Footprints, Change Over Time (and where they lead you)

“Putting an exhibit together is like a scavenger hunt. An idea bubbles to the surface, sparked by a visitor’s comment, a child’s question, or some new twist to what I thought I knew. Underlying it is the never-ending quest to understand how things that I see every day (and those that get overlooked) came to be. Whatever the idea there are a lot of rabbit trails to track down.” –Susan Sander, RNC naturalist.

Footprints is definitely all of the above. This one has been brewing since 1983 – that’s when I first came to Texas from a small island in Lake Michigan. Everything seemed so different – the plants, the birds, and definitely the weather. But I soon discovered that I had landed on limestone –again; I merely moved south from the Niagara escarpment to the Balcones escarpment, but also jumped forward in time from Silurian sea bed (430-450 million years ago) to Cretaceous sea bed (140 million years ago)!

The current exhibit has another connection to those northern roots. A few years ago the Hill County Archeological Association put together an exhibit at RNC – its first panel focused on 17,000 years ago just prior to First Peoples. A power point by Steve Stoutamire gave a sneak peek into a Kerr County cave (on private land – so you can’t ask me where) that contained remains of those early animals, which included mammoths, sabertoothed cats, even a sloth! Wait – those are Ice Age animals! (Just ask any kid that has seen the movie.)

It turns out that 14,000 years ago the island that I had lived on was just getting carved out by the last retreating glacial ice. Life was sparse up north but it was thriving down south – and the largest land animals were wandering all over Texas – our Ice Age animals were huge!

And these were the beasts that the First Peoples no doubt had encountered as they crossed over the Bering Land Bridge onto the North American continent on their way to “Texas.” They hunted them with atlatls for meat and furs. Their actual tracks/ footprints have long disappeared, but how the beasts and people interacted in the environment did leave an impact, an environmental footprint. It shaped plant communities as did the climate, and over time that allowed some things to thrive while others didn’t.

In trying to read the landscape of today for clues of what is truly native, the boundaries get blurred due to what we still don’t know. The First Peoples didn’t take selfies or post on Facebook. The caves and middens offer some clues. But things changed on a big scale because we don’t have the big beasts any more. But we do have some of their smaller neighbors. (You might be surprised to learn which wildlife has been here for millions of years!)

One thing is certain, humans change their environment. For 10,000 years it may have been minimal, any PaleoIndian trash was biodegradable or just smaller pieces of stone. Our local bands didn’t build big cities like the Maya and Incas. However, that all changed in 1840s as settlers built towns and started industries and farming. Del Weniger noted in his book, Explorer’s Texas that by the 1860s the “wild” of Texas had been lost. A lot has been rearranged. Today’s landscape is a mix of New World and Old World plants and animals. Hills have been carved, rivers dammed, aquifers have been punctured.

So step back in time, it could lead you to discover what prehistoric plants and animals are in your yard. Learn what allowed the first peoples and early settlers to survive in this place now called the Texas Hill Country.