Sickness and Heath in the Ancient Lower Pecos

Healing often involved medicinal plants as well as ceremony and prayers

Healing often involved medicinal plants as well as ceremony and prayers

Everybody gets sick. Everybody gets injured. At one time or another in our lives, we all experience illness and some sort of wound, just as every generation before us has. The people of the ancient Lower Pecos faced the same physical ailments we do, in most cases, but dealt with them in very different ways, with more or less success. Many ailments were beyond their control, however, and people simply suffered.

This article begins a short series on medicine and healing as it might have been 4000 years ago in the desert of the Lower Pecos.  We know from skeletons and other evidence that the people rarely lived more than 35 years.  That is not to say there were never any “old” people.  There were. But many died before their hair turned gray. medicine_manIf sickness did not kill them, then a broken bone would. We can probably assume that infant mortality was high due to insufficient diets at times or other issues.  Pregnancy and birth were undoubtedly fraught with complications. Falls could kill. Teeth would rot.

While we may never know exactly how disease affected ancient people, we can assume they faced some of the same ailments we know, like cuts and burns.  This article begins a short series about the Lower Pecos Medicine Kit as it might have been 4000 years ago.  I will look at various common ailments and suggest ways that may have been treated.

Future articles will discuss ways to ameliorate arthritis, poor digestion, burns, wounds, broken bones, tooth decay indiansleep problems, and issues concerning blood. Before you get too excited, however, let me make clear that I am not a trained health care provider, herbalist, or medicine woman.   All I can tell you is what I think would have been likely. I invite you to join in the discussion as we progress, and especially to help keep me from going astray. Believe me, I’ve got friends who will set me straight!

Shumla at the South Pole

Therese Frentz and Wendy

Therese Frentz and Wendy

Today I want to tell you about our fantastic cook during the Pecos Experience with the Shumla School,  Therese Frentz. Not only does she make incredible cheddar cheese biscuits, she is an exceptionally strong person. Therese was severely wounded by a suicide bomber during a tour in Iraq with the U.S. military in 2004.

While we were attending the Pecos Experience workshop, she was notified that she had been selected to join an elite team of veterans from the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and the United States on a 200 mile  cross-country skiing expedition to the South Pole in November-December 2013. And I was whining about hiking eight miles. It is both humbling and inspiring to meet people like Therese who rise above the ordinary conditions of  life.

The expedition is organized by Walking with the Wounded, the organization in the UK of which Prince Harry is the patron. To learn more and make a donation to help sponsor awareness of veterans’ issues, see http://www.walkingwiththewounded.org.uk.

Therese recently spent time training for the trip in Iceland, which you can read about online. She is married and has a teddy-bear of a dog named Wendy. Go Therese!  We will be cheering you on every step!

Pecos Experience, Day 4

Figures in White Shaman shelter . Note little man in canoe at bottom of picture.

Figures in White Shaman shelter.

Today our objective was White Shaman shelter with Dr. Carolyn Boyd.  Dr. Boyd has studied the art in this shelter for over 20 years, and is as passionate about it today as she was when she started. We spent the morning in the shelter hearing her latest hypotheses about the meaning of the painting and the process of painting itself.

This complex mural was painted with four colors, black, red, yellow and white over 4000 years ago. The small alcove where it is located overlooks the Pecos River near the confluence with the Rio Grande.  Today, this confluence is heavily silted, with only a narrow channel of water actually trickling from the Pecos into the Rio Grande.

There are a number of mortar holes ground into the stone floor of the alcove, and also into nearby boulders. The

Hole drilled or ground all the way through boulder in front of paintings and overlooking river. You can see light at the bottom of the hole.

Hole drilled or ground all the way through boulder in front of paintings and overlooking river. You can see light at the bottom of the hole.

purpose of these is unknown, but one possible hypothesis is that they were used to make alcoholic beverages of some kind, perhaps to be utilized in ceremonies. There is no evidence of paint pigment in the holes, so probably they were not used for grinding pigment.

