First Central Texans arrived 12,500 years ago

Artist Amanda Danning in consultation by physical anthropologist Dr. Douglas Owsley created...
Artist Amanda Danning in consultation by physical anthropologist Dr. Douglas Owsley created this facial reconstruction based on an adult skull from in 1970 at the Horn Shelter.(KWTX)
Published: Mar. 17, 2017 at 5:35 PM CDT
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Two ancient human habitation sites in Central Texas are illuminating pre-history in the area in a new light and what scientific investigation may prove about the Horn Shelter and the human bones found there could change history in this part of the country.

The Horn Shelter 1 and 2 are among “the oldest sites showing routine habitation ever found in North America,” said Charlie Walter, director of the Mayborn Museum Complex, at Baylor, where some of the artifacts recovered from the Horn Shelter are on display.

“It’s a glimpse into early culture,” he said.

Al Redder and Frank Watt spent 20 years painstakingly excavating what was originally known as the Horn Rock Shelter, and their work provided a foundation for the research that’s underway now.

“The work that Al Redder has done is a remarkable job and it’s important because it contains much of the pre-history record of Central Texas,” said Dr. Michael Collins, a Research Associate Archaeology Professor at Texas State University in San Marcos.

Collins was instrumental in the investigation of the Galt Site, in Williamson County, that pre-dates the Horn Shelter site by 3,000 to 4,000 years.

But “The real news is the DNA because that can affect the people of America,” said Labernie Dutton, for 24 years an associate at the Bosque County Museum, in Clifton.

Dr. Doug Owsley, head of the division of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian, said DNA material has been successfully recovered from the bones of a little girl recovered at the Horn Shelter, but analysis has not yet been completed.

He also said scientists failed in their effort to recover DNA material from adult bones found in the same grave, but are now trying a different technique to recover the material.

“It’s one of those things that is extremely complicated,” Owsley said in a telephone interview from his Smithsonian office.

About 12,500 years ago early humans found a rock shelter along the Brazos River north of what is now Waco and for the next 11,500 years, at least, someone lived there.

There are “signs of native American life everywhere here,” Walter said.

Researchers need to find “what’s been buried here and why.”

The original inhabitants probably stopped here because of the environment and the climate.

Dr. Reid Ferring, at North Texas University, said at the end of the last glacial maximum, when glaciers spread across much of the country and the world, rivers in North America were deeply entrenched in canyons and deep valleys.

But about 12,000 years ago, those depressions began filling up with silt and river beds, much more similar to what we see today, began to form.

Estimated climatological data indicates at that time, the end of the most recent ice age, the climate here was very similar to today with average temperatures perhaps 2- to 3-degrees cooler, but the global warming trend was underway.

The original inhabitants chose the Horn Shelter location because water in the Brazos River and at a nearby natural spring was plentiful and there was what appeared to be an unending supply of large and small game in the region.

Researchers say between initial habitation 12,500 years ago until about 1500 A.D., people lived in the shelter.

“It was a heavy occupation,” Dutton said.

“The Brazos River has deep holes near there and it wasn’t but about 350 miles downstream to the Gulf of Mexico.”

Researchers know the inhabitants travelled down river to the gulf because they recovered jewelry made of shells that only come from the Gulf of Mexico.

In the R.E. Forrester Occasional Papers of the Strecker Museum, Horn Shelter Number 2: The North End, Forrester wrote: “Rarely does the archaeological community have the opportunity to take a detailed look at an extraordinary site such as Horn Shelter Number 2.”

“It has become one of the most important and well-documented Paleoindian discoveries in North America.”

“The two human skeletons … and the associated artifacts have become one of the few opportunities to look into the cultural traditions, offering us at least a glimpse into the lifeways of these first Americans,” Forrester wrote.

A massive flood, or series of them, washed tons of silt into the shelter and rendered it unlivable until sometime in the late 1800s or early 1900s when Anglos dug the shelter out and began living there again.

In about 1910 a man named Brown lived there with his wife, two daughters and three sons, but it’s not known how long they lived there, scratching out a living fishing in the Brazos.

Then in the early 1930s revenuers ran Mann Clark and his wife out of the shelter presumably because they were making whiskey there during the prohibition years.

Al Redder, 93, of Waco, discovered the Horn Rock Shelter as a teenager while attending an Independence Day picnic on the shores of the Brazos River a few miles south of what is now the Lake Whitney Dam.

He spied an overhanging cliff, a limestone rock shelter, across the river and knowing that most such overhangs showed results of occupation, he swam over to take a closer look.

“Usually most overhangs contain some kind of occupation,” Redder said.

In 1967, armed with trowels and paint brushes, Redder and Frank Watt returned with the landowner’s permission to begin what would become a 20-year excavation.

The two soon were joined by Forrester, a Fort Worth archaeologist, who would write an Occasional Paper for the Strecker Museum, at Baylor University, which details the excavation process and lists many of the artifacts recovered.

What the diggers ultimately found in 1970 was an engineered pile of 19 limestone slabs, kind of humped in the middle, and underneath were the bones of a very important man, a shaman, adorned in coyote-tooth necklaces, badger claws, tools made of antlers and beads made of shells from the Gulf of Mexico, which back then lay 350 miles south on the Brazos River.

“(It’s) truly a treasure of Texas, and extremely important,” Owsley said.

The healer was propped up on a series of turtle shells and next to him was his medicine bag that contained pieces of red ochre pigment, seashells, badger claws, turtle shells, body scarification tools, and hawk talons.

And in the same, turtle-shaped grave they found the bones of an 11-year-old girl who had buried with her a bone, open-eyed needle and some decorations.

It has been called the most elaborate paleo-American ritual burial ever discovered on the continent.

Forrester’s account details discovery of four burials, not just two.

The man and the child were part of the early burial and the other two, also both small children, date to much more recent times and were found in a different part of the shelter, Pegi Jodry, a Smithsonian Paleoindian researcher, said.

The story they tell likely will be very different from the earlier graves.

The researchers who worked on the site in the beginning toiled in a dark, dirty place but what they were finding is today making news around the world.

Over the years the two excavated the shelter and recovered thousands of artifacts, most of which now are at the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C., being analyzed and catalogued.

Jodry has said she believes the body of the man found in the shelter is that of a Shaman.

Archaeologists discovered a medicine bag and other items when they dug the site, most of which she now has and is carefully inspecting.

She also said she believes, after analyzing bones recovered from the site, that the Shaman was a musician, a drummer, because of wear she found on his wrist bones that seem to indicate he performed a routine task thousands of times, like drumming.

Radiocarbon data testing has shown the man’s body was buried about 11,200 years ago, give-or-take 130 years.

That would make it the oldest ritual burial ever discovered in the United States.

Scientists have determined the young girl was buried at the same time, but no one is quite sure why.

Some have said she might have been sacrificed to accompany the older man on his journey into the afterlife, but no one is sure.

The two had been buried with a cache of special offerings crafted of shell, bone, and stone.

The Galt Site, near Georgetown, was first occupied about 16,000 years ago and artifacts from there are providing a new glimpse into the way early inhabitants lived.

“The Galt Site and the Horn Shelter have basically the same sequence in their early use,” Collins said.

He said at one point the Galt Site could reveal as many as 6 billion artifacts.

(Meteorologist Sean Bellafiore contributed to this story)