Columbian Mammoth of the Ice Age

The Columbian Mammoth of the Ice Age. Courtesy of artist Channe Felton


We are only a few days away from the New Year 2020 — the 175th year since the founding of New Braunfels. It promises to be a year of celebration!

Let’s pause a moment to reflect on this site that became New Braunfels.

Millions of years ago, long before New Braunfels was given its name, the Balcones Fault occurred. It is not known if this phenomenon happened gradually or was caused by an ancient massive earthquake. Movement of tectonic plates along the Balcones Fault displaced age-old rock formations dividing the scenic Hill Country of the Edwards Plateau from the fertile Blackland Prairie that is part of the coastal plain. Groundwater in the Edwards Aquifer was forced through fissures in the Lower Cretaceous limestone creating magnificent springs that surfaced at the foot of the Balcones Escarpment. Today those springs are known as Comal Springs, the largest natural springs in Texas, as well as in the North American southwest — and the source of the 3.25 mile-long Comal River that begins and ends within the city limits. The crystal clear Comal Springs are the heart of Landa Park and our thriving community of New Braunfels.

These springs are consistent with some of the earliest human habitation sites in North America. Artifacts and features reveal that Paleo Indians were occupants of the site more than 13,000 years ago. Indians of this period hunted the last of the big mammals of the Ice Age including a member of the elephant species, the Columbian Mammoth, that stood over 12 feet tall at the shoulders, and had huge curved tusks, and little hair on its body. Paleo Indians used the hand-held spears in addition to atlatl thrown spears. The atlatl was 4 to 6 feet in length and provided leverage so the spear could be thrown more forcefully and farther. Stone tools were used for chopping and scraping. Other tools were made from wood, bones, and antlers. 

Eight thousand years ago, the Archaic Indians hunted bison, deer, rabbit, turkey, lizards, rodents, and snakes in this area. Wild plants and fish completed their diet. As larger animals like bison and deer became extinct or smaller in size, plants became a more important food source. Among the tools used to grind wild seeds and nuts was a large stone slab called a metate and a hand-held grinder called a mano. The bow and arrow appeared 1,500 years ago, signaling the end of the Archaic Period and the beginning of the Late Prehistoric time.

It’s probable the first European to see the Comal Springs was Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca in the 1530s. No other Europeans recorded seeing the site until the late 1600s.

In the 1530s, the Tonkawa tribe was living near the Comal Springs. They were hunters and gatherers, and not a warlike people. Independent bands — Mayeye, Yojuane, Ervipiame — and a number of smaller groups made up the Tonkawa tribe that was located throughout Central Texas. They appeared to be with the Southern Plains pre-horse culture. It is possible that their language belonged to the Coahuiltecan linguistic stock.

The Tonkawa people lived off the land. They ate deer, rabbit, turkey, mussels, turtle, crawfish and other fish. Rattlesnake was considered a delicacy. Pecans, acorns, beans from the mesquite, prickly pear fruit, Mexican plum, Texas persimmon and mustang grapes were edible wild plants found near the Springs. After shelling, acorns were ground into meal. Soaking the meal removed the tannins. The meal was then ready to make into a kind of bread, mush or soup. Mesquite beans were ground into flour. The prickly pear fruit was eaten fresh or squeezed for juice and then the pulp was dried and stored. The young prickly pear pods were skinned and eaten. Venison and meats were made into jerky and pemmican to preserve them.

The Tonkawa tribe made simple, functional pottery. They traded frequently with other tribes and eventually with Europeans. The Karankawa, Hueco, Cohuiltecan, Lipan Apache and Kickapoo tribes traded in the area. The war-like Comanche made their first appearance in the mid-1700s. The Comanche made a more recent appearance in 1946 when descendants of the German immigrants, who permanently settled the area, celebrated the centennial of their arrival. To add to the festivities, Comanche descendants set-up camp in the area known as Landa Park.

There will be more about that celebration of the Founding of New Braunfels in future columns.

Have a Happy New Year and grand celebration of our 175th year!

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