NATURE NOTES:
West Texas “Water Shrine”: Encountering An Ancient Desert Civilization at Hueco Tanks State Park

By Andrew Stuart

What’s now West Texas was home to nomadic societies for more than 10,000 years. But, about 1,500 years ago, some Chihuahuan Desert peoples began to adopt a different way of life. They embraced agriculture – farming corn, beans and squash using rainfall and mountain runoff. They established settled communities, of pithouse villages and, later, adobe pueblos. Trade connections brought goods, and ideas, from far corners of the Southwest, and from deep in Mexico.

Archeologists call this distinctive culture the Jornada Mogollon. Its civilization stretched from the Guadalupe Mountains to present-day Las Cruces and northern Chihuahua. Around 1450, its communities were abandoned.

But its legacy endures – nowhere more vividly than at Hueco Tanks State Park. Here, outside El Paso, volcanic mountains contain thousands of Jornada Mogollon paintings – a rock art heritage unlike any other in North America.

Approaching Hueco Tanks, 30 miles east of downtown El Paso, one is struck first by geology. Towers of red rock rise hundreds of feet above the desert expanse, an anomaly of form and color.

Drawing near, the beauty increases. There are oaks, junipers, cottonwoods. In these mountains, fissures and hollows – “huecos” – hold water, as natural reservoirs. Hueco Tanks is an oasis, rich in both plant and animal life.

It drew nomadic peoples beginning in the Ice Age. Some left paintings – hunting scenes, geometric designs. But for the Jornada, it was clearly a site of special power. In pigments of red, yellow, black and white – and, in a few cases, lustrous blue – they painted more than 3,000 images here.

Tim Roberts is Texas Parks and Wildlife’s lead archeologist in West Texas. He said that for the Jornada, Hueco Tanks was a “water shrine.”

“A lot of the Jornada imagery has elements that are similar to some of the Mesoamerican deities, the storm deities, rain deities from further south,” Roberts said. “And you see that incorporated into the local rock imagery that was already being placed on the rocks here. A lot of the imagery here was produced for the purpose of petitioning the deities for rain. Obviously water is important to all living things, but as farmers it took on additional importance for the crops, especially in this setting, that was already marginal as a place to farm.”

As they embraced farming, the Jornada appear also to have absorbed a pantheon tied to agriculture.  “Goggle-eyed” figures here resemble the Mesoamerican rain god, Tlaloc. Serpents with horns or feathered plumes evoke Quetzalcoatl of the Aztecs. 

There are deer, jaguars, stalks of corn. Then, there are more than 200 face-like images, or “masks.” Expressive, crisp in detail, many appear to have been stenciled. No other site in North America has such a concentration of painted masks.

It invites comparison with West Texas’ other famous rock-art tradition, the painted murals of the Lower Pecos. But there’s a striking difference.

At Lower Pecos sites, like Seminole Canyon State Park, the murals are monumental, and prominently placed on canyon walls. But the Jornada images are small – and often hidden from view in shadowy recesses.

Roberts said their placement is likely tied to their purpose.

“The nature of the formations, the natural openings into the earth – the caves, the rock shelters, the crevices – those were all considered to be doorways into the spiritual realm,” he said. “Those were also places of emergence. It was thought that the rains, the clouds, the lightning all came from those same openings in the earth. So they were good locations for placing rock imagery that was meant to communicate with those deities.”

For nearly a millenium, the Jornada expanded. They traded for ceramics from Chihuahua, shell from the Pacific, turquoise from northern New Mexico – some of which may have been used in the blue pigments at Hueco Tanks. Then, around 1450, their pueblos were almost entirely abandoned. The cause is uncertain, but drought was likely a factor. Contemporary Puebloan peoples are thought to include their descendants, and Hueco Tanks remains sacred ground to several tribes. 

Discovery continues at the site. New technology has disclosed dozens of previously undetected pictographs.

Access at Hueco Tanks is limited, to protect fragile resources. But the park offers guided tours of the mountains, and their rock art. It’s an encounter with one of the most fascinating dimensions of our region’s past.