Gingerly plucking burned pads of prickly pear cactus out of the hot coals and rocks in the pit oven they had dug open moments before.
"It smells like molasses," said Alston Thoms. A cowboy turned Texas A&M University archaeologist, he was commenting on the latest effort to reproduce a cuisine that dates back 6,000 years. That evidently was a time when early man in North America began to make a crucial, if little studied until now, change in lifestyle.
The pit oven was one of several dug on the edge of the presently receding Amistad Reservoir, which lies a bit east of where the Rio Grande and the Pecos River meet on the Texas-Mexico border.
It is an unpromising place, the Lower Pecos, with rolling desert-like terrain stretching endlessly in every direction and covered with thorny and spiky plants — agave, acacia, prickly pear. The soil, if the dry stuff can be called that, is littered with chunks and pebbles of white limestone, giving the landscape a bleached, dead look. It doesn't seem like it would be the number one choice for hunters and gatherers of any era. In fact, the ancient Indians tended to take up residence in the region's countless deep canyons where, among other activities, they spent a lot of time hauling limestone rocks into their caves and burning them.
All around the world, archaeologists have encountered burned rocks, rocks cracked by fire, pestiferous junk heaps of rocks in which they would dig around, pushing them aside, looking for artifacts — arrowheads, scrapers, what have you. All these darn rocks were in the way.
By a decade ago, however, some archaeologists had reinterpreted the rocks and now regard them as artifacts, part of what they call a "feature," a sign of a particular activity, in this case ovens that were usually in the form of pits. The pits were lined with rocks, over which a fire was made; more rocks were added, and then food, which could have been sealed in with dirt and baked, or wrapped in moist plants and steamed.
Around 7500 B.C., the landscape of the Lower Pecos had become desert-like. This meant that people were probably forced to change from a diet of mostly meat to one of mostly plants. But in a place like the south-central plains of Texas, the plants are downright hostile.
Lechuguilla, for example, which is a kind of agave (or century plant), contains an abundance of saponin, a steroid compound that is related to cortisone and is linked to a sugar. The sap from its lethal-looking pointy leaves can be used as arrow-tip poison or can be dumped into a creek to kill fish. But careful examination of some 300 human coprolites in one south Texas cave showed that, beginning about 6,000 years ago, lechuguilla was tops in popularity for a long time in the cuisine of these ancient Indians. Also high on the list of the some 50 plant species on the menu were sotol (another succulent), prickly pear cactus and wild onion.
For most of us, the picture that emerges from the existence of the pits and the analysis of the desiccated stools would be sufficient, but not for modern archaeologists. For them, from such lowly facts a thousand questions bloom.
What exactly were they cooking in those pits--lechuguilla? If so, why? And what else? It seems like an awful lot of work. How much work? How much rock and how much fuelwood does it take to produce and store how much heat to cook how much lechuguilla?