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The Hunters Who Came Before
written by Ray Sasser

Every time I find an arrowhead from the past, I feel a great kinship to the ancient craftsman who made it.
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On a friend's ranch in southern Texas, there's a spot where two arroyos join like freeways merging into an interstate. Unless there's been a heavy rain, unlikely in this part of the world, the arroyos are dry. In another part of the southwest, they might be called dry gulches.    

There's an old joke about rainfall that's appropriate to this arid part of Texas, which was once called the Wild Horse Desert. A rancher was explaining to a newcomer just how dry it could be in his neck of the woods. "You know that flood they talk about in the Bible, the one where it rained for 40 days and 40 nights?" he asked. The newcomer said yes, he knew about the great flood. "Well," drawled the rancher, "we got half an inch."

Arrowheads tell the tale of ancient hunters and their pursuits. Consistently finding them takes a keen eye.

At some point before modern man carved up south Texas, marking his territory with wire fences as a mountain lion marks his with urine, the dry gulches obviously ran water. A ready source of water was a powerful attraction to ancient man, who camped at this site for thousands of unrecorded years. Lacking caves, the south Texas ancients had no canvas on which to leave their art. Instead, they left a calling card of a different kind.

 
For a 100-yard radius around the confluence of the arroyos, it is difficult to pick up a rock that does not show signs of having been worked by prehistoric man. Even now, my friend claims that he never goes to the place without hearing whispers of the past.

Politically correct sorts claim you should never pick up an Indian artifact. To do so, they say, destroys a page of ancient history. Personally, I think those people are nuts. They rank right up there with extremists who think that animals have rights that supersede the rights of people, and that we're depleting the ozone layer with hairspray and we'll all die of skin cancer, if global warming doesn't kill us first. For me, the bottom line is that death causes life, and I'm pleased with my undeserved ranking on the food chain.

I also pick up every arrowhead I see, a practice that's legal on private property in Texas. Unfortunately (depending on your viewpoint), I'm not adept at spotting artifacts. My collection is woefully slim for a man who has spent as much time as I've spent in good artifact country. Most of the time, I'm too busy watching for distant whitetails, pinpointing the gobble of spring turkeys, or trying to keep pace with a rapidly disappearing bird dog to look closely for artifacts.

I never find one, though, that I don't wonder about the craftsman who shaped it.  I hold it in my hand, just as he held it in his hand. I shut my eyes tight and, using the artifact's power as a medium, try to picture the ancient artisan.  Did he live 1,000 years ago or 10,000 years ago? Was he the man who invented horn-rattling for whitetails? Was he a good shot with his bow? Was he satisfied to make a bow and arrows the way his ancestors taught him, or was he forever experimenting with materials and designs that might prove more effective? What was the hunting like in his time? Did he ever shoot a really big buck? Was a deer with unusually large antlers considered strong medicine, or were the antlers primarily viewed as tools to knap the flint into projectile points?  

 

How many arrows were considered enough to carry on a deer hunt?  Why did Indians make the tiny arrowheads called "bird points" anyway? A blunt arrow shaft will kill a bird. When I find a projectile point that's broken, as most of them tend to be, I always wonder if the point was broken on the rib of a monster buck.  More likely, it was broken in the knapping process and simply discarded as a misfire. (I can always hear the guy who's already invested an hour on the point muttering, "Oh, crap!" or the prehistoric equivalent thereof
as he tosses it on the reject heap.) In truth, most of the broken points were probably run over by a truck, trampled by a buffalo or, in farming areas, fractured by a plow.

One fall I was deer hunting on Watt Matthews' historic Lambshead Ranch on the Clear Fork of Throckmorton County's Brazos River. Matthews, 92 at the time, still held rein over the rugged ranch. Though I was looking for the forever elusive monster whitetail, I was not opposed to collecting a Rio Grande turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.  With a turkey in mind, I sat for a couple of hours beside the river. The morning had been frosty, but the afternoon has turned warm and the cool, running water was inviting.

From a high bluff overlooking the river, I'd seen two flocks of mature gobblers and at least 50 hens water at this pool. I settled in under a native pecan tree, its branches sagging from this year's crop, and waited for special delivery on a festive bird.

It's difficult, in a place as magic as that, not to wonder how many hunters had waited beside this same river pool. The first human hunters were armed with stone-headed clubs or rocks the size of baseballs. They were succeeded by more sophisticated hunters armed with hickory bows and flint-tipped arrows, then blackpowder and smoothbore rifles, then lever-action saddle guns, and finally, a stainless steel .280. With more at stake and less technology to make them careless, those early hunters chose their stands more carefully than I.

Holding an arrowhead in my hand always raises questions about its maker.

The turkeys finally showed up. It seemed inevitable that they would. They shuffled down from the shady thicket that lined the river's rich floodplain. The afternoon sun reflected the copper sheen of their feathers.  One old gobbler in particular sported a full beard that looked as thick as a mare's tail. I was admiring the bird in the riflescope, the gun held rock solid by the stubby bipod legs, my thumb fumbling for the safety, when it occurred to me that the turkeys were on the opposite side of the river. Slight pressure on the .280's trigger would reduce the stately tom to nature's version of a Butterball, but retrieval of my Thanksgiving feast would require wading waist-deep through the cold river or backtracking two miles to a shallow river crossing.

As I sat there, contemplating my problem, the turkeys, 11 mature gobblers, wandered down to the water's edge and lined up, wing to wing, as they dipped beakfuls of the refreshing water. That was the shot an early settler would have taken, thereby collecting the most meat with the least powder and shot. My modern rifle with one 150-grain bullet moving nearly 3,000 feet per second, might have killed half those turkeys had the shot been carefully loosed.

The settler would have scoffed at wading through water much colder. The Indian might have laughed aloud at walking four miles roundtrip to retrieve a bird weighing 20 pounds. They were hunting to feed their stomachs. I was hunting to feed my soul.

As the turkey wandered away, never aware of my presence, I picked up, as a consolation prize, two of the small native pecans on which the birds and other wild game feed. There must have been times when pecans from the same venerable tree kept an unsuccessful ancient hunter from going hungry. Try as I might, the rock-hard shells resisted my best efforts to crack them. Pioneer times were as tough as those native pecan shells. The nuts were carefully laid back as a snack for the next turkey, deer, or feral hog that came that way.

Under the gnarled roots of the stately tree, I wedged a shiny .280 cartridge. It probably washed away in the next high waters that flooded the river bottom. I hope it will be found 1,000 years from now, and considered an ancient artifact by someone just as curious about the hunters who came before him.

 

 

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