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Hinojosa Revisited

Photo of hearth and mussel shell

This section is an updated interpretive 2006 summary with links to the original conclusions of the published site report. In most ways, I see the Hinojosa site today pretty much as I did in 1986, but archeological research elsewhere over the last two decades allows me to refine some inferences. And here I try to paint a broader picture of life 600 years ago for a wider audience. It is to be expected that other archeologists today and in the future may take issue with some of my interpretations. That is the way science works.

I see the Hinjosa as a base camp or rancheria (temporary village) reoccupied by members of a single group of native people over no more than several generations, perhaps less. Despite unresolved radiocarbon dating inconsistencies, the bulk of the assays suggest the main (and perhaps the only) occupation period was during the latter half of the 14th century (A.D. 1350-1400), coinciding with the initial spread of the Toyah cultural horizon into the region. The people who lived at the site adopted certain new ideas and technologies shared by many other groups near and far. But they were not newcomers to the South Texas Plains. They were denizens who continued to practice traditional elements of the hunting and gathering way of life that characterized much of the region's prehistoric era.

During the 14th century the location of Hinojosa site was well suited as a major campsite for peoples using stone-age technologies and living directly off the land. The prevailing climate appears to have been somewhat wetter and perhaps a bit cooler than today, conditions that allowed certain plants and animals to grow in the immediate site area that are today no longer common or even present. For instance, one of the climatic-indicator species whose bones were found is the pine vole, a small mouse-like rodent that is today found only in the humid Eastern Woodlands, no closer than northeastern Texas.

The inferred climatic shift for the South Texas Plains coincides with the early part of a worldwide climatic pattern often called the Little Ice Age. During the 14th through 18th centuries, the Northern Hemisphere experienced generally cooler and wetter conditions. Although the climatic impacts were not uniform, the archeological record from the Hinojosa does provide corroborating evidence that the South Texas Plains did indeed experience wetter and somewhat cooler conditions.

In those wetter times, Chiltipin Creek flowed year-round and provided easy access to mussels, fish, water snakes, turtles, and animals such as the muskrat that are no longer found in the immediate area today. The site was surrounded by more diverse habitats than those present today. Savanna grasslands instead of thorn-scrub brushlands covered most of the area, and there were different grassland habitats (econiches) dominated by tall grasses (deeper soils), short grasses (thinner upland soils), and wet/cool-adapted grasses (low-lying areas). The creek and its even smaller tributary drainages were lined by riparian woodlands, as some stretches still are today, but with more mature trees, a better developed understory (the lower layers beneath the forest canopy), and a greater diversity of plants and animals.

Keep in mind that many of the differences between conditions 650 years ago and those of today were not caused by climatic variation. They are the result of historic land use practices, such as overgrazing, fire-suppression, field-leveling, plowing, cultivation of non-native species, and ever-heavier demands on surface and underground water supplies. Even though the overall climatic conditions were more favorable 650 years ago, they were well within the modern range of year-to-year variability. Over 95% of the animal and plant species identified at Hinojosa are still characteristic of the region today.

Clearly, the Hinojosa site was a major base camp used for more than just fleeting stays or short-term hunting camps. The accumulation of living debris is impressive, especially because the main occupation period is thought to have covered a relatively brief period of time. Although the excavated sample represents only a fraction of all of the evidence that was present, it allows us to project telling statistics. It is estimated that the site contained a minimum of over 1,700 Perdiz arrow points (mainly fragments thereof), 700 hide scrapers, and 8,000 pottery sherds. These materials are concentrated in an intensive occupation zone of 1000 square meters (about 1200 square yards) or an area measuring roughly 20-x-50 meters or roughly one-quarter the playing area of an American football field.

We can be sure that the camp was home to entire families because of the diversity and abundance of artifacts, the evidence of intensive food preparation, and the diversity of animals, from large to very small. Worldwide, hunting and gathering is a family-based way of life with pronounced and predictable sexual division of labor. Although we can be certain that men were the hunters of big game, as they are in virtually every society known the world over, we can be equally confident that women and children did most of the work and provided the bulk of the food, clothing, and other basics. Hide scraping would have been done by women and adolescent girls, as was most food preparation, camp maintenance, plant gathering, and so on. Women and children, especially adolescent boys, probably caught, snared, bopped, and otherwise collected many of the smaller animals including rabbits, rodents, fish, clams, snails and so on, most of which could have been found within a hour’s walk. Women probably also made the pottery and many of the tools and implements save for the weaponry.

