So anyway, where were we? Oh yeah…
We were talking about the first people to ever live in Texas, many, many long years ago- people who got here 13,000, 50,000, maybe 100,000 years before us, and who have been living on this land ever since. They got here by walking across the Bering Strait from Russia when the Strait had become a land bridge because the sea levels were so much lower then, in the Ice Age, being largely sucked up into massive glaciers and the thick ice sheets that covered most of the land.
They got here by boats landed on the various shores of what would become the United States, Canada and Mexico, and they got here in many different waves of immigration at different times. That’s where I unceremoniously ditched you the last time we talked about the whole, total and complete history of Texas, and then I wrote several month’s worth of fluff – sorry about that, but there have been big huge seismic changes in the continuing Adventures of Marjorie, and I’ve been as busy as a three-legged cat in a roomful of rocking chairs… or would they be nervous? I feel like they’d be both, busy and nervous the poor things, hopping around on their three legs, and besides, I haven’t got an alternate folksy simile handy right now to convey to you just how bananas everything’s been over here in Marjville, so the three-legged cat thing’ll hafta do. Now again, where were we?
Right, so now we have the First Americans in North America, following the herds that were their sustenance – not just their food, but their source of shelter, clothing, weapons, utensils, all that stuff- from the tip of Alaska (or from wherever they entered) on down into the rest of the New World, via an ice-free path that was opening up as the Ice Age came to an end and the world warmed up, melting all that ice and making it possible for the mastodon and the mammoth to roam further afield and for the people to follow them. And as the ice melted and the herds spread out over the land, so did the first Americans, until they had reached every corner of the North American continent by the end of what archaeologists and anthropologists today call the Archaic Period, which ended around 3,000 years ago and the thing we’re gonna talk about today.
The lives of the Paleo-Indians were about to change in a great big way. All those thousands of years, back into the mists of prehistory, in Africa and Asia and Europe and now in the Americas, the first humans had kept body and soul together by following the migration of the herds of enormous animals, and killing them in order to provide themselves with virtually every single thing they needed to survive in a harsh and brutal world- and now those animals were dying. Whatever did them in- whether it was the dramatic change in climate by the end of the Ice Age or something else- the First Americans suddenly had to rethink their ink. They would have to adapt their very nature to suit the colossal-scale changes taking place in their world. For as long as anyone could remember, the mainstay of their existence had been what are now called the Pleistocene megafauna- that is, the enormous herbivore creatures like the wooly mammoth and the mastodon, a pair of big ol’ bruisers running six to nine tons a pop; the gigantic ground sloth, who stood ten feet tall and weighed in at a ton and change; the Glyptodon, who was basically a Super Econo-sized armadillo measuring 11 feet long and a respectable one ton of his own; and another critter who called himself the Castoroides, or giant beaver, no slouch at seven feet long and nearly three hundred pounds, and sporting a full set of six-inch long teeth. Now hang on, indulge me for just a sec: close your eyes, right now. Don’t worry about somebody watching you and thinking you’re some kinda weirdo- if you do catch someone giving you side eye go ahead and confirm their suspicion by turning on them and demanding, “Can’t a guy [or whatever you are] visualize Pleistocene megafauna without you getting all up in his [or her] grill?” Now conjure up a picture of a ten foot tall, 2,200 pound sloth or a beaver the size of an African lion, and if you have the time and the emotional fortitude, a Glyptodon who makes Lone Star’s giant armadillo look like a musk turtle in a shoe box. Now open your eyes and go on with your life, but good luck sleeping tonight.
There were many other mythical-sounding animals too, whose, as Michael Cleese stated the case, metabolic processes became history, who kicked the bucket, shuffled off this mortal coil, ran down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible, at the end of the Ice Age. And this mass die-off- what the scientists who study this kind of thing call the Quaternary extinction event- wasn’t unique to North America, it happened all over the world, changing the course of human history before it even got good and started. Animals weighing more than a hundred pounds or so simply went extinct just everywhere- across Europe and Asia the die-off included straight-tusked elephants, the cave bear, the interglacial rhinoceros and the Eurasian hippopotamus- and with the disappearance of the herbivores, the carnivores lost their food supply and vanished as well, the sabertooth cat, the cave lions and the European leopard. Here in what was to become the States, no less than ninety species just disappeared- the American lion and American cheetah, many varieties of moose (meese?), bison, pronghorn sheep, llamas and camels, birds like the giant condors and a 9-foot long behemoth called, nightmarishly, the sabertooth salmon. (And horses- yup, horses. That might not mean much right now, but we’ll get back to it later- see, the thing is, horses were supposed to have been introduced to North America by the Spanish in the 1500s, but here they are going extinct many moons before Spain was even a thing. Remember that.) The same scientists who throw around terms like ‘Quaternary extinction event’ have come up with several different possible explanations for the die-off, among the favorites are: that the big animals were over-hunted by all the new humans showing up all over the place; that they couldn’t adapt to climate change as the world’s weather warmed up; that they were hit with an epidemic- or several- of some disease; or that a cataclysmic phenomenon, like a direct hit from a comet or an asteroid, wiped them out. Most of the scientists tend to believe it was a combination of some or all of these factors that did it, but they all feel like the booming human population was likely the biggest contributor to the extinction of the Ice Age giants. But…what are ya gonna do? The Paleo-Indians in North America- and primitive people all over the world- had a great deal of respect for the creatures who provided everything they needed to survive, and wanton killing was not in their playbook- just, people gotta eat. And more people needing to eat meant more animals having to die.
