Prehistory of the Rustler Hills

[ Texas ]

Prehistory of the Rustler Hills

Granado Cave

By Donny L. Hamilton

With contributions by John R. Bratten, David L. Carlson, John E. Dockall, Cristi Assad Hunter, and Harry J. Shafer

This book provides detailed insights into the lifeways of the little-known prehistoric peoples who inhabited the Northeastern Trans-Pecos region.



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6 1/8 x 9 1/4 | 316 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-72605-5

The Northeastern Trans-Pecos region of Texas is an unforgiving environment for anyone living off the land, yet nomadic hunters and gatherers roamed its deserts and mountains and sheltered in caves and sinkholes from around AD 200 to 1450. This book provides detailed insights into the lifeways of these little-known prehistoric peoples. It places their occupation of the region in a wider temporal and cultural framework through a comprehensive description and analysis of the archaeological remains excavated by Donny L. Hamilton at Granado Cave in 1978.

Hamilton begins with a brief overview of the geology and environment of the Granado Cave area and reviews previous archaeological investigations. Then he and other researchers present detailed analyses of the burials and other material remains found in the cave, as well as the results of radiocarbon dating. From these findings, he reconstructs the subsistence patterns and burial practices of these Native Americans, whom he identifies as a distinct group that was pushed into the environment by surrounding peoples. He proposes that they should be represented by a new archaeological phase, thus helping to clarify the poorly understood late prehistory of the Trans-Pecos.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Introduction
  • Chapter 2. Geological and Environmental Setting
  • Chapter 3. Previous Archaeological Research
  • Chapter 4. Site Excavation
  • Chapter 5. Prehistoric Burials
  • Chapter 6. Cordage and Cotton
  • Chapter 7. Basketry
  • Chapter 8. Matting, Bags, and Sandals
  • Chapter 9. Wood Artifacts
  • Chapter 10. Pottery
  • Chapter 11. Lithic Artifacts (John E. Dockall and Harry J. Shafer)
  • Chapter 12. Miscellaneous Artifacts
  • Chapter 13. Vertebrate Faunal Remains (Cristi Assad Hunter)
  • Chapter 14. The Rustler Hills Economic Pollen Spectrum (Donny L. Hamilton and John R. Bratten)
  • Chapter 15. Radiocarbon Dating
  • Chapter 16. Concluding Remarks
  • Appendix. Osteological Identification of the Eastern and Desert Cottontail (Cristi Assad Hunter and David L. Carlson)
  • References Cited
  • Index

Herein are the results of the archaeological excavations conducted at Granado Cave (41CU8), located in the Rustler Hills of eastern Culberson County, Texas. Granado Cave, like other caves in the area, was used both as a habitation site and for human interments by small groups of hunters and gatherers from at least A.D. 200/300 through A.D. 1450. Although archaeological excavations were first conducted in the area more than 60 years ago, there continues to be confusion over the identity of the known sites, their chronological position, and the cultural affinity and ethnic identity of the sites' occupants. The Granado Cave excavations make clear some of these ambiguities.

This report begins with a description of the environmental setting of the Rustler Hills, since a knowledge of the area's geological history and vegetation pattern is crucial to the understanding of its prehistoric occupants. A review of previous archaeological excavations is also presented. This is to eliminate the confusion about the formerly investigated sites. The Granado Cave excavation methodology is then described, which is followed by detailed analyses of the different categories of material culture found associated with the human burials. The distinctive natures of, for example, basketry and matting, are explained, and new type descriptions are given for specific carrying baskets and twined grass bags. The burial associations allow for speculation on various ceremonial activities and trade contacts.

The Granado Cave excavations allowed, for the first time for the area, a good sample of floral and faunal specimens to be collected and analyzed. In addition, one of the most thorough coprolite studies in Texas archaeology was conducted on coprolites collected both from Granado Cave and the nearby Caldwell Shelter Number 1 (41CU1). The results of the floral, faunal, and coprolite studies clearly demonstrate the cave dwellers' exploitation of this marginal environment. A limited number of subsistence-related artifacts, such as rabbit sticks and a rather meager lithic industry, were also found associated with the cave's occupation.

Twenty radiocarbon dates allow us, again for the first time, to make definitive statements about the time depth of the occupation of the Rustler Hills. Based on the available data, the occupation appears to be rather late. Combined with the archaeological and environmental data, as well as detailed skeletal analyses, we are also able to make some statements about cultural identifications. It appears that the Rustler Hills peoples are associated with the poorly defined Hueco Phase, a temporal phase that has been defined for the northern Trans-Pecos. Their relationship to the Manso, Suma, and Jumano Indian groups known to inhabit the Trans-Pecos in historic times is not understood.

It is here argued that the late occupants of the Rustler Hills represent a remnant group, possibly Hokan-speaking, that was pushed into the environment by surrounding peoples. These peoples were possibly Tanoan speakers, who were followed later by various Athapaskan-speaking Apaches. It is also proposed that to understand the prehistory of well-defined regions, such as the northern Trans-Pecos, archaeologists should avoid using vague archaeological constructs, such as the Hueco Phase. A new archaeological phase, the Castile Phase, is thus here defined. It is used to distinguish the late prehistoric peoples of the Great Gypsum Plain and the Rustler Hills of the northeastern Trans-Pecos.


Donny L. Hamilton is Associate Head of the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M University.

"This report is classic in its use of all available research tools to explicate the prehistory of a region.... The care and methodology demonstrated [here] could and should well serve as a model for future archaeological research in the Trans-Pecos."

—James E. Corbin, Professor of Anthropology, Stephen F. Austin State University