Our schedule was so full this past week, I am finishing this post at home in Austin. Our small group was proud of themselves because we all got in and out of the canyons without having to leave anyone behind for the buzzards! Although at one time the group I was riding with in the pickup did vote to leave me there, if I broke a leg, and bury me in a crevice in the flex position. It was a unanimous vote.

We had a great medic with us at all times, Dave Gage. I have no doubt all his reflexes would have kicked in had anything serious really happened, and he would have made heroic efforts to carry someone out.  I asked if he had brought anesthetic or something to knock us out, in a case such as that, and he said no, it was just gonna hurt like hell!   I voted for the flexed burial instead.  We kept hearing stories of someone who had broken a hip recently down in a canyon, and was carried out. It was not fun.

I mentioned the wonderful food we had in an earlier post. Therese, the cook, is wonderful!

Almond cupcakes with green tea icing

Almond cupcakes with green tea icing

She made chicken tagine with olives and carrots, lentils with kale, couscous, tabooli, and naan one night. The last night we had a baked ham with raisin sauce, garlic mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, green beans with mushrooms, homemade rolls, and

Semifreddo--Take five cups of cream, two cups of sugar, 12 egg yolks...

Semifreddo–Take five cups of cream, two cups of sugar, 12 egg yolks…

three kinds of pie!  To me, the best desert of the week was the Italian semifreddo, a type of light-as-air ice cream. Yes, we were very spoiled.

The morning of the last day we held a ceremony overlooking a small arroyo to dedicate our prayers to the powers that be. Dr. Stacy Schaefer of California State University at Chico lead the typical Huichol ceremony.  Stacy has studied the Huichol, a small group in Mexico, for about 30 years.

Offerings to the wind

Offerings to the wind

She conducted the blessing ceremony, and we left the Huichol-style offerings we had made in the rocks for the wind and rain. We had each gained something special from the week, and we each felt the glory of the landscape and the call of the paintings by the ancients.  The ceremony was an act of gratitude for these things, and acknowledgement of our small place in the history of mankind.

Future posts will elaborate on many of the sites and observations from the past week. A week in the Lower Pecos gives you a clean heart and a clear head–and lots to write about!

Pecos Experience, Days 2 and 3, Part I

Polychrome figure in Cedar Springs shelter near Devil's River

Polychrome figure in Cedar Springs shelter near Devil’s River

We hiked to Cedar Springs shelter and Mystic shelter, both near the Devil’s River, on the second day of the Pecos Experience, thanks to the folks at the Shumla School (see http://www.shumla.org). This involved crossing the river twice, scrabbling up a pretty steep boulder hill, then bumping over boulder beds in creek drainages to get to the shelters.  At the end of about seven hours, we got our reward by a dip in the cool, clean river, always my favorite part.

The figure above is in polychrome, or many colors, in the Lower Pecos style of painting. Notice the red, yellow, and black colors. White is also used on some figures.  Red and yellow mineral pigments were made from naturally occurring ochres in this area, and black from manganese. The white pigment was probably from kaolin, but that is another story, since there are no naturally occurring deposits in this area. There are in Big Bend, however. Does that mean people perhaps as long 7000 years ago were trading with others from the Big Bend area?  That question is still under investigation, as are many others concerning the rock art and lifeways of the ancient people of the Lower Pecos region.

A cool front blew in last night, and tents were flapping I understand.  For some reason I didn’t hear the wind. I think I finally fell asleep after the moon went down and quit shining in my eyes.  I have always been sensitive to

Figures in Cedar Springs shelter

Figures in Cedar Springs shelter

moonlight-it often wakes me up at home. About dawn today we had a six-inch rain, to use current Austin slang.  For the past several years we have been in severe drought in Austin, so we’ve lately been defining a six-inch rain as six drops of moisture, six inches apart. It has been mercifully cool all day, and I’ve  worn my fleece most of the day.

