The Permian Basin Over Time

The Permian Basin is the ancestral homeland of nearly 30 Native American tribes who continue to maintain cultural and historical connections to the land today. Once a lush prairie filled with bison and rivers, Native American communities have thrived in the area for millennia. This vast landscape stretches from present-day southeastern New Mexico to western Texas. The region was a shallow sea before it was filled in between 299 and 252 million years ago during the Permian geologic period.
The Paleoindian Period corresponds to the earliest exploration and occupation of the Permian Basin by Native Americans.

There is evidence that during this period, groups of Native Americans traversed the landscape, guided in part by their knowledge of where and how to acquire food, including large mammals (megafauna) such as mammoth and ancient bison as well as wild plants. Finding sources of high-quality stone was also important because communities needed it to create distinctive tools such as Clovis and Folsom points. Archaeologists categorize these tools into toolmaking types or traditions.

Native Americans during this period likely encountered a cooler, moister environment than today’s warm scrubland. Some regions exhibited savannah-like conditions. Information from soil, plant, and animal bone samples suggests the landscape became drier around 8,000 years ago, which in part likely led to the megafauna’s extinction. Surviving large game, including modern bison, may have migrated to more favorable environments at this time.
Native Americans during this period were experts in fashioning spearpoints, which are some of the most common Paleoindian artifacts found by archaeologists. The blade style, or morphology, varies across time and space with each type representing unique craftsmanship. Such weaponry was essential for hunting the megafauna such as mammoth and ancient bison that roamed what was likely a broad savannah at this time.
With highly-specialized skills and deep, placed-based knowledge, Native Americans during this period were mobile hunters and gatherers, tracking and slaying now-extinct megafauna such as mammoth and ancient bison. Recent archaeological research suggests these communities also foraged wild plants.
The Archaic Period represents millennia of cultural and environmental change.

With the extinction of the megafauna, Native Americans broadened their diet during this period. Tools used to procure and process food became more diverse and specialized at a time when populations were growing. While some groups remained highly mobile, others appear to have become more sedentary and constructed small shelters, earth ovens, and wells.

A climatic period known as the Altithermal brought rising temperatures and a reduction in rainfall between 4500 and 2500 BC, causing some communities to dig wells in search of reliable water. Near the end of the Archaic Period, conditions became moister and cooler, resulting in enriched grassland habitats that supported larger populations and renewed bison hunting.
Native American toolmakers developed a wide variety of stone blades that may correspond to different ethnic or kinship groups. Groundstone tools used to process plant foods also appear at this time, while large and increasingly complex hearths and earth ovens reflect cooking practices.
During this period, Native Americans exploited a broad variety of foods–small game, birds, fish, shellfish, and plants. While maize (corn) remains have been recovered from Archaic sites in the Permian Basin, it is unclear whether it was grown locally or imported.
The Formative Period corresponds archaeologically to the introduction of the bow and arrow as well as ceramics.

During this period, Native Americans used stone projectile points to hunt bison and other game while groundstone tools were used to process plants.

Some communities maintained a mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyle while others settled in villages as evidenced by residential architecture, storage pits, and trash middens. Inter-regional trade also likely blossomed within and beyond the Permian Basin.

Environmental reconstructions based on plant and animal remains indicate that climatic conditions during the Formative Period were likely similar to today’s. There were occasional droughts and periods of unusually heavy rainfall, but the environment likely bore the general appearance of today’s desert-like scrubland.
From a sharp reduction in the size of projectile points, archaeologists infer the development of the bow and arrow. Ceramics also appear—initially as undecorated brown types, with distinctive, decorated examples appearing later in the Formative Period.
Subsistence likely centered on hunting and gathering, but maize (corn) agriculture was well established outside the Permian Basin. Plant remains from some archaeological sites suggest maize (corn) may have been imported. Wild plant foods were a common part of the diet with extensive evidence for the tools and hearths used to process and prepare barley, yucca, and cacti fruit.
The Post-Formative Period represents a sharp break from Formative Period lifeways.

Archaeological traces of village-like occupations become scarce, suggesting a shift toward a nomadic lifestyle focused on bison hunting. The presence of tipi rings (stone circles used to hold the edges of conical tents) is consistent with a highly mobile lifestyle; however, dating Post-Formative sites is challenging. Ceramics are largely absent and the projectile point styles mimic those from the Formative Period. By the 16th century, the earliest European settlers in the Permian Basin encountered a landscape that had witnessed thousands of years of Native American habitation.