So now our First Americans- and everybody else on the planet- had to adapt their ways of living to their changing world, and that meant hunting for much smaller prey, like deer and rabbits, as well as padding out their diet with other stuff they found growing from the earth, stuff like nuts and berries and insects- yeah, eeeww- and with the fish they saw teeming in all that fresh water in all those rivers, swollen now with the melt from the thawing Ice Age. They foraged- gathered (as in hunter-gatherer) for not only nuts and seeds and that kind of thing, but also for roots and leaves and mushrooms and wild onions and all kinds of edible plants, a lot of which they figured out how to preserve, and for fresh fruit which they ate right away.
This is a thing I know at least one of y’all out there in Reader World must’ve wondered about too- I can’t accept that I’m the only fruitcake on the loose who thinks about stuff like this: so, how did those very first people figure out what they could eat and what would kill ‘em? For instance, I’ve always heard that the berries on the mountain laurel trees (we used to call them hot beans, the standard procedure being to rub one briskly on the sidewalk like a madman and then stick it on your victim’s arm to deliver a literal sick burn- I can’t recall at this late remove whether the ensuing pain was relatively minor like being lightly poked by a sticker burr tangled up in your shoelace or whether it was horribly excruciating, more like having lit matches shoved under your toenails. Once when I was a kid and my chubby little feet were like shoe leather from running around barefoot on caliche and crabgrass and rocks all the time, I stepped on a scorpion and bent down for a simple sticker burr-ectomy when I discovered that sucker hanging on to my foot like grim death. It hardly hurt at all, but the next six hundred scorpion stings sure as hell did, especially the time one of those bastards fell off the ceiling onto my face in the middle of the night- there was a significant emotional toll to that one, sadly, and I still react to the merest unexpected brush to my skin by springing into the air with an alacrity surprising in someone of my age and weight category and breaking into a berserk parody of a person in the late stages of St. Vitus Dance. If giant scorpions were among the varmints who croaked off during the Quaternary extinction event I hafta confess, I’m not sorry at all and I’m glad they’re dead.) I’ll start overeveryone says mountain laurel berries are poisonous and the stricture against EVER eating one of those bad boys was right up there in the hill country catechism with the other Nine Commandments of Childhood, including Don’t Shove in Line for the Drinking Fountain, Never Go Into Mom & Dad’s Room After Bedtime Without Knocking And On Second Thought Just Stay In Bed and the classic, Don’t Ever Stick Your Head Out of the Bus Window Or An 18-wheeler Will Come Along and Knock It Clean Off Oh Yes Ma’am It Certainly Is True, It Happened On A Field Trip Once When I Was The Chaperone. To get on with this analogy- say you’re a brand-new forager, maybe the first Homo Sapiens ever to set foot in what will eventually become Boerne, Texas, and you’re going along picking and eating mustang grapes just as happy as a clam at high water, and there’s a mountain laurel tree in the same sun-dappled clearing and it’s covered with lovely little berries and you go, what the hell? And you eat a handful of those too how could you know not to? Maybe that’s how you know, or more accurately, how everybody else knows, maybe they’d glance up from their own hunter-gatherering and say “Wow, well Harry’s dead, y’all stay away from those little ones on that tree that smells so good.” And while we’re on the topic, how did early people know which animals you could milk? I can certainly see how the decision was made to NOT pull up a milking stool and grab a handful of teat on the undercarriage of a 2,000-pound sloth, but was there a whole painful process during which they tried milking everything else from a flat-headed peccary to a giant tortoise to a common or garden variety housecat? And which one of them saw a goat and said NOW we’re talkin’?