Today we went to Painted Cave, the type-site for the red monochrome style of painting found in this area. The wall once was covered in polychrome Lower Pecos style, then supposedly repainted in red monochrome. There is a lovely stream under the wall, where the paintings sometimes reflect. But not much reflection today because of the cloud cover.

Painted Cave has seen human occupation from the time of the Lower Pecos style, which could be as old as 7000 years ago, through the red monochrome people who are depicted here with bows and arrows, indicating they came much later, to the old ranch house and sheep herders dwelling within sight of the cave. The stories this wall could tell!

The reason for all this human activity is water. There is a beautiful spring,

Spring at Painted Cave. Ranchers in the 1880s used to draw water from this spring. As well as people thousands of years earlier.

Spring at Painted Cave. Ranchers in the 1880s used to draw water from this spring. As well as people thousands of years earlier.

with a great swimming hole, just up canyon a few yards from the painted wall. It is full of water even in this extreme drought.  The black brush was in bloom around this pool today, and young willows leafing out. Water was here, animals were here, plant resources were here. And people.

Dinner will be soon, so I will share more later. But first I want to mention the culinary experiences we’ve also been having this week!  Monday night was Italian wedding soup and manicotti stuffed with prosciutto (spelling, anyone??) and ricotta, and homemade focaccia. Tuesday night was Chinese beef and broccoli with egg drop soup and almond/green tea cupcakes for dessert. Oh yes, and homemade pot stickers!  Chicken is involved tonight, but I don’t know what yet!  My thanks to the cook, Therese!

More details next week. I hope to put together a slide show of the rock art at these magnificent places, but that takes more time than I have tonight.  We are busy with great stuff every minute!  Love it!

Pecos Experience, Day 1 and 2, part I

Sunrise over Comstock, TX March 18, 2013

Sunrise over Comstock, TX March 18, 2013

The sun came up today, just on time for the first day of the Pecos Experience with the Shumla School.  Eight of us from all over the country gathered with our guides and shepards for the week as soon as the sun was all the way up to tour Fate Bell Shelter in Seminole Canyon State Park.  Fate Bell is a spectacular rock art site from 4000 years ago,

Shaman statue at Seminole Canyon State Park

Shaman statue at Seminole Canyon State Park

give or take a few thousand years, and is open to the public for tours through the state park.  I had been there many times, but I don’t want to miss a word that is said this week.

Well, unless I have to take a nap.  We also visited a small site on private property this afternoon that is truly unique, and after a busy day, I know I will be ready for bed tonight.  We are sleeping in tents in order to have the full “experience,” and I am looking forward to my cot!

I apologize. We had a lecture last night about the Huichol Indians, and then I just hit the sack.  The connection is slow out here and I did not have time to download all my photos of Day 1. I will attend to that as fast as I can.

Today we were gone about eight hours and hiked to two canyons to see Cedar Springs and Mystic shelters on the Devil’s River. We had a great swim in the cool, clean Devil’s before we returned. But the full story on Days 1 and  2 may be delayed, as they are calling us for dinner now.  Carolyn is really keeping us busy.

Oh, before I sign off, I saw the Milky Way last night in all it’s glory! Not a cloud anywhere, and a waxing moon that went down about 3 A.M. That sight alone was worth the whole trip—and the blisters on my feet.

More soon, I promise!

Presa Canyon

Rock Art in Presa Canyon

Rock Art in Presa Canyon

This is the first of several articles this week live from the Pecos Experience at the Shumla School, west of Del Rio, Texas.  I arrived Friday night so I could hike Presa Canyon Saturday, courtesy of the Texas Parks and Wildlife and Seminole Canyon State Park.

Black Cave

Black Cave

I had been warned that this was an “extremely strenuous” hike, and that warning is correct. I was so tired that I came back to camp and took a two hour nap, ate dinner, then slept another 12 hours. Got up today, had coffee, took a nap, and will go to be early tonight too.  I am sore in so many places!  But I made it in and out, and therein lies the tale.

