This Site Last Updated: Wednesday, December 31, 2003
This Page Last Updated: Tuesday December 16, 2003
[Map of United States Showing Texas]
The native cultures in Texas were influenced by other cultures throughout the southwest, including the Anasazi to the west and the Aztecs to the south in Mexico.
Rock Art Styles
Texas rock art is stylistically grouped in five regions (you can make a selection from either the regional map or the following text links):
Some of the more famous sites in Texas are Paint Rock in the Central Texas Region and Hueco Tanks.
Much of the rock art in Texas was preserved in water color copies by the artist Forrest Kirkland, and most of these images would have been lost without his efforts.
The Panhandle region of Texas is the northernmost, situated between Oklahoma and New Mexico. There is only one major rock art site, called Rocky Dell, in the region. Some of the rock art records various historical historic events, such as raids, battles, personal triumphs, and possibly calendars.
The Hueco Tanks area is a series of three massive granite outcroppings, each upwards of half a mile long and nearly half a mile wide, in the far west of Texas, near El Paso. Huge boulders and random rock piles are tossed about the hills, and deep canyons are cut into some of them. Shelter can be found in the numerous cliff overhangs, crevices, and pockets naturally weathered into the rocks. There is, however, little game in the area and the arid climate is not conducive to farming. Any habitation was temporary, and the area was used as an oasis for travelers, traders, and war parties.
Origin of Name
In the words of Forrest Kirkland, the area consists of:
"Small mountainous piles of granitoid rock, sticking up out of a desert valley, surrounded by other small mountains. These huge piles of rocks catch rain water in holes or crevices in rock called tanks, and keep it there clean and sweet many months after a rain. It is a veritable oasis in the desert."
This is where the name comes from: Hueco is the Spanish word for "hollows". So the name Hueco Tanks means "hollow tanks", or cisterns. These natural tanks were filled by violent thunderstorms. (The Navajo call this type of rain "tank rain", since so much rain comes down that it will fill a metal tank.)
When Kirkland was searching for the Hueco Tanks paintings he found some in what is known as Comanche Cave:
"The air that greeted us was icy cool and so refreshing. On a huge rock up near the top of the cave was one large rock on which someone had printed, and no one knows how many years ago, the sign "WATTER HEAR". Underneath through a gap about four feet wide was a huge cistern of water, ice cold. The slanting rock leading up to the cistern was polished to a glassy surface by the many feet, Indian and white, that had gone up for water."
The water in the natural cisterns at Heuco Tanks is sweet because it is low in dissolved minerals, unlike water from the Rio Grande. The water was used by native peoples, Spaniards, American pioneers, ranchers, and even today by people out for a picnic.
The Hueco Tanks peoples were physically close to the Mogollon culture and were influenced by them. (The Anasazi, while also being descended, like the Mogollon, from the Pueblo Peoples, had a different culture and did not influence the Heuco Tanks peoples.)
Southwest culture, including pottery and cultivation of crops, spread to the Hueco Tanks region. By A.D. 900 the cultural phase known as the Mesillo Phase was established. This phase is marked by the cultivation of crops, like corn and squash, and the construction of permanent villages with round and rectangular pit houses.
Pueblo Migration Increases Influence
Migrations by Pueblo Peoples between A.D. 1100 and A.D 1200 led to further influx of southwestern ideas. It is highly likely that migrating Pueblo Peoples contributed some of the area's pictographs. By A.D. 1200 the Huecos Tanks people were building multi-roomed adobe pueblos similar to those in the southwest.
This period is known as the Doña Ana Phase. By A.D. 1400 the Huecos Tanks civilization had declined for unknown reasons. The people who remained in the area were regularly harassed by the Mescaleros until the United States Government stopped them.
The Hueco Tanks area is filled with pictographs. Paintings were used instead of petroglyphs because granite is quite hard to work and gives little contrast when pecked. The pictographs are very different from those in the Lower Pecos River Region, Central Texas, or Big Bend. In fact, the pictographs are similar to those found in the southwest.
