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Kincaid Shelter: 13,000 Years in the Sabinal River Valley

Illustration by artist Charlie Shaw depicting an ancient scene at Kincaid Shelter with Indians engaged in an array of activities

Some 13,000 years ago in the Texas Hill Country, a band of travelers discovered a broad, cave-like shelter in the chalky limestone bluffs above the Sabinal River. Within the shelter's deep recesses, the group found protection from wind and rain and refuge from the large carnivores that roamed the Edwards Plateau and Sabinal River valley.

It was an area rich in resources—abundant water, food, fuel, and the materials for making tools—and the group found it worth the effort to make the damp shelter into a more comfortable home. But to do so was not a simple task. The process involved hauling heavy stone cobbles—some weighing as much as 70 pounds each and totaling more than two tons—up from the river bed below and into the shelter to pave the muddy floor. Women and children may have handled the job, carrying the stone in leather pouches or baskets, laying them carefully in a tight pattern, and then filling the gaps in between with tiny pebbles. Finally, the workers likely cushioned the hard pavement by adding layers of grass and branches and covering it all over with animal skins. The damp shelter had become a comfortable living place.

map of Texas' natural regions
As shown in this map of Texas' natural regions, Kincaid Shelter is located on the southern edge of the Edwards Plateau in the scenic Texas Hill Country. Map adapted from Texas Natural Regions map, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

Click images to enlarge

photo of alligator
Although not present today, alligators frequented the riverbanks during the era of Clovis people in the Texas Hill Country. It was a time when the climate was cooler and rains fell more frequently than today, when the Sabinal River flowed year-round, and massive Pleistocene animals roamed the craggy bluffs and canyons of the plateau. Photo courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
photo of objects found at Kincaid Shelter
More than 13,000 years of culture history is represented in these objects from Kincaid Shelter. The small chert blade core at bottom left was recognized by archeologist Mike Collins as evidence that Clovis peoples lived at Kincaid long before Folsom hunters came on the scene—and that they were almost certainly the builders of the stone pavement. TARL Collections. Photo by Aaron Norment.
photo of Glenn Evans
Geologist Glen Evans, shown in one of the long trenches his crews dug to expose the site's stratigraphy, or layering. This prudent strategy provided a "window" to the complex shelter deposits and guided further excavations. TARL archives. Click to see full image.

Kincaid takes our knowledge of Clovis beyond the oft-repeated myth of nomadic "big-game hunters following the herds" to a picture of ancient peoples who selected a place to stay for an extended period, improved their accommodations, and explored the full bounty of the area's resources.

photo of a tour of Kincaid site
Archeologists and local people alike had a keen interest in what was being uncovered at the Kincaid Site. Here, U.T. anthropology professor T. N. Campbell (center, front) and TMM director E. H. Sellards (right ) give visitors a tour of the shelter in December, 1948, near the close of the first phase of excavations. Photo by F. M. Bullard, TARL archives.

Although we will never know the full details of its construction, the stone pavement at Kincaid Rockshelter provides a rare glimpse into the mindset and way of life of some of North America's earliest peoples. There is no doubt that improving the shelter required considerable effort and signified that the people who built it intended to stay for a while, re-tooling their weapons and staging hunts and other expeditions from that locale. But who were the builders, and what was their life like, there on the banks of the Sabinal?

Based on a small array of distinctive tools and the bones of now-extinct animals deeply buried in the shelter's deposits, University of Texas archeologist Michael B. Collins believes these early Hill Country stone masons were Clovis peoples. If he is correct—and all evidence appears to support this—the Kincaid stone pavement is the oldest known structural feature in North America.

Located some 60 miles west of San Antonio, Texas, Kincaid Shelter is significant as one of a mere handful of Clovis-period occupation sites—a place where people lived and invested their labor, unlike more-temporary open camp sites and animal "kill" sites. As such, Kincaid helps take our knowledge of Clovis beyond the oft-repeated stereotype of "nomadic big-game hunters following the herds" to a picture of ancient peoples who selected a place to stay for an extended period, improved their accommodations, and explored the full bounty of the area's resources.

Beyond Clovis, Kincaid Shelter also holds a long record of later prehistoric peoples. Countless generations of travelers and campers left behind tantalizing reminders of their stay along the Sabinal River—Folsom hunters on the trail of a wounded bison, a succession of Archaic period peoples, and Late Prehistoric pottery makers and hunters wielding bows and arrows. In more recent times, a traveler wearing a Confederate uniform jacket lost a button in front of the shelter, perhaps en route to battle in New Mexico. Over the millennia, deep layers of sediment and human debris filled the shelter and formed a thick terrace deposit outside.

