Jim Bradshaw: Pre-Columbian history washes up on McFaddin Beach in Texas
Old things keep washing up on McFaddin Beach, a 20-mile stretch of sand on the Gulf of Mexico generally south of Port Arthur, about 12 miles west of Sabine Pass and the Louisiana-Texas line.
I’m talking about really old things, ones that might have been left by the first people to live in south Louisiana at a time when south Louisiana was much farther south.
Those people lived thousands of years ago, when a lot of what is now the Gulf was dry land and the Louisiana shoreline stretched 100 miles or so south of where it is today.
They are called Clovis people, not for Mary Alice Fontenot’s fanciful crawfish, but because the earliest traces of prehistoric Indians found in North America were uncovered in the 1930s near Clovis, New Mexico.
Artifacts 11,500 years old were found there, and scientists say the stuff washing up on the northern Gulf shoreline is nearly that old.
The things are not uncommon.
Since the 1930s, Clovis artifacts have been found in many places in North and South America. The experts assume that as the first people — called Paleoindians by the scientists — spread across the Americas, they broke up into hundreds of distinct tribes, and that they eventually moved onto land south of what is now Louisiana and Texas.
McFaddin Beach is “a place where artifacts and animal bones have been washing ashore for many years,” according to a study published by the University of Texas at Austin, and “the most striking aspect of this place are the extraordinary numbers of Paleoindian and Early Archaic projectile points that have been discovered here.” The Early Archaic period began about 8,000 years ago.
According to the study, “McFaddin Beach alone has produced more Clovis points than any single county in the state of Texas. ... It seems clear that artifacts and fossils are arriving on the beach from a submerged, offshore source ... perhaps at no great distance or depth in the Gulf.”
The experts say the seabed south of McFaddin Beach contains very little rock that could be chipped into arrowheads or spear points, so that the Clovis points coming ashore were either made someplace else or the material to make them came from far away.
“The biggest surprise ... is the wide variety and immense geographic area from which the rock types are drawn,” according to the report. Some of the objects are made from a quartz from the southern Plains, others come from material found in Wyoming, Nebraska, the Ozark Mountains, Colorado, New Mexico and Old Mexico.
All of this currently generates more questions than answers.
One of the biggest questions is whether the Clovis material is coming from a few large sites that were occupied for many years, or from smaller, scattered campsites that were occupied perhaps by roving hunters.
In those days 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, broad grasslands lured mammoths and other now extinct animals to south Louisiana.
“We would probably have answers to ... these questions and more if we could actually see the submerged sites themselves,” the report concludes, “but that will have to wait for better underwater exploration technology.”
Clovis-era materials have also been found inland in Louisiana — including places in Caddo, Grant, St. Landry, and St. Mary parishes. Most of this stuff appears to be made from rock found mostly in Texas, Arkansas and Missouri.
There’s still a lot to learn about where and how these people lived, but it appears from the rock record that they were in a number of places in Louisiana a long, long time ago, and that they had at least some sort of primitive trading system to get rock hard enough to turn into spear points or tools.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.