The only way to see Presa Canyon is to join one of these tours that only go in cool months.  There were about 23 in our group, along with two guides from the Rock Art Foundation.  It is about four hours in to Black Cave, our final destination, and four hours out. We were lucky because there was a breeze and the temperature only reached the low 90s, even though the stone canyon was like a radiant oven.

This hike feels like it is mano a mano with nature. At least that’s what it feels like to an old woman like me. There are numerous boulder fields that must be climbed and gotten down from, and lots of thorny brush to push through. My mind was completely focused on where to put my next step so I wouldn’t sprain an ankle. That and drinking enough water so I wouldn’t get heat stroke.

I hadn’t slept a wink the night before because my monkey mind kept saying “heat stroke, rattlesnake, sprained ankle” like an evil mantra over and over. We did not see a single snake, although I am sure they saw us, and no one got overheated or injured. The buzzards didn’t circle, so you know we made it out alive!

Figures in Black Cave

Figures in Black Cave

When we could look up, we  got to see some wonderful rock art. Our destination was Black Cave, which contains a panel of quite vivid art.  The panel seems to be made up of several separate elements rather than being one continuous composition. But that’s just how it looks. Who knows what it really means?

Figures in Black Cave

Figures in Black Cave

The air was intoxicating with the sweetness of blackbrush, huisache and Mexican buckeye trees in mad bloom. More than one person commented that they felt like they were being seduced by the fragrance so as not to pay attention to the thorns and rocks that were brushing us and trying to grab our boots. Yes, it was another trick to get us.

We thought about the people who once lived here and made these paintings. How did they do it? The figures in Black Cave are very high up the wall. No one could have reached that high, so they had to have used some sort of scaffold. The paint is still vivid

Huisache ("we-sache")

Huisache (“we-sache”)

today, 4000 years at after it was applied, at least. How did they make such a paint? My house paint certainly won’t last that long. How did they even walk through the canyon? They didn’t have high-tech hiking boots and camel-backs. How did they carry water? What did they think about?  What did they mean to tell us with these figures?

Those are the questions that drew me here. Ones I’ll be exploring this week. I hope you will stay tuned for more!

Peyote: Plant Helpers of the Lower Pecos, Part III

Huichol indian yarn painting of peyote cactus

Huichol indian yarn painting of peyote cactus

Peyote was a powerful plant helper for ancient people of the Lower Pecos. Like the Huichol indians of Mexico today, ancient people probably considered peyote a sacred plant. Peyote contains the drug mescaline, which brings colorful hallucinations to those who consume it, along with nausea and other uncomfortable side effects.

Peyote has been used for at least 4000 years in the Lower Pecos and other areas for both medicinal and spiritual purposes. Mashed and dried peyote, radiocarbon dated to  4045-3960 B.C., has been found in certain rock shelters near the Rio Grande. Strings of peyote buttons have also been discovered in caves of northern Mexico.

Dried peyote buttons

Dried peyote buttons

Peyote use spread to Native American groups in the Great Plains and Southwest such as the Lipan Apache, Tonkawa, Mescalero Apache, and Pima by the 1880s. Today, only members of the Native American Church may legally consume peyote in the U.S.

Taken in small doses, peyote is a mild stimulant and reduces appetite. Tarahumara indians in Mexico often chew peyote during their foot races to strengthen them as they run 50 miles or more. The cactus also contains substances that possess antiseptic and antibiotic properties against many types of bacteria.  Mashed cactus can be applied to burns or wounds to prevent infection. The Kiowa also used peyote to treat illnesses such as flu and scarlet fever.

This shy little cactus was declared illegal in 1970 by the United States’ Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act.  The cactus continues to grows wild in south Texas and northern Mexico , but is under stress from several causes, according to Dr. Martin Terry of Sul Ross State University.Peyote_Cactus

Previous posts about mountain laurel and moon flower round out this short series on plant helpers of the Lower Pecos.