Setting the Stage: Previous Paleoclimatic Research in Texas and Surrounding Areas

Article excerpt


The relationship between culture and environment and the effects of variable climatic conditions on past cultures have long been recognized, but have not always been pursued in archaeological investigations. Early studies treated the environment as a static phenomenon, partly due to lack of precise dating methods and underdevelopment in the science of paleoclimatology. This paper outlines the history of paleoclimatic/paleoenvironmental reconstructions in relation to culture in the Southern Plains, tracing the work from research surrounding the Clovis site from the 1930s up to the present day. We introduce the following set of papers from a symposium at the 1994 joint Plains Conference/Texas Archeological Society Annual Meeting at Lubbock, which united researchers active in paleoclimatic studies in Texas.

Keywords: paleoclimate; paleoenvironment; Texas

The relationship between culture and environment is a seemingly obvious one and the potential effect of variable climatic conditions on past cultures is no less obvious. Such a relationship was not always pursued in archaeological investigations, however. Many early studies treated the environment as a static phenomenon, if it was treated at all. To some degree, this was due to the lack of precise dating methods, to the lack of fine-grained recovery techniques, and to a parallel underdevelopment in the science of paleoclimatology.

With the excavation and acceptance of the Folsom site in New Mexico and the realization that Native Americans had indeed lived alongside extinct Pleistocene fauna in North America (Figgins 1927), the stage was set for the need to understand past climates and the nature of human adaptations to Pleistocene environments. One of the earliest and most successful attempts to integrate paleoenvironmental and paleoclimatic reconstructions with archaeological research in the Southern Plains and surrounding areas is represented by the work of E. B. Howard and his collaborators at the Clovis site in Blackwater Draw (Antevs 1935; Cotter 1937, 1938; Howard 1935a, 1935b; Stock and Bode 1937; Patrick 1938). Between 1933 and 1937 Howard and his associates conducted field research at Blackwater Draw, and provided the first sophisticated example of modern environmental archaeology by incorporating diverse research on palynology, invertebrate and vertebrate paleontology, diatom botany, and geology. Slightly later, the work of Potzger and Tharp (1943, 1947) in central Texas demonstrated the potential for palynological studies to provide detailed paleoenvironmental information in this region as well. This pollen research was, however, unaffiliated with contemporary archaeological efforts in the area, which were primarily concerned with Holocene-aged Archaic and Late Prehistoric manifestations (Collins 1995). At that time changing climates and environments were not deemed significant for understanding Holocene-aged Native American archaeology.

Returning to west Texas and Paleoindian archaeology, the work of E. H. Sellards, Glen Evans, and Grayson Meade during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s defined and elaborated Paleoindian geoarchaeology and stratigraphy, culture chronology, and Pleistocene mammalian paleontology (Sellards 1938, 1952, 1955; Sellards and Evans 1960; Sellards et al. 1947), but it lacked a diverse multidisciplinary approach to paleoenvironmental reconstructions. It was not until Wendorf and his collaborators initiated the High Plains Paleoecological Project in the late 1950s and early 1960s that modern multidisciplinary paleoenvironmental research on a regional scale became an integral part of archaeological research in Texas and surrounding areas (Wendorf 1961; Wendorf and Hester 1975). This attention to Late Pleistocene past environments and Paleoindian studies has continued with the detailed investigations at the Lubbock Lake site (Johnson 1987; Holliday and Johnson 1990), and associated Late Quaternary stratigraphic studies in the southern High Plains (Holliday 1995, 1997). …