Historical Records
One of the rocks portrays a battle in 1839 between the Kiowa, who were resting after a raid on El Paso, and a number of Mexicans. (The panel appears in a book of watercolor reproductions made in 1939 by Forrest Kirkland. The explanation appears in LaVan Martineau's book.) The meaning of these pictographs is known because a Kiowa told the story behind the pictographs to James Money, of the Bureau of American Ethnology. As with other rock art, the panel can be read in any order while retaining the same meaning. This pictograph has unfortunately been extensively damaged by vandals, as it is very near a picnic area.
Many cultures contributed to rock art
The pictographs were painted by the different cultures that passed through the area. Most are in the southwestern style of the Pueblo Peoples, and contain elements found in southwestern petroglyphs, pottery, and kiva paintings. Masks were usually drawn in outline form, but there are ones which show facial features and ornaments.
Anthropomorphs, such as warriors or kachina dancers, also appear. Geometric patterns, similar to the designs on the Pueblo Peoples's weavings and pottery, are common. Rainclouds and zig-zags, likely representing lightning, are common, as would be expected in an area highly dependent on, but severely lacking, the rains. For example, Tlaloc, the rain deity is a common motif.
Central Texas
Central Texas contains the Paint Rock pictograph site. This area is geographically isolated from other areas where rock art is found, and its rudimentary rock art is quite different from the more advanced rock art found in other areas.
The earliest known inhabitants of Central Texas lived there about 10,000 B.C. These peoples hunted mammoths, mastodon, and bison, but apparently did not leave any rock art, unlike the inhabitants of France and Spain who had a rich tradition in rock at by this point. By about 5,000 B.C. these peoples had been replaced by Archaic cultures, and the large game animals they hunted had become extinct. By this point hunting of deer, bison, and small animals was supplemented by wild plant foods, including tubers, roots, nuts, seeds, and fruits.
The Archaic Culture period in central Texas lasted from About 5,000 B.C. until about A.D. 600. is divided into three periods, primarily based on the type of dart points -- arrowheads -- used:
Alterations in dart points may have resulted from changes in hunting technique, changes in the game being hunted, or simply as a result of a shifting cultural view of what points should look like. The Archaic Culture persisted until about A.D. 600 when the bow and arrow appeared, and the Scallorn arrowpoint began to be used. By A.D. 1,000 the Perdiz arrowpoint became dominant. During the period of A.D. 600 to A.D. 1,000 pottery also made its first appearance in the area.
It is not clear if the Archaic cultures left any rock art. The fact that middens from the period are found near places with rock art suggests that it is possible. The rock art, however, could have been created by later peoples living in the same area. The humid climate of the Central Texas Region is much harder on pictographs than the more humid Lower Pecos River Region.
Paint Rock is a limestone bluff about seventy feet above the valley floor and about 150 to 200 yards from the north side of the Concho River. The site is about a mile northwest of the aptly named town of Paint Rock. The bluff extends for about a thousand feet and is painted in a variety of colors: red, purple-red, orange, yellow, white, and black. These colors were also used in the Pecos River Style. The pictographs consist of humans, animal, and geometric patterns, both singly and in groups. Most figures are less than a foot high, since that is the height of the limestone blocks making up the bluff.
Stylistic differences suggest that Paint Rock was painted by different cultures over a long period of time. A number of red designs are superimposed over seriously faded black designs, but this does not necessarily indicate great age for the black designs. The red paints are derived from iron oxides which are more durable than the carbon-based black ones. Some black pictographs depict horses and riders, which means they cannot be particularly old, since the Spanish introduced horses into the southwest circa 1650.
Excavations of Leon Plain potsherds in the area suggest that some Paint Rock pictographs could date to A.D. 900. Others can be set in the Archaic Period, and still others, like the horse pictographs, date to Historic Period. Other cultures, however, passed through the area and could have made the pictographs. The Shawnee, Delaware (Lenni Lennape), Cherokee, and Kikapoo were known to have passed through the area.
