By Andrew Stuart
Bison-hunting on the plains, agave-roasting in the desert – throughout its epic sweep, Native American life in our region was most often nomadic. One place stands apart. La Junta – the confluence of the Rio Grande and Rio Conchos – was long the site of agrarian villages. It was here, too, that Europeans first occupied the Big Bend, in Spanish missions at present-day Presidio-Ojinaga.
In July 2017, the Center for Big Bend Studies, at Sul Ross State University, started an archeological partnership with Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, or INAH. It promises to shed new light on our region’s past – at La Junta, and beyond.
Andy Cloud, the Center’s director, will discuss the project at Agave Festival Marfa, Thursday, June 7.
From their first forays, Big Bend archeologists recognized the need to forge bonds with colleagues across the river.
In 1939, J. Charles Kelley excavated at Presidio. His work coincided with the creation of INAH – a bureau charged with studying and preserving Mexico’s archeological heritage. With INAH’s permission, Kelley surveyed La Junta sites in Chihuahua. He later excavated in the Mexican interior.
Cloud said the new partnership reinvigorates that history.
“We’re kind of following up on the foundation that J. Charles Kelley set working along the river,” Cloud said. “It was that initial effort of his across the border, connecting the La Junta stuff on the Texas side with that on the Mexican side, that really helped lay the groundwork.”
The rapport was deepened several years ago, when the Center repatriated artifacts Kelley had collected in the Mexican interior.
“It was very rewarding in the end when I had the Mexican archeologists here and we passed off this material to them,” Cloud said. “One of the archeologists actually had tears in his eyes, he was so happy this material was being returned. We’d come full circle with these artifacts, that they would be returned to the proper place.”
The partnership is the first of its kind between INAH and a U.S. entity.
There’s debate about La Junta’s origins. It may have been a “colony” of the Jornada Mogollon civilization, which was centered further west. Or previously nomadic Big Bend peoples may have adopted agrarian ways learned from western neighbors.
Regardless, by 1200 CE, La Junta was a hub. Living in pit houses, Native peoples farmed beans, squash and maize. They also embraced perennial desert traditions – hunting, fishing and harvesting agave and other plants.
As the Spanish moved north, the La Junta pueblos were a point of contact – and of plunder. Spanish slavers abducted La Juntans for slave labor in mines to the south.
Religious conversion was integral to Spanish conquest. And between 1683 and 1750, Spanish friars – mostly Franciscans – established a series of missions at La Junta.
In Texas, archeologists have documented three major sites. But no Mexican La Junta sites have been formally recorded. Understandably, Mexican archeologists have focused on the pyramids and other monuments in the heart of their country.
Spanish missions will be the partnership’s initial focus. The agreement allows Center researchers to participate in excavations in Mexico, and vice versa. The partners will start their first project soon, documenting a mission site in Mexico called San Antonio de los Puliques. The City of Presidio is providing its support, helping with hotel rooms for archeologists.
Texas sites have yielded crucifixes and other Spanish copper and brass artifacts. The archeologists may find similar materials in the upcoming work.
The partnership is for five years, and can be renewed. Archeologists have often hoarded their findings. Cloud said collaboration is more powerful. This partnership could shed light on La Junta’s origins – and more.
“What does the Paleoindian period look like across the river? Four thousand years ago – the Middle Archaic – how is that expressed across the river?” Cloud said. “To fully understand these different occupations in the Big Bend through time, we need the data from the other side of the river. So even though the mission idea got this whole ball rolling, there’s no idea where it will end up, as far as the knowledge we will gain from working with INAH archeologists. The sky’s the limit.”
Cloud will speak about the work at Marfa’s Crowley Theater, at 2 p.m. June 7. In launching Agave Fest last year, organizer Tim Johnson envisioned a celebration spanning borders, rooted in a shared heritage. The collaboration at La Junta embodies that vision.
To learn more about La Junta archeology, visit texasbeyondhistory.net/junta.