We have no firm basis for calculating how many people lived at the Hinojosa site or how long they stayed during any particular encampment, or even how many times the site was occupied. The sheer mass of materials tells us that the camp was used repeatedly, an inference supported by evidence that the site was occupied during several different times of the year.

One of the research problems that the 1981 investigations sought to evaluate was the hypothesis that the Hinojosa site mainly represented a winter bison hunting camp. This idea was put to rest by the finding that deer were by far the main big game prey and by many indications that the site was occupied in the warm months of the year. For instance, freshwater drum were most likely caught in the early spring, while goosefoot, sunflower, hackberry seeds, and persimmon fruits ripen in the summer.

Hunting and gathering peoples have mobile lifestyles because there are not enough available resources near any one place to stay for too long. There are also attractive resources that are abundant only in certain places in certain times of the year. For instance, the major rivers to the east, such as the Nueces and the Guadalupe, supported large stands of native pecans that ripened in the late fall. And keep in mind that the South Texas Plains is situated on the continental climatic divide between humid and arid, east and west. The region has always experienced wetter and drier spells of varying lengths of time. The Hinojosa site could never have been a permanent village. It was one of many major camps where the peoples who called the place their own would have stayed as they moved across the landscape from season to season and year to year.

One of the challenges in envisioning and understanding what the Hinojosa site was like in its heyday is the fact that we did not recognize any definite evidence of houses (huts or dwellings or structures). From the accounts of early Spanish travelers, it is almost certain that structures were erected during any stay beyond a brief visit. But in warm and relatively dry regions, hunter-gatherer dwellings wouldn’t have been much more than a simple hut, ramada (shade arbor), or windbreak. Such “residential structures” would have had simple bent-pole frameworks covered by leafy branches, bundles of grass, woven mats, and/or animal hides. The most useful lightweight parts—woven mats and tanned hides—were probably taken to the next camp when the group moved on, leaving behind the frameworks and plant remains as silent organic skeletons that were soon reclaimed by vegetation and decay.

There is one good candidate for the location of a dwelling at Hinojosa: the small pit hearth, Feature 5, which was surrounded by a small area relatively free of most debris. The accompanying interpretive graphic Enlarge image fuses several plan maps and shows some of the evidence. One inferred dwelling does not a rancheria make, but the site area is large enough to accommodate quite a few scattered huts strung mainly along the creek bank as several Spanish accounts describe elsewhere in the region. We’ll never know, but larger excavations may well have provided other candidates.

To learn more about the 1986 site interpretations Site Interpretations pdf, read Chapter 10 of the report. Chapter 11 synthesizes what was then known about the Late Prehistoric era in southern TexasLate Prehistoric pdf and may be most useful today as an historical review of various now-outdated interpretive concepts. The brief concluding chapter summarized the site as a Toyah Campsite Toyah Campsite pdf.

In 1986 I proposed the Toyah “horizon” concept to emphasize that the Toyah cultural pattern seems to have spread rapidly over a broad geographic area. Archeologists of an academic bent often argue about terminology and definitions, and that is sometimes a healthy and necessary thing. To advance ideas, we coin new terms and redefine existing ones for new purposes. When the labels we propose stick, they are often quite useful for communication, but other new terms just add jargon and make it harder for the non-specialists and succeeding generations to follow the literature. The Toyah phenomenon is a case in point.

The “Toyah” part isn’t the problem and, in fact, helps us get around the semantic spats because at least that part doesn’t change. But in the archeological literature you’ll find mention of the Toyah “phase,” “horizon,” “culture,” "techno complex," and, most recently, “interval.” Each of us who have championed one term over another have our reasons and we often justify our favored choice with citations, quotes, and finely split hairs. You can read my take and some of the history of debate in the Hinojosa report. But I’ll confess that the “horizon” concept, as sensible as I thought it was in 1986, hasn’t really caught on.

