Archaeologist Dr. Bryon Schroeder to lecture on Big Bend’s 13,000 years of human occupation 

ALPINE — The first lecture in Sul Ross State University’s new Spotlight series will highlight the latest research coming out of the Center for Big Bend Studies. Dr. Bryon Schroeder, the center’s director, will speak about their latest archeological findings in the Big Bend region in a virtual lunchtime talk on Friday, September 17, discussing roughly 13,000 years of human occupation in the Big Bend region and what they left behind.

Dr. Schroeder will share the department’s recent finds, which map a record of Indigenous people adapting to the harsh and changing climes of the Chihuahuan Desert. “There hasn’t been a ton of focused archaeology to find the oldest sites in the Big Bend. That takes a ton of effort because those sites are deeply buried,” the director said, and in the past three years, that’s become the center’s focus. Now there are three sites, near Marfa, Fort Stockton and Elephant Butte, being excavated and worked on –– bone beds where mammoth and megafauna fossils were found, a traditional, big, sheltered rock site, and a site the center already knew dated back pretty far.

In North America it’s pretty well established among the archaeological community that there’s one widespread “culture” found from Alaska to Maine and down to this region, because they all use a specific type of projectile point, called clovis points. At the center, the search is on to identify clovis points in the Big Bend, which, despite proximity to other clovis sites, have never been found here. And although that culture dates back 13,000 years, many in the scientific community have gotten a hunch that digging a little deeper, there may be people dating back even further.

Schroeder became director of the Center for Big Bend studies last year, after moving to Alpine in 2016 from California. When he arrived in the region, he was ready to focus on excavating a pristinely preserved rock shelter or cave, which he hoped had served as a shelter for thousands of years of people moving through the West Texas area. 

What he found instead was cave upon cave that had been touched by modern man. “People own them, sell access to them, and people were taking things out of them. I couldn’t find any that are in really good condition.”

The intention to excavate a cave or rock shelter instead shifted to an effort to piece together prehistory that has been haphazardly deconstructed. “I had to start working with people who took stuff out of them, reconstructing the history of how people dug in them,” Schroeder said. Most of the people who had dug deep into the sites were not residents of the area, and tracking down artifacts and information takes “an incredible amount of time.”

He’s met with collectors, who pull artifacts from basements and coffee cans, with stories of how the items were procured. The past has always been a dead, static thing Schroeder believes, “and we’re trying to breathe a little bit of life into how people came to occupy this.”

By working to re-establish the collections of what has been taken from West Texas’ rock shelters and caves, “it fundamentally changed the way I think about this place as kind of ‘back there’ and abstract. It became real. It’s very real to these collectors and means something to them,” he said, but he acknowledged that it’s also meaningful to the descendants of the people who first created these artifacts and left them behind.

California, where Schroeder was previously working in archaeology, requires archaeologists to work with the “most likely descendants” of the people group, but in Texas, where so much of the land is privatized and there aren’t requirements to involve descendents, Schroeder said it takes navigating.

“I’ve had so many conversations with collectors that we’re working with an Indigenous group, and it’s the first time they’ve contemplated it could be somebody else’s history,” Schroeder said. “It’s been really kind of rewarding getting groups to realize that, and donate collections, and start having conversations with groups that might not have been there to have the conversation otherwise,” adding, “It’s a history that’s been violently ripped from them and has a meaning to people living now.”

Some of those descendants may not even realize their ancestors’ artifacts lie within the region. “There’s so much Indigenous history here. Most of the people that reside in Marfa and Alpine have Indigenous history or are Indigenous,” he said. In re-establishing collections, Schroeder said he’s learning “it’s really important to the community and Indigenous groups that don’t have a seat at that table; it totally changed how I approached that.”

Also on the horizon at the center is an area where Presidio lies today, called La Junta de Los Rios. “We have found some new La Junta sites and we’re trying to get this going. I’d like for the center to have a living excavation over the La Junta sites,” Schroder said. He’s come across Sul Ross students from the Presidio area that don’t even know the site was a major part of prehistory in the area. “It’s crystal clear and people don’t even know these huge Pueblo interaction spheres happened here,” Schroeder said.

 The Spotlight series will be a monthly lunchtime event that highlights the expertise and research of Sul Ross faculty and staff and is open to the general public. The lecture from Dr. Schroeder takes place Friday and can be joined online by visiting https://sulross.libcal.com/event/8266603.


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