Discovering 12,000 Years of History at Lubbock Lake Landmark
This South Plains archaeological site has sustained life and served as a home to people, plants and animals for thousands of years.
Written by John Davis
Tucked into a dimple in the Earth where U.S. 84 and Indiana Avenue would one day converge, water from a spring sustains life for game animals.
LUBBOCK, Texas – 4000 B.C. The Altithermal Period.
Across the South Plains, dust storms rage. The darkest days of the 20th century’s Dust Bowl don’t quite compare to the angry winds whipping tons of topsoil into roiling skies and blacking out the sun.
After hand-dug wells have run dry, humans have abandoned their settlements in areas that will one day be named Midland and Clovis, N.M. Few area plants and animals can survive the climatic onslaught that would last 2,000 years.
However, tucked into a dimple in the Earth where U.S. 84 and Indiana Avenue would one day converge, water from a spring sustains life for game animals such as bison and pronghorn, said Eileen Johnson, director of the Lubbock Lake National Historic Landmark. Those, in turn, would feed the remaining humans surviving this super drought on the South Plains.
It’s hard to believe that only 7,000 years earlier, the same area grew lush and green. Houston-style humidity was common, but an ancient species of mesquite and the grasslands made the area recognizable. Marshes and streams dotted the landscape and wild game thrived.
While Europe and Northern climes froze for about a thousand years during the Younger Dryas period, Lubbock experienced a more temperate climate that grew mixed-grass plains that fed large game.
These are but a few paragraphs of history in the book of the Lubbock Lake National Historic Landmark, she said. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the discovery of the site.
“For thousands of years, people, plants and animals on the Southern High Plains used the water resources in the draw until those resources went dry in the early 1930s,” Johnson said. “Years of sediment covered the traces of human activity until 1936, when the city of Lubbock dredged the meander in an effort to revitalize the underground springs. And that led to the discovery of one of the largest, most complex and longest continuously inhabited hunter-gatherer sites in the New World.”
The Landmark contains evidence of almost 12,000 years of occupation by ancient people on the Southern High Plains.
Uncovering Life in the New World
A unit of the Museum of Texas Tech University, the Lubbock Lake Landmark is a 336-acre archaeological and natural history preserve at the northern edge of the city of Lubbock. The Landmark contains evidence of almost 12,000 years of occupation by ancient people on the Southern High Plains, Johnson said.
”The Lubbock Lake Landmark exhibits a virtually complete cultural sequence from the Clovis Period to historic times,” she said. “We even have a hint of possibly earlier occupation than Clovis. When people came into the New World, they dispersed to a number of places. One of them was to the Southern High Plains. So, from Clovis to historic times, there is a virtually unbroken record showing people came back to the Landmark time and time again over generations regardless of the culture that was represented.”
The big draw, she said, was the draw. Or pond, marsh, spring-fed creek or river – depending on the time. Though the style of water has changed over millennia, its presence made the Landmark prime real estate for plants, animals and humans alike.
During the years, excavators have uncovered evidence of extinct animals such as ancient bison, camels and horses. Giant ground sloths and pampatheres (cousins of the tinier armadillos), dire wolves, and Columbian mammoths also made a home in and around the stream in the valley.
And then, the climate changed. Animals died out. The ancient bison survived and became the modern bison. Yellow mud turtles figured out how to survive and still live there today. The grasslands became more shortgrass prairie to survive the new continental climate West Texans have grown to know.
While the droughts got better than the Altithermal Period 4,500 years ago, they’re still a rhythmic part of the area’s climate
Different Native-American cultures came and went. Hispanic Pastores shepherds stayed and went, until Anglo settlers began ranching operations in the 1880s. George Singer opened up a general store on the site by two converging military trails and the Hub City’s first beginnings started in or around the area.
Two boys exploring the area found a spear head among the flotsam dug from the pit. William Curry Holden, director of the West Texas Museum, recognized the shape of the design as that of a Folsom point (10,800-10,300 years ago).
Discovering the History
In1903, the city of Lubbock acquired the land and the springs to use as an auxiliary water source. But as large cotton operations began draining the Ogallala Aquifer below, the spring that fed the lake began to dry up in the 1930s.
In 1936, the Landmark became the first Works Progress Administration project in the area. Once workers discovered the water table was just below the surface, they brought in large-scale equipment to dredge this bend in the Yellowhouse Draw.
“By doing that, they brought up sediments and piled them on the banks where they were excavating,” Johnson said.
Two boys exploring the area found a spear head among the flotsam dug from the pit. They took their find to William Curry Holden, director of the West Texas Museum that later would become the Museum of Texas Tech University. Holden recognized the shape of the design as that of a Folsom point (10,800-10,300 years ago).
