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11 July 2011
Texan students helping to discover prehistoric nomad history

Texas State University students have been instrumental in helping to discover the everyday life of prehistoric nomadic tribes of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands, Texas, USA. For a month, the students have been working under the guidance of archaeologist Stephen Black at the Little Sotol archaeological site and have been looking at the Little Sotol ovens for clues to the practical side of the peoples once residing there. The ovens are so called after a local desert shrub, that may also have been an important food source. "Cave art is sexy," said Charles Koenig, a graduate student surveying the lands around the Little Sotol site. "But we're trying to see how they worked the landscape."
     Groups of hunter-gatherers roamed the landscape 7,000 years ago, said Black, and subsisted on berries and venison. At some point cooked plants became the mainstay of their diet and a large part of that would have been the sotol shrub. The earthen ovens were comprised of elaborately stacked stones. Hot stones would have been placed at the bottom, cooking the under layers of plants and dirt. Jacob Combs, one of Black's students has unearthed a wafer thin piece of charcoal near the oven and it is hoped that carbon dating may help to indicate how often the Little Sotol oven was used.
     One theory, said Black, holds that a major drought may have decimated the berries and deer populations, which would have forced tribes to eat more sotol. Another theory holds that the population outgrew the surroundings, which also would explain more sotol cooking, either way, that's why finds such as those by Combs are useful.
     "The depth of prehistory and the way we have to piece it together is the only way we have to fill in the blanks in history," said Tiffany Osburn, a Texas Historical Commission archaeologist who visited the site in mid-June. "Archaeology is incremental and cumulative."

Edited from My San Antonio (10 July 2011)

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