Lower Pecos River Region
The Lower Pecos River Region area is in southern Texas in the United States of America, near the Mexican border. The area has an arid climate, and is not much different today than when the area's rock art was created.
Rainfall averages a little over fifteen inches annually, with most of the rain occurring during the summer when the high heat causes it to evaporate quickly. Outside of the area's rivers -- the Rio Grande, Pecos river, and Devils river -- there is little water to be had.
While the area does have some springs, and water can sometimes be found in holes in canyon floor bedrock, most of the native peoples lived near the rivers. Life in the area would, therefore, be a difficult one. The native peoples would have had to adapt to a lifestyle of little water, high temperatures, and limited supplies of plants and animals suitable for food.
Household implements were wooden shovels, scoops, fire drills, wedges, stakes, drills, needles, and weaving shuttles. Nuts and seeds were ground in mortars. Other domestic tools used include a variety of flint implements, including points, knives, scrapers, and choppers.
Bone and antler were used to make awls, needles, beads, pendants, and scrapers, as well for flint flakers. Plant fibers -- including sotol (Dasylirion texanum scheele), lechuguilla, sacahuisti (Nolina trexana), and apocynum -- were used to make sandals, mats, baskets, pouches, bags, and nets. Traps were made from twigs and fiber cords. Clothes were made from leather and fur, and robes and blankets were made by weaving the fur with cordage. Smoking used stone pipes and cane cigarette holders.
A subsistence life depended on gathering, hunting, and fishing. No plants were cultivated. Hunting weapons included the spear or dart, both thrown using an atlatl to increase the power, as well as curved and grooved clubs known as "rabbit sticks". The rabbit sticks were thrown at small game or used as clubs. Tubers were dug using a digging stick pointed at one or both ends.
Hunting was difficult because there were insufficient game animals to depend upon them for food, and deer and bison were not commonly eaten. Small game animals included raccoon, gray fox, coyote, cottontail rabbit, and even pocket mouse and ground squirrels. Fowl included turkeys and quail. The primary catch was catfish, but snails (Bulimus), and, rarely, mussels were also eaten. Lizards and horned toads (which are a type of lizard) were also eaten. The importance of game is reflected in the rock art, which has herds of animals, likely indicating their importance.
One hunting technique used was identical to that used for thousands of years. The earliest known native peoples hunted mammoth, mastodon, bison, and animals long since extinct circa 8,000 BC. The bison hunted was Bison antiquus or Bison occidentalis, both extinct for millenia, likely as a result of extensive human predation.
The hunting technique was to stampede the animals over the region's cliffs, a technique that was used by the native peoples to hunt modern bison in historic times. This is also an extremely wasteful way to hunt, as there was far more meat than could be eaten and hides which could be tanned. Such hunting techniques probably resulted in the extinction of most of the large game animals indigenous to North America.
The primary plant consumed was the a spiny-leafed member of the lily family called sotol (Dasylirion texanum scheele). Other bulbs include members of the agave family, such as lechuguilla (Agave lechuguilla). The bulbs were baked in pits or earth ovens, a practice known to be followed by the native peoples in historic times.
Prickly pear fruit, beans, seeds, nuts, and other fruits Beans included mesquite beans and huajillo beans (Pithecellobium pallens) which are similar to mesquite. Nuts included acorns and Mexican walnuts (Juglans microcarpa). Nuts and seeds were ground in mortar holes in rocks. Fruits included hackberries and black persimmons. Seeds included grass seeds and wild onion seeds.
[Sculpture of a Thunderbird]
Religious rites involved eating the mescal bean, or Texas mountain laurel, which contains numerous hallucinatory, and poisonous, alkaloids. Ingestion of the bean produces nausea and vomiting, delirium, unconsciousness, coma, and even death.
