Waters said, adding that it was “terrific” of Collins to preserve the Gault Site “for future generations of archaeologists to study. We still have a lot to learn about Clovis and pre-Clovis at that site.”

Other sites in North America with evidence of pre-Clovis toolmaking include the Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania, Paisley Caves in Oregon and the Page-Ladson Site in Florida.

“Gault went a long way to contributing to the unraveling of the Clovis-first model,” said James Adovasio, a former University of Pittsburgh professor who excavated the Meadowcroft Rockshelter. “We used to think that the makers of Clovis artifacts were the first people into the New World. Now we know for a fact that’s not the case.”

It’s pretty clear from genetic and other evidence that the people of the pre-Clovis era migrated from Asia. They looked a lot like current generations except they were shorter, Adovasio said, adding, “If you dressed them up in a Brioni suit, they would go unnoticed.”



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