By Bryon Schroeder
A recent collaboration between the Center for Big Bend Studies of Sul Ross State University and the Texas Archeological
Research Lab focuses on advancing the analysis of both plant and human DNA at Spirit Eye Cave. The impetus for the maize
research follows from the results of radiocarbon dated cobs that confirm the presence of Late Archaic maize at the cave.
Housed at TARL are additional corncobs from a private collection that was recovered in the late 1990s from a collector in
California. The morphology of the cobs in this collection are consistent with older examples from southern New Mexico
and it is possible they are older than previously dated examples. In addition to dating the specimens housed at TARL, BioArch
at the University of York is sequencing the DNA so we can understand the phylogenetic history of this maize in regards to
previously sequenced specimens from the American Southwest and Mexico.
This is important because the role of maize in Late Archaic groups in the eastern Trans-Pecos is assumed to be minimal.
As Mallouf (2005:239) suggests “the use of cultigen was cursory at best, possibly serving only as a dietary supplement, and
may have been restricted to occasional, relatively haphazard and experimental plantings in suitable soils near springs or along
segments of larger drainages …” However isotopic analysis from several eastern Trans-Pecos burials suggests opposite trophic
patterns. As a general statement Piehl (2009:81) states, the Late Archaic individuals look, “similar to incipient agriculturalists in
the Jornada-Mogollon region” whereas the Late Prehistoric individuals, some presumed to be agriculturalists, look like Archaic
populations, “outside of the eastern Trans-Pecos or Lower Pecos regions, rather than incipient agriculturalists or those relying
on maize agriculture.” Although Piehl’s results were limited, they indicate maize may have had a longer and more significant role
in the region than was previously assumed.
Sampled Cob from Spirit Eye Cave
In addition to the maize research, we extracted samples to sequence the DNA from an individual that was part of the Spirit Eye
Cave collection recovered in California. Much like the maize research, the combination of mtDNA and radiocarbon data will help
us understand the individual’s phylogenetic history and provide a step forward for future collaboration for both descendant
communities and researchers grappling with heavily looted sheltered sites in Texas.