Peyote (Lophophora williamsii), a spineless cactus also containing hallucinatory alkaloids, was used for similar purposes by Lower Lower Lower Lower Lower Lower Lower Lower Lower Pecos River shaman as well as by native peoples throughout the southwest.
The sculpture above is a thunderbird, which may represent a rain motif or may represent the journey a shaman's soul undertakes while on a vision quest.
Before undertaking a war, a warrior would be given a mescal potion. When the warrior regained consciousness he would make predictions about the success of the war party. The shaman themselves were organized into societies or guilds. Prospective members were given mescal potions and, like the warrior, when they regained consciousness they related the journeys their souls had taken.
Nearly all of the rock art is pictographs made in shelters. This rock art must have been made for very serious reasons, given the work involved. Forrest Kirkland wrote that the effort involved:
"...    is proof of their serious purpose. The pictures in almost every cave in Val Verde County, extend far above the reach of a man standing on the floor of the cave, so a ladder of some kind must have been required for their painting. In a few cases they were painted flat on the ceiling more than ten feet above the floor. This work would certainly have required some type of scaffolding. Grinding, mixing, and applying the paint on certain of the figures in these caves, must have required considerable labor, as they stand more than nine feet tall, are painted solid on rough surfaces, and are finished in three shades of colors."
Lower Pecos River Rock Art Style
There are two styles of rock art in the Lower Pecos River Region, one known as Pecos River Style and the other as Red Monochrome Style. The Lower Pecos River Style is believed to be the older of the two, based on content as well as some sites where red monochrome Style pictographs are superimposed over Pecos River Style pictographs.
The content of Lower Pecos River Style pictographs is usually typical for an archaic culture. Hunting weapons, like atlatls, darts, and grooved clubs known as "rabbit sticks" pictured in rock art have been found in datable archaeological deposits.
Dating pictographs
Some shelters have as much as four feet of debris and dirt added since the pictographs were created, which indicates considerable age. Problems in dating come about because treasure hunters have dug up the debris to the extent that the various cultural levels have become intermixed.
Pecos River Style
The Pecos River Style is characterized by a number of colors, some of which were used to outline other colors. Dark red was the most common color, followed by black, light red, yellow, orange, and white. Red came from red ochre, yellow from yellow ochre, and orange from mixing the two. Black came from carbon, probably charcoal. White came from clay, probably kaolin. Pigments were applied as paint or using dry pigments molded into crayons. Brushes were made using sotol leaves, which were folded lengthwise, wrapped, and then shredded at the ends. Sometimes the ends of woody plants were shredded.
Shaman Images
Many of the Pecos River pictographs depict shaman. Some have horned headdresses and feathered sashes, while others have wings symbolizing their spiritual journeys. Some pictographs depict cougars, which are never pierced by darts or spears. This likely indicates that cougars, which prey on deer, were regarded as providing supernatural assistance for the hunt.
Superimposition may indicate that some pictographs were painted for a particular purpose, and that after the hunt or other event concluded that they lost their significance. Or it could be that shaman gathered at places with spiritual significance and shaman had no problems in painting over the works of their predecessors.
Historical Events
Some pictographs represent important historical events. The influx of the Spanish horsemen was significant, since horses had never before been seen in the Americas. The amazement is clearly reflected in the drawings of the riders and their unique beasts.
Big Bend
The Big Bend region is in southwestern Texas, sandwiched between New Mexico and Mexico. It is a land with arid plains, mountains, river valleys, and rocky gorges. The Meyer Springs area, northeast of Dryden, Texas, is named for a spring in a cliff which flows continuously, a rare occurrence in Texas. About ninety feet below the spring is a shelter bearing pictographs. Pictographs are also found in Indian Water Hole, Bee Cave Canyon, Agua Fria Mountains, Hot Springs, Glenn Spring, Davis Mountains, Balmorhea, Blue Mountain, and in other areas.