Twentieth-century visitors, however, left a very different imprint in Kincaid shelter—gaping holes and mounds of shoveled-out backdirt. Searching for legendary riches made famous by Texas writers such as J. Frank Dobie, treasure hunters mined the deeply layered deposits of Kincaid Shelter and, in the process, nearly destroyed its rich archeological potential. When a young college student brought the site to the attention of researchers, the fate of Kincaid Shelter was changed, however, and its systematic exploration was begun.

Archeological investigations at Kincaid Shelter were conducted in late 1948 under the direction of Elias H. Sellards and Glen Evans from the Texas Memorial Museum in Austin. One of the missions of the Austin museum, like others across the country at the time, was to find and collect artifacts of "early man" to fill displays and exhibits. Many such collecting operations were done haphazardly, with an eye more for the objects themselves than for understanding their context.

Fortunately, Evans and Sellards took a more scientific approach that was to be particularly critical in verifying the age of the deepest cultural layers. As geologists, Evans and Sellards were keenly aware of the importance of depositional processes and stratigraphy. After clearing and sifting the backdirt, they excavated a deep trench from the front to the back of the shelter in order to gauge the depth and character of the shelter fill. This critical process, unusual by archeological standards of the time, provided a vertical "window" to view the complex layers of shelter deposits and guided further excavations.

Five years later, University of Texas anthropology professor Thomas Nolan Campbell led a field school to investigate the deep terrace deposits directly in front of the shelter. Although it later became evident that the deepest layers of the terrace formed after the critical Late Pleistocene "early man" levels inside the shelter, the terrace investigation provided additional information on the Archaic and more-recent cultures.

In the following sections, readers can learn more about Kincaid Shelter, from its serendipitous "discovery," to systematic excavations by geologists and archeologists, to trials and errors with trailblazing scientific techniques, and finally, to the re-analysis of a few stone tools that solved a decades-long mystery. In the process, readers will see glimpses of the ancient—and more recent—peoples who visited and investigated the shelter along the Sabinal.

In the first section, we explore the site in its Natural Setting in the scenic Sabinal River valley. In Discovery and Investigations, we learn of the events that led to the site's discovery by Charles E. (Gene) Mear, whose career path in geology was charted at Kincaid, and track the investigations at the site by the TMM and UT-Austin.

Reading the Layers interprets the shelter's complex natural stratigraphy, discusses how the deposits accumulated, and looks at the cultural materials discovered in the various zones. Examples of the hundreds of artifacts recovered at Kincaid are presented in Fragments of the Past. A special gallery, Mysterious Stones, highlights prehistoric artistry at Kincaid: an array of pebbles, some engraved with a variety of enigmatic patterns, others used to make red pigment. All artifacts shown in the exhibits are curated at the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory at UT-Austin.

In Kincaid Revisited: Clovis and Beyond, the story of archeologist Michael B. Collin's serendipitous involvement with the site unfolds, and the Paleoindian evidence is examined further. We also look at Kincaid's significance within the North American archeological framework.

Learning about Kincaid is a special section now under development for teachers and students. The first activity, Kincaid Creatures, challenges students to identify the various animals—both extinct and modern— represented at the site and to understand the concept of stratigraphy. Watch for more activities and lessons to be added.

The Credits & Sources section provides brief biographical sketches of the Kincaid researchers and references and links for learning more about various topics in the Kincaid exhibits.

large arrow to click on to follow Kincaid exhibit
photo of the hill country
Rolling, tree-covered hills and narrow valleys cut by crystalline streams are hallmarks of the Texas Hill Country. Prehistoric hunters and gatherers were attracted to the rich resources—water, game, and fuel, just as travelers are today. Photo courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Like postcards from the past, the fragments of ancient tools, weapons, bones, and stones have a story to tell. But, deplorably, the rich archeological potential of Kincaid Shelter was plundered, its deep layers of evidence nearly destroyed by treasure hunters who left gaping pits and piles of backdirt in their wake.

photo of Grayson Meade
Paleontologist Grayson Meade holds the massive canine of a cave lion, one of many now-extinct species that prowled the Edwards Plateau during the Late Pleistocene. The tooth and a variety of other fossil bones were recovered in the deeper layers of the shelter that pre-date human use. TARL archives.
photo of E. H. Sellards
Posed in a trench below the early rock pavement, Texas Memorial Museum Director E. H. Sellards, a geologist and paleontologist by training, examines the deposits under the feature. TARL archives.
photo of Evans and Mear
Returning to Kincaid after more than 40 years, geologists Glen Evans and Gene Mear recall details of excavations at the site. It was Mear who brought the site to the attention of researchers at the Texas Memorial Museum in 1948, after finding several rare Folsom points. Photo by Tom Hester, TARL archives.
Collage of images related to Kincaid Shelter