by SEAN BATURA
Construction at the former Aquarena Springs amusement park has unearthed human remains believed to have been buried at the headwaters of the San Marcos River long before the first Spanish explorers set foot in what is now Texas.
Texas State archaeologist Jon C. Lohse said the bones were discovered on the peninsula that juts between Spring Lake and the Sink Creek slough but declined to say exactly where because the grave has not been excavated. Texas State University, which in 1994 bought the former tourist attraction made famous by Ralph the swimming pig, broke ground last month on a renovation of the property that includes demolition of the park’s old buildings and recasting the lake as the headquarters of the university’s Texas Rivers Center.
Lohse said the remains were discovered about a month ago and have not been disturbed. Because the construction site is legally a graveyard, the university must petition the county to terminate the cemetery dedication and acquire a permit to remove the remains, Lohse said.
“We can’t say much about the current remains since they’re still in the ground,” said Lohse, who is director of the university’s Center for Archaeological Studies. “I doubt [the bones] are 5,000 years old…but they are believed to be prehistoric — which means before any European settlers (first Spanish and then Anglo) came into the area in the early 1500s and increasingly later on. Right now, we know nothing more about them.”
Lohse said the university will proceed “thoughtfully and carefully,” abide by state and federal law, and treat the bones and the site with respect. The remains may be re-intered somewhere at the lake once the restoration project is complete, Lohse said.
Mario Garza, board president of the San Marcos-based Indigenous Cultures Institute, agreed the remains should be re-intered but said he opposes their being examined by scientists.
“According to indigenous beliefs, if the remains are disturbed, then the spirit is also disturbed. So the spirit of those remains [at Spring Lake] is not going to be at peace until they are re-interred,” Garza said, [but] “It doesn’t help us now to find out that our ancestors 2,000 years ago ate corn or cactus.”
Lohse said after the remains are examined it may be possible to determine how long ago the person was buried, at what age the individual died, and whether he or she endured certain hardships. When information about the deceased’s diet can be determined, Lohse said, it can reveal information about an individual’s migration. For instance, a diet of sea fish or shell fish would “stand out immediately…as being not from this area,” Lohse said.
Scientists currently think people were visiting or even living near San Marcos Springs by at least 13,000 years ago, Lohse said. It is often claimed the springs are, or probably are, the oldest continually-inhabited place in North America. Lohse said this claim has not been proven nor seriously investigated, and is probably not something that can be proven.
“Prior to European settlers coming into the area, we just don’t know what the tribes were that were in Central Texas. We suspect there were quite a few, and that most or all of them were not around when the Spanish came in. There was so much population movement through Central Texas that it’s really not possible to associate these (remains) with any known group. It’s kind of a mystery,” Lohse said.
The remains found at Spring Lake are not the first discovered on campus. Two partial sets of human remains were found on campus around 1990 or 1991 during routine maintenance of fish ponds
Other discoveries in San Marcos include artifacts and food remains found in the 1970s and 80s during archaeological excavations in Spring Lake. The lake was created in 1849 when General Edward Burleson constructed a dam at the headwaters of the San Marcos Springs to operate a gristmill. Before the dam, the springs reportedly spewed water several feet into the air.
The creation of Spring Lake allowed archaeological artifacts within it to be protected from collectors for more than a century. Artifacts found at Spring Lake include flaked stone tools and chipping debris. Portions of mammoths, mastodons, and bison were also found.
Additionally, Lohse said three individuals and one or two elements of a fourth person — or perhaps one part of a fourth and fifth body — were discovered during archaeological excavations of the 1.25-acre “Zatopec Site” in the Purgatory Creek Natural Area in late 2007 and early 2008. Before the Wonder World Extension could be constructed through the natural area, the site had to be excavated.
The Zatopec Site, which contained evidence of occasional prehistoric occupation throughout the last 10,000 years, included remains of a habitation, stone ovens, a weapons manufacturing area and possible storage pits. More than 140,000 artifacts were removed between 1983 and 1986 under the direction of Texas State professor James Garber, states a report by the university’s Center for Archaeological Studies.
Lohse said the human remains found at the Zatopec site and near university fish ponds are being kept at the university, which he said has the legal ability to house them in perpetuity on behalf of the State of Texas. He said the fate of the remains is not yet certain.
“I can say in cases like this one, remains are kept in storage facilities for years and years,” Lohse said. “It’s possible that a Native American tribe will approach the university one day and ask to begin consultation processes that would lead to the repatriation of those remains. Our goal at present, however, is to rebury them in the cemetery that we hope to establish at Spring Lake after the restoration project is completed. This will require much dialog with several tribes and also notification to the US Park Service, where NAGPRA [Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act] inventories are kept. So we’re a ways off from that happening at this point, but it’s an idea we’re working on.”Email | Print