Leanderthal Lady

Article and Photos by Bob Parvin


At last, the biography of mankind in Texas has a lead character for its opening chapters-a role model around which the sketchy outline of human origins may take on form and substance.

Her name is "Leanderthal," an amalgam of the nearby community of Leander and Neanderthal Man. Her Dawn-Age story is being pieced together with hand trowels, microscopes, fine brushes and the applied sciences of modern archeology.

The well-preserved skeleton of the Leanderthal Lady, along with a treasure of artifacts from her paleo-American culture, was discovered in January (1983) as archeologists for the Texas Highways and Public Transportation Department probed an Indian campsite lying within the surveys extension of a farm road north of Austin. As excavations progress, the yield may prove o be one of the most extensive and important Early Man sites in the Western Hemisphere.

The paleo-American is a shadow culture that 8,000 to 12,000 years ago evolved and weathered away with a landscape far different from the scene today. Erosion and decay have been at work for scores of centuries to obliterate their record. On the average, only once in every 20 years for the modern archeologist does the earth yield clues to the lifeways of these first Americans. Rarer still are finds where we can glimpse directly into their fossil eyes. Only four other complete skeletal remains from the paleo-American period have been discovered in the Western World-Washington State, Minnesota, Mexico and Texas(near Waco).

But from her ancient grave on the edge of the Texas Hill Country, the Leanderthal Lady winks through the darkness and promises th show us over the rim of conjecture and into the life and times that she knew so long ago.

archeology in Texas is mostly a salvage operation carried out in the wake of construction projects such as reservoirs and highways. Early last year (1982), highway archeologists had located and begun excavations of an extensive burned rock midden site beside Brushy Creek, some 20 miles north of Austin. The site lay within the centerline of the planned extension of FM 1431, connecting the Leander-Cedar Park communities with Round Rock and IH-35. The mounded deposits of fractured limestone, ashy soil and flint seemed typical at first of the numerous Neo and Archaic Indian sites recorded for the region. And as scientists inched deeper and deeper into the accumulations, unbinding the pages of prehistory, it seemed at first that no more than a few thousand years of human record would yield.

But the carpet of existence was thicker and richer than they could imagine. At six feet down it kept going on--sinking back until the archeologists made an astonishing fine.

They had unearthed for the first time in Texas a campsite floor used approximately 100 to 80 centuries ago by Plainview and Angostura people of the Late Wisconsin Glaciation. Here were discovered two circular stone hearths and dozens of beautiful lanceolate-shaped flint projectile points, weapons that serve as distinct period markers of these vanished beings.

Now some 10 feet deep into the excavated site, the archeologists probed further. The surface of the paleo-American period had been touched. Could it go beyond and into the great depths of human beginnings-the Folsom and Clovis Man periods (12,000-10,500 years ago)? Selecting the northwest corner of the excavation, the archeologists began the tedious process of whisking soil, a meter square an inch at a time.

archeologist Mike Davis could hardly believe his eyes. Ever so carefully, he had been removing sediments from the test pit when his trowel uncovered a human finger bone! Soon enough, he and his crew mates confirmed the find.

Archeologists on a dig

Using tiny bamboo strips to gently free the soils they uncovered an intact human skeleton; a female, perhaps in her thirties at death, laid to rest by her Plainview clan with arms cradling her head and knees drawn upward in the flexed or fetal burial position. Discovered with her was a rounded grinding stone of reddish sandstone, a limestone cobble and a fossil shark's tooth, perhaps an ornament.

Bits of charcoal-bearing soil tested by the Radiocarbon Laboratory at the University of Teas has established an age of at least 9,400 years (plus or minus 170 years) for the remains, and the associated campsite.

It's one of the most remarkable paleo-American sites yet discovered, according to an archeologist working the site. Most paleo sites are accidental discoveries; bones and artifacts that are unearthed by erosion of from deep gravel pits and the like. But the Leanderthal discovery is especially exciting because it is a purposeful and professionally done excavation. Already, it has yielded a superabundance of material. And even more exciting is the feeling that we are only now on the edge of more discoveries.

Extension of FM 1431 has been put off for at least another year to allow a thorough examination of the site. Excavations will continue in horizontal as well as deeper vertical directions in the expectation that more burials, cooking and food preparation areas and campsite artifact scatters may be located. The work also will determine if early man's penchant for the good life along Brushy Creek began at an even earlier time.

In the 3,000-year span toward the end of the Late Wisconsin Glaciation (Texas was 1,200miles from the closest iceflows), the hemisphere's earliest-known humans seem to have fanned out broadly across the Northern Hemisphere. Distinctive Clovis projectile points from this early period (12,000 to 11,000 years before present) have turned up from Nova Scotia to Central America. Clovis Man preyed upon the enormous mastodon and mammoth elephants and other megafauna, but he seems to have disappeared along with the extinction of this prey. At the few sites where his remains have been unearthed there is usually a lens of deposit of soil separating Clovis material from the leavings of his successor, Folsom Man (11,000-10,500).

Folsom, marked by blade-thin fluted projectile points, was a nomadic hunter of the outsized Bison antiquus, an extinct bison that averaged four times the size of our modern buffalo.

Plainview Man and other late paleo-American cultures continued the wolflike pursuit of big game animals. Since Clovis times, world climate has trended toward generally warmer and drier conditions, allowing scrub grasslands to become more dominant and herd animals more numerous. Still, the average temperatures probably remained at least nine degrees cooler in summer and warmer in winter-optimum conditions for population expansion and gradual evolution of technologies and lifestyles.

Proof may arise from the Leanderthal site that early man developed a preference for plants in his diet along with buffalo flanks and possibly, when conditions allowed, established more permanent campsites.

Fewer than a dozen major paleo-American sites have been recorded in Texas. Besides the Leanderthal find, three other Early Man discoveries are of world importance, yet each is a big game kill and butchering station, not a camp.

Working ahead of construction of Mackenzie Reservoir near Amarillo, archeologists in the 1970's found ancient Folsom spear points lodged in the fossilized bones of giant bison.

Farther south on the Texas Plains at Yellowstone Draw within the present city limits of Lubbock, another early-day kill site has kept archeologists pecking and probing for more than 30 years. Here they have turned up scattered Paleolithic artifacts around the butchered bones of elephants, giant bison, camels, horses, sloths, fowl, saber-tooth tigers and enormous bears, victims at an ancient waterhole-hunting site.

Another paleo-American discovery has fascinated archeologists at the rim of the Texas-Rio Grande Desert country. Here, a ridgeback bluff near the headwaters of today's Amistad Reservoir served as a deathtrap for stampeded animals. At times, so many beasts plunged to their deaths that their packed carcasses generated spontaneous combustion.

Over 18 feet of layered sediments and charred bones have been tested from excavations of the butchering stations under the bluff. At the bottom depths (oldest) lay the bones of elephants (Cloves prey), while at higher locations are the remains of giant bison. Packed in between are the disarticulated skeletons of Bison antiquus. Flint knives, scrapers and handaxes found throughout the stratum indicate at least an 11,000-year continuum of this Indian hunting tradition.

And now Texas, as rich in archeological diversity as it is in geographical variety, has turned up with a record of the ancient past that may be the most exciting of all discoveries.

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