The Archaic Period in Big Bend ended A.D. 600, just as it did in the Lower Pecos River Region. Little is known of the successor peoples. During the archaic period in Big Bend, a Livermore Point type arrowhead was used with bison being the primary game. Like other bison hunters, they used snub-nosed scrapers and diamond beveled knives to dress the skins. This suggests that the people migrated south from the great plains to the north and northeast.
During the historic period the Big Bend area was lightly populated, serving instead as a refuge and occasional hunting ground. The Mescaleros frequented the area after being forced from their ancestral lands, the Comanche and Kiowas traveled through the region on their way to Mexico up until about 1850, and the Lipan Apache frequented the area up until about 1800.
[Sculpture of a Sun Symbol]
The rock art of Big Bend is usually less complex than that of the Lower Pecos River Region. (The sculpture to the right is a sun symbol. A similar sun symbol appears on the New Mexico state flag.) Pictographs were painted during at least three separate periods:
An early period which closely resembles the Pecos River Region style, and may even be done by the same peoples. This period is characterized by large, badly faded purple-red designs made in the center of the shelter.
A middle period which closely resembles the Red Monochrome pictographs in the Pecos River Region. This period is characterized by orange-red designs, also badly faded.
A late period which consists of pictographs made during historical times. These are more skillfully painted, and include thunderbirds, sun motifs (look to the right for an example), and modern church towers.
The Spanish Missions appearance in historical rock art is understandable, given that missions were an unusual sight for a people accustomed to tepees and huts. Or it may be that the Spaniards were believed to have magical powers that were concentrated in their churches, and the native peoples wanted to access that power, likely to avoid oppression and forcible conversion.
Precise Identity of Artists Unknown
Given that the the Comanche, Kiowa, Lipan Apache, and Mescaleros frequented the area, it is sometimes difficult to know which group, or groups, created the pictographs. In Blue Mountain were a series of pictographs were done by the Comanche. A former Comanche captive named Jim Cook was taken to the area in 1934 and he explained the meaning of the paintings:
"It was after the raids down in the white man's country, though, that the Comanches did most of their paintings.
...   The Indians took a soft red rock and burnt it until it was ready to crumble, then crushed it to a powder and mixed it with water to make a red pasty paint. Then, with a stick or twig feathered out of the end for a brush, they painted whatever came into their minds. The kids were always fooling around with the paint, practicing, and the older fellows did the same thing. When a warrior came back from a raid he always made a long harangue about what he had seen and done in the white man's country, and he would often draw a picture on the cliff to illustrate what he told. ...    The Comanches didn't go in for signs much, just as signs. They usually tried to paint the things they were thinking about in full."
Cook also explained the meaning behind some symbols, although given that his explanations in other areas were often wrong these may be suspect as well. He interpreted some of the pictographs:
Varied Mythology
The natives in what is now Texas had a quite varied mythology.
[Tlaloc the Rain Deity]
One common image is Tlaloc, "He Who Makes Things Grow". One of our Tlaloc sculptures appears to the left. Images of this rain deity appear throughout the southwest, and are found in nearly every site in southern New Mexico and Texas.
It is possible that after the collapse of the Mimbres culture that some of the Mimbreños migrated to Texas and brought Tlaloc with them.
The Mescaleros were descended from the Athapaskans, and were a branch of the western Apache and related to the Navajo, San Carlos, Chiricahua, and eastern Apache tribes.
The Mescaleros were originally a semi-nomadic plains people who relied upon bison hunting, gathering of wild plants, and cultivation of some crops. Crops were planted in late April or early May, and the people remained in place until the August harvest. Then it was time for bison hunting, with the tepee and travois providing housing until it was spring again and time to plant new crops.
Change to Nomadic Lifestyle
This way of life changed when the Comanche and other northern tribes evicted the Mescaleros from their ancestral lands, and they were forced south and east into Texas, primarily in the Big Bend Region.
The influx of invaders forced a cultural change from one based on the cultivation of plants to a more nomadic one based on gathering. The introduction of the horse also lessened the importance on cultivated plants, but the conflict with other native peoples was the primary driving force behind the change.
