Prehistoric Agriculture on the Canadian River of the Texas Panhandle: New Insights from West Pasture Sites on the M-Cross Ranch

Article excerpt

The year 2007 marks the 100th anniversary of the first archaeological excavation at a Plains Village site in the Texas Panhandle. Despite nearly a century of research, we still know very little about these people. We know that they were bison hunters and farmers, but some researchers have suggested that farming was of minimal importance to the Antelope Creek villagers of the Panhandle. This notion is based on limited data and warrants reexamination. Recent work at Hank's site and other sites on the M-Cross Ranch in Roberts County provides new archaeological evidence of prehistoric agriculture in the eastern Panhandle. The relatively short, spring-fed tributary canyons along the north side of the Canadian River valley were an attractive setting for the Plains Village people. They probably practiced dryland farming in naturally wet areas on alluvial terraces but also may have employed simple water management techniques that left little or no archaeological signature.

Keywords: Antelope Creek, Plains Village, Texas Panhandle, agriculture, corn

Most of the prehistoric peoples in the southem Plains followed a similar pattern of cultural development during last 2,000 years. A "Plains Woodland" cultural tradition emerged in the first millennium A.D. under substantial influence from eastern Woodland groups. The hunter-gatherer peoples of the Texas Panhandle may have experimented with tending native plants as they gradually adopted horticultural practices and crop raising from other groups, perhaps as early as A.D. 750. Sometime around A.D. 1000 to 1200, a region-wide climatic shift allowed for rapid expansion of bison populations in the southern Plains. With agricultural knowledge in hand, the Plains Woodland tradition evolved from a hunter-gatherer society into a Plains Village society with a more sedentary lifestyle based on a dual economy of bison hunting and intensive maize agriculture supplemented by foraging.

This is a nice, tidy little story explaining prehistoric life in the Texas Panhandle. The only problem is that many of the important details are not well supported by archaeological data and are open to debate. There is little doubt that Plains Villagers utilized a dual economy based to a large degree on bison hunting and maize agriculture and that their lives were organized in large part by the seasonality of these pursuits. However, a scholarly debate that has emerged in recent years is centered on the role of agriculture within Plains Village societies. To sum up this debate as questions: "Were the Plains Villagers of the Texas Panhandle bison-hunting and gathering farmers who practiced intensive agriculture...or, were they bison-hunting foragers who only dabbled in agriculture to supplement their foraging economy?"

My purpose here is to examine, or more precisely reexamine, the role that agriculture played among the peoples who lived along the Canadian River and its tributaries in the Texas Panhandle. In 1934, Floyd Studer (1934:89) observed that "Corn was grown in the Panhandle of Texas somewhat extensively, for numerous charred cobs are found with the Texas Panhandle Culture ruins." Seventy years later, some researchers propose that agriculture was of minimal importance to the Antelope Creek phase peoples (Brosowske 2005a:98; Duncan 2002:292, 297, 316, 328; HabichtMauche et al. 1994:300-301; Hard et al. 1996:299-300). This notion of minimal agricultural importance is reconsidered here for a variety of reasons, but primarily because it is based on very limited data that may be interpreted in very different ways. In addition, new agricultural evidence is coming to light from recent investigations in the West Pasture at the M-Cross Ranch. Multiple lines of evidence suggest that agriculture was indeed important to the prehistoric inhabitants of the M-Cross Ranch, which is located in the eastern part of the Canadian River valley, to the east of the Antelope Creek core area and south of the Buried City. …