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Early Peoples and Indian Civilizations

Most anthropologists believe that the original inhabitants of the United States arrived in the Western Hemisphere about 20,000 years ago. They crossed from the Eastern Hemisphere into the Western by using a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska. It was eventually covered by water and is now the Bering Sea. 

These prehistoric Indians traveled south through Alaska. In time, they spread over most areas of North, Central and South America, including today’s Texas. Bones were found of the "Midland man" in West Texas near present Midland. Near Leander, archeologists found remains of the "Leanderthal Lady." These remains date from over 15,000 years ago.

These early peoples were part of what anthropologists call the Paleo Culture (Paleo meaning "First" or "Old"). They were nomadic hunters, fishermen and gatherers. They did not know how to farm. They hunted huge woolly mammoths and mastodons for their main source of food. The Paleo Indians also used these animals’ furs and skins for clothing, blankets and many other items such as bones for picks and spears.

Archeological excavation of the "Leandarthal Lady" (Photo by Randy Green/TxDot)

About 7,000 B.C. (or 9,000 years ago), these large animals became extinct, probably because of a change in climate. Consequently, a new culture known as the Archaic Indians developed. These Indians hunted smaller animals like modern-day antelopes and buffaloes. They continued to fish and to be gatherers. They also picked berries, other wild fruit, seeds, wild onions, wild tomatoes and other food.

The "agricultural revolution" occurred in the Western Hemisphere around 5,000 B.C. Indian women learned how to domesticate plants that provided ample food. The first domesticated plants were corn, potatoes and several varieties of beans. These first domesticated plants are called the "American Triad." They were indigenous to the New World. After learning to grow such plants, the nomadic wanderers had a stable source of food. They could now settle down and live in one place. Sedentary living is the first step in modern civilization as we know it. It allowed people to become social; that is, they started living together in small villages.

In Northwest Texas, along the Canadian River, searchers found homes of an early people who made their dwellings out of stone slabs. They were called the "Basket Makers" because they used the yucca plant to make excellent baskets, bags and sandals. They farmed and raised great crops of corn and beans. They also hunted for their food. Other early people once found in the Texas Panhandle and along the Pecos River lived in caves or lodges made of poles, grass and mud. 

By the time of the first European contacts in the 1500s, a number of different Indian cultures had developed in Texas. The Caddo tribes settled the woodlands of Eastern Texas. They are also called Mound Builders because they built tall earthen mounds. They used them for religious rites, for burial and for protection from floods. Around their mounds, they built lodges made of poles, grass and mud. Their lodges looked like a haycock or a bee hive. A typical village had from seven to fifteen of the dome-shaped dwellings. Each was large enough for extended families. Good land and abundant rainfall allowed them to grow huge quantities of corn, beans, squash, tobacco and sunflowers. They used stone tools to farm and they made beautiful pottery containers of all kinds.

The Tonkawa tribes lived in central Texas. They hunted the plentiful deer and buffalo that roamed the land. The Coahuiltecan and Karankawan people lived along the coast of southern Texas. These Indians were also hunter-gatherers. They hunted deer and other game, but seafood was the central part of their diets. They lived in small family groups and practiced ceremonial cannibalism. They made pottery that they waterproofed with asphalt and they used stone tools.

In the Trans-Pecos region of far West Texas lived the Jumanos. Taking advantage of the lush river valleys, some members of the tribe farmed. They produced great crops of corn, beans, squash and other vegetables. Other members of the tribe hunted buffalo on the fringes of the Texas Plains. They lived in permanent villages in flat-roofed adobe lodges. They also served as middlemen in trade between the Caddos of East Texas and the Pueblo Indians of present New Mexico.

Indian Tribes locations in Texas: 1500-1700 A.D.

West Texas was later the home of several tribes including the Lipan Apaches. They wandered on foot searching for buffaloes and depended on the animal for all their needs: food, clothing, material for their tipis, tools, bedding, ropes and other items. They also hunted deer, antelope and turkey. They were later pushed southwestwardly by the Comanches and Kiowas, who dominated the Plains country by the 1700s.

By the time of the first Spanish contact, the Indians of Texas had solved the problems of survival and had developed flourishing societies. But much change for the Indians, mostly negative, would accompany the arriving Europeans. One of the most devastating results of Indian contact with the Europeans was the exposure to diseases for which the Native Americans had no immunity. Smallpox and cholera carried by the Europeans wiped out a majority of the Native American population in the United States.

Additional Resources

bulletLearn more about the Caddo Indians.
bulletRead more about the Coahuiltecan Indians.
bulletRead more about the Jumano Indians.
bulletRead more about the Tonkawa Indians.

Study Guide Questions:

  1. When did humans first arrive in Texas?
  2. Describe the lifestyle of the Paleo Indians.
  3. Approximately when did the "Agricultural Revolution" occur in the Western Hemisphere? How did this revolution change the lives of prehistoric indians?
  4. List the three domesticated crops that are called the "American Triad."
  5. Describe the Caddoan culture. (7.1:A)

  6. Describe two prehistoric Indian cultures that flourished in southern Texas? (7.1:A)
  7. Identify two Indian cultures that developed in western Texas in the late prehistoric period? (7.1:A)




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