Trade with Pueblo Peoples
The Mescaleros regularly traded with the Pueblo Peoples, bartering their bison hides and meat for the Pueblean agricultural and manufactured products. Much of the Mescaleros culture comes from this regular contact, including mythology and cosmology, religious practices, and agricultural knowledge.
The Mescaleros mythology is very similar to that of the Pueblo Peoples. Supernatural power resided in mythological beings, animals, plants, and natural forces. Anthropomorphic deities also existed.
The creator deity, Yusn, was largely uninterested in Mescalero affairs. More directly involved in Mescalero life were White Painted Woman, similar to the Changing Woman of Navajo myth, and her son Child-of-the-Water, similar to the Navajo Child-of-Water also know as Born-For-Water.
Mythological beings included Mountain Spirits, or Gahe, who resided in sacred mountains and revealed themselves to the Mescaleros in dreams and visions. It is possible that locations such as Hueco Tanks were thought to be the homes of Mountain Spirits. When a mythological being revealed itself, it usually assumed human form and taught the individual the rituals, prayers, and songs used to summon its power. Most of the rituals have been lost, but the Mescalero still practice ceremonies where dancers impersonate the Mountain Spirits using masks and costumes.
Kirkland's recordings of Texas rock art
That the art of the Texas native peoples is known at all is the direct result of substantial efforts by Forrest Kirkland. His first serendipitious encounter with the rock art of Texas led to a massive undertaking which preserved it for the future.
Beginning his professional career an engineering artist producing images for brochures, Kirkland soon started and ran a business creating catalog illustrations for industrial equipment. Kirkland was, however, a skillful landscape painter in his spare time, and had great ability with watercolors which he could turn out with amazing speed. He painted only in watercolors, since oils took too much time. This speed would later prove a boon when it came to copying rock art.
In 1934 Kirkland was attending a family reunion on the Llano River, a few miles south of Junction Texas. Forrest's father mentioned that he had seen rock paintings near Paint Rock while on a fishing trip, and he urged Forrest to go see them. Of his 1934 visit to the site, Forrest later said:
"We didn't make a careful survey of the complete group of paintings while we were there, but only a casual inspection showed they were badly weathered. Some had been injured by sightseers and many of them had been totally destroyed by ruthless vandals. Here was a veritable gallery of primitive art at the mercy of the elements and the hand of a destructive people. In a few more years only the hundreds of deeply carved names and smears of modern paint will remain to mark the site of the paintings left by the Indians.
Every time I looked at these copies which we hung in our little museum, this question came to mind. Why shouldn't I return to Paint Rock and carefully copy every picture remaining on the cliff and so save them for future generations?"
After his visit Kirkland abandoned landscapes, although he did paint one as payment to allow him to visit a site on private land. Kirkland and his wife both kept detailed field notes of their visits to various rock art sites. He copied the paintings to scale, sketching them first in pencil on hand made English linen, and then painting on top.
Kirkland eventually spent his summers for eight years copying pictographs, a daunting task at which anyone with lesser skill would have failed miserably. In addition to the requisite artistic skill, the copies had to be made in cramped and uncomfortable spaces, often with poor lighting. Not only did Kirkland succeed, but he and his wife kept detailed notes which are worthy of the finest archaeologist.
At forty-nine Kirkland died of a heart attack, likely a result of the rheumatic fever he had as a child. (One of the serious consequences of rheumatic fever is heart valve scarring.) By the time he died, however, Kirkland had copied most of the known rock art in Texas. Much of it, in fact, has long since been destroyed by vandals. His watercolors were donated to the Texas Memorial Museum, and can can be seen online.
Despite Kirkland's intent to preserve the rock art of the Texas natives for everyone, the Texas Memorial Museum views them as a profit center and insists we pay them $100 per image per year for the right to display any of Kirkland's watercolors. This is is why no images appear on these pages, even though the copyright act's fair use provisions would seem to apply. If you want to see them, visit the TMM Website which is, at least for the moment, free.