Realizing the significance of the find, Holden sponsored excavations in 1939, which continued on and off until 1972, when continuous excavations started.
“That’s how it was discovered,” she said. It was accidental. And from the moment of that discovery, the museum has shepherded it. In the beginning, the site was considered to be only five acres in extent. Now it’s more than 330 acres. Through the years, and with all research that has gone on, we’ve got a much better idea from initial beginnings. If it had not been for Dr. Holden, we might not be here as a national Landmark today. So, we’re celebrating 75 years of discovery.”
Call of the Draw
Throughout its history, Lubbock Lake Landmark has drawn researchers from all over the world to come explore, Johnson said.
In the 1950s, the very first radiocarbon dating for Paleo-Indians was used on organics from the Landmark, and some of the first experiments with radiocarbon dating of buried soils also happened there.
When Johnson came to the site in 1972, the world of anthropology and paleontology used typewriters to write manuscripts and theodolites to survey the land. Professionals believed that the first people came across the Bering Strait to the New World about 11,000 years ago. But even that has changed in 40 years, she said, and altered the understanding of the Landmark.
Even though much has been learned from the site and the 75 years of excavation, much still awaits discovery with new techniques and technologies.
“Now, there are other robust theories because of new technology like fossil DNA analysis that give us new clues,” she said. “The big question’s become when did they come, and how did they come? Did they come only from Bering Strait, or were there other routes? That’s opening up a whole new area of discussion. If we have sites in South America, which we do, that are dating 13,000 years ago, and we say people only came across Bering Strait, then they made a mad dash and didn’t leave anything behind here. Or, they came a different way. Or, people did come much earlier and we’re struggling to figure out how. There are many ‘ors.’ It’s very exciting. It can be frustrating, but it is exciting.”
Today, laser levels and global positioning systems offer more precision, and computers have helped to create new techniques, discoveries, and to revolutionize the way that these researchers do business.
And even though much has been learned from the site and the 75 years of excavation, much still awaits discovery with new techniques and technologies, she said.
“When you look at the Landmark and all the time I’ve spent here, and what’s happened in the time the museum has covered it, we have touched less than 5 percent of the record,” Johnson said. “The vast majority is still ‘in the bank,’ which is the way it should be. The Landmark will still be able to contribute 100 years from now and into the future.”
The immense opportunity for discovery is what has kept Johnson at the site for so long.
“To have such an amazing resource is just a once-in-a lifetime sort of arrangement,” she said. “And there’s still so much more to learn. Every day I feel like, ‘OK now, what’s next? What am I going to be surprised about today?’ The Landmark has given me the gift of community. Nobody does what we have done here alone. There’s always been a tremendous outpouring of support from the Lubbock community. The Landmark belongs to community of Lubbock. I’m the caretaker, but they have helped us. Dr. Holden saw the educational, community and historical value of the Landmark.
500 years ago
In Area 13B at Lubbock Lake Landmark, volunteer and professional archaeologists are exploring the Protohistoric period, which occurred 500 years ago. Here are some events that occurred around the world about the same time:
- Martin Luther fuels changes in the Christian religion in Germany.
- Christian Europeans start the race to find new trade routes to China for silk and Indonesia for spices after the Muslim Ottomans block the Mediterranean Sea to all Christians.
- Kites, screws, plywood, toothpaste, umbrellas, dice, perfume, toilet paper and sunglasses had been invented centuries before, but not the piano, pencils, badminton, barbed wire, safety pins or the bicycle.
- Columbus, 1492, West Indies. You get the picture.
- King Henry VIII (1491-1547), second monarch of the House of Tudor, had assumed the English throne in 1509.
- In 1508, Pope Julius II persuaded a reluctant Michelangelo Buonarroti to take on the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
- A now-extinct 40-pound eagle may have been hunting big game and even humans in New Zealand.
- Utah is rocked by a 6.5-to-7-magnitude earthquake about 500 years ago. It tore a deep gash along a 35-mile section of the fault known as the Weber segment.
Museum of Texas Tech
The Museum of Texas Tech University was established in 1929.
It consists of the main Museum building, the Moody Planetarium, the Natural Science Research Laboratory, the research and educational elements of the Lubbock Lake Landmark, and the Val Verde County research site.
The museum also offers master’s degrees in Museum Science and Heritage Management and a wide variety of educational programs for the general public.
The museum is located at Fourth Street and Indiana Ave. Museum hours are 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, and 1-5 p.m. on Sunday. The museum is closed on Monday.