The arid plains and dry mountainous region of today’s Permian Basin likely mirror the desert-like conditions of the Post-Formative Period.
Stone blade and projectile point styles from the late Formative Period remained largely unchanged. The bow and arrow was the preferred weapon until firearms were introduced in the 18th century. Ceramics are largely absent during this period, and those in use typically represent unknown types.
Bison hunting was a primary focus leading many to abandon the villages of the previous period in order to pursue better hunting areas. Local plant foods were less intensively exploited at this time, possibly due to the focus on bison hunting and increased maize (corn) importation from Pueblo villages outside the Permian Basin.
Today, the Permian Basin is home to more than two million people including nearly 30 Native American tribes who have occupied the area over the course of thousands of years.

In recent years, energy exploration has grown in the Permian Basin. Commercial oil wells appeared in the region during the early 1920s, with more significant development from the 1950s on. The industry currently supports more than 220,000 jobs in Texas and New Mexico and contributes billions of dollars to the economy.

While Native Americans were removed from the Permian Basin, nearly 30 Native American tribes continue to maintain cultural and historical connections through their cultural practices. The ancestors of these tribes were the first inhabitants of the Permian Basin, and they led rich lives on the land. Today, the archaeological remains found throughout the Permian Basin are the material remnants of the lives of these Native Americans, and they hold great value to their descendants. Today, Native American tribes engage with the federal government, developers, and archaeologists to ensure that the remains of their ancestors are adequately considered and treated with respect.

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History is not only found in museums or in documentaries about the ancient world. History is beneath our feet whether we are standing in front of an ancient pyramid or in our own backyards.
Archaeology is a scientific process that allows us to discover and document that history by examining material remains and reconstructing past human activities. This website aims to demonstrate that the Permian Basin has only recently become a hub of oil and gas exploration. For thousands of years, it was a dynamic landscape home to numerous groups who occupied the region and whose descendants thrive today. Due to a combination of ground-disturbing activities, primarily on public lands, and subsequent implementation of cultural resource protection laws, the Permian Basin has witnessed decades of archaeological investigations documenting thousands of sites.

Through archaeological research and multivocal interpretations of the findings, this website pieces togethers fragments of the past to tell powerful stories of how people once lived.

Native Americans and the Permian Basin

The Permian Basin is the ancestral homeland of nearly 30 Native American tribes who continue to live on the land today. The historical footprints of the Comanche Indian Tribe - Comanche Nation of Oklahoma, the Mescalero Apache Tribe, the Kiowa Tribe, the Tonkawa Tribe of Oklahoma, the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma, the Jicarilla Apache Nation, the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas, the Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma, the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, and the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo overlap or are adjacent to the archaeological sites investigated as part of this project. Their histories and perspectives are vital to interpreting the past.

Finding 1
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Finding 2
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Finding 3
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Finding 4
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The Questions That Guided The Research

The questions guiding the research are influenced by an existing framework known as the Permian Basin Research Design (2016). By answering the research questions outlined in that synthesis, the data are more easily compared across sites and archaeological projects, potentially revealing a more complete picture of the past.

When did people occupy these archaeological sites?
Based on stone tool and ceramic types, as well as radiocarbon dates, Native American occupation at these archaeological sites spans the Archaic through Post-Formative periods.
What types of activities did people perform at these archaeological sites?
Based on the artifacts and features studied during this investigation, the Native Americans who occupied these archaeological sites performed a variety of activities, including toolmaking, food preparation, and food consumption.
What do the material remains from these archaeological sites tell us about the past environment?
The material remains from these archaeological sites reveal that the environment was not always the desert scrubland it is today. There were periods of moister, cooler conditions.
What do the material remains from these archaeological sites tell us about what people ate?
The material remains from these archaeological sites reveal that diets changed over time and included animals, such as bison, shellfish, and small game, and various wild and possibly domesticated plants, such as maize (corn).
What types of tools did people use at these archaeological sites?
Native Americans used a wide variety of stone tools, such as arrowheads, spear points, scrapers, and groundstone, in addition to ceramics.
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Why Do These Research Questions Matter?

Archaeology relies on material remains left by people who lived in the past. Interpretations are based on an incomplete picture that is impacted by numerous conditions, including the durability of artifacts, factors affecting preservation, and conscious and unconscious decisions to leave certain objects behind. Therefore, archaeological research questions tend to focus on topics such as diet, toolmaking, and crafts because the material byproducts of those activities are more likely to survive than those of belief systems or religious rituals.

Permian Basin Research