Toyah is a broad cultural pattern exemplified by a distinctive set of artifacts sometimes known as the “Toyah tool kit.” This set of things reflects the adoption of a set of technologies (bow and arrow weaponry, large animal butchering and skinning tools, earthenware pottery making). Based on the ethnic diversity encountered by the Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Toyah cultural pattern was obviously shared by many different groups speaking different languages, having different names, living in different territories, and, in general, having different lives, different histories, different ethnicities and so on.

But what does this widespread pattern say about how these diverse groups interacted? What accounts for the shared material culture? What did trigger the widespread dissemination of the Toyah tool kit? Climatic change? Population pressure? Buffalo migration? How do the small-scale societies that shared Toyah culture in late prehistoric times relate to the historic Indian groups observed by the Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries? What happened to Toyah culture?

The evidence from the Hinojosa campsite on the Toyah horizon in deep south Texas may continue to prove useful in helping archeologists come up with more convincing answers to these questions. And ask better ones.

photo of a beehive
While clearing part of the site during the 1981 excavations this beehive was found in the hollow crotch of an anaqua tree or sandpaper tree (so named because of its rough leaves). A source of wild honey would have been prized by the hunter-gatherers who lived at the Hinojosa site. This is one of many natural resources that would leave little or no trace that archeologists could hope to find at an open prehistoric campsite in the region. Enlarge image
photo of dry bed of Chiltipin Creek
Al McGraw takes a last look at the dry bed of Chiltipin Creek in January, 1982 near the end of the Hinojosa field work. Today the creek flows only during flooding. In contrast, 600 years ago, it was a small stream that flowed year-round. Toyah peoples camped along the bluff top. Enlarge image
photo of a muskrat
The muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) lives in marshy areas or along creeks. The finding of a leg bone from this animal at the Hinojosa site is one of several clues that Chiltipin Creek held a year-round supply of ponded or slow running water. Photo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Enlarge image
illustration of an olla
Reconstructed drawing of an earthenware olla (water jug) found at the Possum Hollow site (41LK201), a Toyah campsite now located beneath the waters of Choke Canyon Reservoir. Although that site dates somewhat later than the Hinojosa site, the bone-tempered pottery found at both sites is part of the same Toyah pottery-making tradition. From Highley 1986, Figure 40. Enlarge image
illustration of fauna
Top: deer and antelope; bottom: bison and javelina. Based on Dr. Gentry Steele’s study of the site's animal bones, deer and antelope were the hunter’s main prey, not bison. The finding of a javelina mandible (upper jaw bone) in Feature 9, demonstrates this animal's presence in the region in Late Prehistoric times. This is a fascinating revelation, because some wildlife experts thought that javelinas (collared peccaries) did not migrate into the area from Mexico until historic times. Today they are one of the characteristic inhabitants of the South Texas Plains. Drawings from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Enlarge image
photo of Texas persimmon
Texas persimmon (Diopyros texana) produces an edible fruit that ripens in late summer. Charred persimmon seeds recovered from the Hinojosa site suggest that the site was occupied in the warm summer months. Other lines of evidence point to occupations at other times of the year including the early spring and fall. Photo by Phil Dering. Enlarge image
interpretive graphic
There is one good candidate for the location of a dwelling at Hinojosa: the small pit hearth known as Feature 5, which was surrounded by a small area relatively free of debris. The red circle marks the possible location of a dwelling (hut). Lacking any direct trace of postholes or other definitive structural evidence, we cannot be sure. Nonetheless, based on the accounts of early Spanish travelers, it is almost certain that structures would have been erected and present at the Hinojosa camp during any stay beyond a brief visit.
View interpretive graphic. Enlarge image
radiocarbon chart
Radiocarbon dates from sites in South Texas showing the two major inferred periods or “horizons” of the Late Prehistoric era. The graphic suggests that intervals are better thought of as successive cultural patterns that probably coexisted for about a century. The dates on the left are associated with the earlier pattern labeled as the Austin Horizon (ca. 1100-1400 A.D.), during which the bow and arrow and pottery first appear in the region. The dates on the right are associated with the later pattern which Black termed the Toyah Horizon (ca. 1300-1600 A.D.) as exemplified by the Hinojosa site. Notice that within each group are clear outliers that represent dating problems rather than occupational reality. Click to see the larger image and learn more. Enlarge image