This is silly and beside the point. What really fascinates me about history, and prehistory too- and I’m not fooling around right now- is that when you look at all the things that’ve happened in the world all throughout time, you find yourself making these amazing connections- there are simply hundreds, thousands even, of what they call aha! moments when one weird puzzle piece finally falls perfectly into place and you suddenly see the whole picture. Now, looking at this Quaternary extinction event and realizing how this one sort of obscure episode that maybe a lot of people don’t know about, or certainly don’t think of in terms of shaping human society- that’s not the one missing piece that reveals The Great Mystery, it doesn’t explain the fall of Rome and how Nazi Germany happened. But it is, like every other thing that’s ever happened in our history, one of those revelations that help us understand how we are who we are and how we got here, and the more pieces we put together, the clearer the image of the world and our place in it becomes. See??
So this mass extinction of all those giant animals at the end of the Ice Age- one enormous result of the disappearance of the large prey was that the way people lived in the world had to change. They had to hunt smaller animals now that the big ones were gone, and a 5-pound rabbit who can run like a bat outta hell is a whole ‘nother enchilada than a 6-ton wooly mammoth whose peak lumbering speed would be just about as fast as you might imagine a 6-ton wooly mammoth could lumber, and whose barn-door proportions you could throw spears at all day long without a miss, and keep on doing it til he drops dead several hours later. So the Paleo Indians had to come up with some new strategies tailored to their new environment, and they rose to the occasion by thinking up a bunch of new and advanced tools, like a thing called the atlatl, a spear thrower that increased the distance and accuracy over one thrown by hand, which was also a lever- Bam! They’d invented a simple machine. In having to use fish as another source of food, the people had to develop the tools they needed to hollow out logs for dugout canoes and the technology to create boats covered with animal hides, and all kinds of things like that to basically refit their lives to their new reality. It was a big leap in thinking, in intelligence, in technology- all set off by the die-off of the megafauna. They had to adapt, and they had to expand their minds to fit the needs of adaptation. See how that works?
The people were forced to flesh out their diet with the new things for which they foraged, with edible plants and fruit and fish- look at it this way: a 10-ton mastodon would’ve provided considerably more meat than any amount of rabbits the hunters could bag in one day, so they had to look for food elsewhere. And from foraging and gathering it was another leap to farming, to rely less on the chance of what one might be able to forage, by planting and harvesting their own food, so ensuring they would have what they needed in the future. That’s a huge leap!
And what’s more- in order to make that provision, that investment in the future, the people had to make a commitment to stick around in that one place to tend to their crop, thus ushering in a whole new kind of life in the New World- the dawn of the community. Do you see what a prodigious bound forward in human development that is? Why, if the megafauna had lived forever, human beings might never have left off following the paths of migration, might never have coalesced into groups and families, might never have created a society. Now the people who had always lived a nomadic life following the herds as they ranged for thousands of miles, camping wherever they happened to be when the sun went down, they began to put down roots, literally, in one place.
The hunters among their number still stalked their prey and brought the animal back to sustain their clan, but the prey was no longer on the move, it was now plentiful, all year round, in the forests and deserts and grasslands, in the hill country and along the coasts and rivers and lakes where they settled, and it was no longer necessary for the whole tribe to travel all day, every day, following the herds on foot while carrying everything they needed as they went. Instead, whole extended families were able to settle down in one place and work toward a future goal- and with their improved diet, and relieved of the necessity of spending their whole store of energy every day in the struggle to simply survive, the People suddenly had more freedom, more leisure time, as it were- I mean, they weren’t suddenly going to the nail salon and playing Candy Crush and going over to each other’s houses for coffee at the Stitch n’ Bitch, but unfettered from the burden of roaming the country on the trail of their ever-moving sustenance, they gained the time and stability- and the energy- to put toward other pursuits, things like socializing and building a community, toward recreation, toward attention to their inner lives, to the tribal rituals, to their spiritual lives.
And so communities began to form and grow, setting off more advances in tool use for construction and architecture, as they began building more permanent homes. And as their lives took on more stability, the various groups and families, clans and tribes began interacting with one another, trading skins and furs and tools and food, intermarrying and forming alliances and building the first vestiges of governmental systems.
Somewhere in there, around 3,000 years ago now, the First People, the Paleo-Indians- whether they got here from Russia via the Bering Strait or from the Far East across the Pacific or from any other spot on the North American shore- they reached the point where they’d had planted their camps and settlements from one end of the continent to the other. In Texas, from the fishermen Karankawa who ranged along the Gulf Coast to the Coahuiltecan people, eking out a sparse existence on the roots, herbs and prickly pear cactus they scavenged from the arid country of the Rio Grande; the Tonkawa and the Lipan in the central Texas hill country and the Comanche and Apache tribes arriving late in west Texas and down from the Great American Desert country in the north, to the Red River Caddo in east Texas from whose language came the word taysha meaning ‘friend’, a word the Spanish explorer-invaders would spell tejas – all over this place under the sun, the first Native Texans forged their deep understanding of, and abiding awe and respect for, this land, under the auspices of the great gods and good, faithful spirits who’d brought them to, and sustained them in, this whole New World.