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Late prehistoric snakes of E. V. Spence and O. H. Ivie reservoir basins of Coke, Coleman, Concho, and Runnels counties, Texas.

Abstract. -- Eighteen fossilized snake vertebrae representing at least four different genera were recovered from the archaeological surveys of four prehistoric campsites along the Colorado River of west-central Texas. The sites are now inundated by E. V. Spence and O.H. Ivie reservoirs. All fossils examined represent extant forms that are currently present in this region of Texas. The occurrence of these species indicates that the prehistoric climate in this area was very similar to that of today. The incompleteness of the fossils and their proveniences suggests that they were part of the aboriginals diet.


Four snake genera are identified from four different prehistoric campsites along the Colorado River, Texas. Although few in number, the vertebrae have zooarchaeological significance. Because of their present-day habitat preferences, zoogeographic distribution, and the convergence of three physiographic regions in or near the fossil sites, the vertebrae found at these prehistoric campsites demonstrate a dietary use of snakes by early native Americans. Many archaeological investigations (Ruecking 1953; Sjoberg 1953; Newcomb 1961; Williams-Dean 1978; Steele & Mokry 1985; Shafer 1986; Steele & Hunter 1986; Steele 1986a; 1986b; Hellier et al. in press) have reported snake consumption but there appears to be little interest in the identification of those species which were being consumed. There are probably numerous snake bones stored in archeology holdings that are never examined in a critical manner (Parmely pers. comm.). It would appear that to fully understand the dietary habits of early native Americans, archaeologists would need to determine what types of snakes were being consumed by native Americans.

Study Areas

E. V. Spence Reservoir. -- The Sand Creek archaeological site (41CK79) is within E. V. Spence Reservoir basin, Coke County, Texas (Fig. 1). The Robert Lee Dam, which impounds the reservoir, is 48 km NNW of San Angelo. The prehistoric campsite where the vertebrae were recovered is 21 km NW of the dam on a 9 m terrace of Sand Creek about 305 m from the bank of the Colorado River (Shafer 1971). The elevation of the Sand Creek site is between 576-579 m above mean sea level (msl). The site is within the Mesquite Plains, a subregion of the Rolling Plains (Smeins & Slack 1982).


O. H. Ivie Reservoir. -- Three prehistoric sites, now inundated by O. H. Ivie Reservoir, are located within a 6.1 km radius of the confluence of the Colorado and Concho Rivers (Fig. 1). The S. W. Freese Dam, which impounds the reservoir, is 26 km downstream from this confluence. The reservoir is approximately 74 km ENE of San Angelo. Site 41CN19 is 6.5 km north of the Freese Dam service spillway (Coleman County) on a left-bank terrace above the Colorado River in proximity to an unnamed ravine through which a perennial spring flowed. Site 41CC131 is situated 7.8 km NW of Freese Dam (Concho County) on a right-bank terrace above the Concho River in proximity to an unnamed intermittent stream traversing a ravine. Site 41RN169 is 15.5 km NW of Freese Dam (Runnels County) on the left-bank of the Colorado River, about 228 m upstream on Rocky Branch, an intermittent stream. The elevation of the sites ranges from 457-469 m above msl. A detailed description of each site is presented by Lintz et al. (1993).

Methods and Materials

Identifications were made by comparing the fossil vertebrae with modern reference skeletons in the collection of the senior author. Drawings of fossilized vertebrae from published literature were also reviewed to aid in comparisons and identifications. Catalog or lot and site numbers (in parentheses) refer to the field specimen and site collections (trinomial code), respectively, of the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory (TARL) and Mariah Associates, Inc. Radiocarbon (Carbon-14) dates are based upon communitive charcoal recovered at each site. The fossil specimens are maintained at the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory. The classification system follows Dowling & Duellman (1976) with standard scientific names from Collins et al. (1978).


The following species accounts include specimens of at least four different genera assigned to the families Colubridae and Viperidae. Drawings of fossil specimens examined during the course of this study are presented in Figure 2.

Elaphe obsoleta (Say)

Material examined. -- One large trunk vertebra (FS 114, 41CC131; Fig. 2A-C) was found 130 cm below the surface north of the deep gully, but insufficient diagnostic artifacts were found with the vertebra to allow a relative age assignment. The large size of the vertebra indicates a mature individual. The neural arch is not highly vaulted and the subcentral ridges are relatively deep. Elaphe obsoleta is presently widespread in the eastern two-thirds of the state while the study area is near the western range limit (Dixon 1987). Elaphe obsoleta lives in a variety of habitats, but within the basin it is typically found in wooded stream valleys and rocky canyons (Conant & Collins 1991).

Masticophis sp. or Coluber sp. (indeterminable)

Material examined. -- Eight trunk vertebrae (one FS 566.1, four FS 685.1, 41CN19; two FS 1218.1 (Fig. 2D-F), one FS 114, 41CC131) and two cervical vertebrae (one FS 1224.1, 41CC131; one FS 685.1, 41CN19) are identified as those of either Masticophis or Coluber. Vertebrae of Masticophis are inseparable from those of Coluber (cf. Holman 1979; 1981; Parmley 1986; 1988a; 1988b; 1990). Though non-distinguishable, these vertebrae (FS 114, FS 1224.1, FS 566.1, FS 685.1, and FS 1218.1) exhibit the following characters typical of these genera: general shape long and constricted medially; well developed epizygapophyseal spines; thin, long neural spine; thin, relatively uniform in width hemal keel; strong posterior neural spine overhang; and high, domed neural arch. Masticophis/Coluber vertebrae are the most common elements recovered at the sites. Masticophis flagellum, Masticophis taeniatus, and Coluber constrictor currently occur sympatrically within the reservoir area (Dixon 1987). Coluber constrictor inhabits fields, grasslands, brushlands, and open woodlands; M. flagellum frequents grasslands, mesquite savannahs, arid brushlands, and many other more or less open habitats; and M. taeniatus prefers rocky breaks and stream valleys (Conant & Collins 1991).


Of the ten vertebrae, all post- and prezygapophseal processes were damaged. One trunk vertebra (FS 566.1) of an adult snake was found 160-170 cm below the surface and shows evidence of being burned and slightly weathered. Four trunk and one cervical vertebrae (FS 685.1) were found 190-200 cm below the datum, and they appear to be from a single individual and show moderate weathering and signs of burning. The cervical vertebra was badly damaged and burned. Two trunk vertebrae (FS 1218.1) were found 40-50 cm below the surface. These specimens indicate two individuals with minute signs of weathering, however, both clearly show signs of being burned. One cervical vertebra (FS 1224.1) was found 190-200 cm below the datum. This specimen was slightly weathered with signs of being burned. One trunk vertebra (FS 114) was found 130 cm below the surface. It appears to be from a moderately sized individual, with some weathering and signs of being burned. Carbon-14 dates associated with these vertebrae are: FS 566.1 and FS 685.1, associated materials and stratigraphic data suggests site utilization between A.D. 600 to 1050; FS 1218.1 and FS 1224.1, material remains suggest an age span of A.D. 1000 to 1300; and FS 114, no dates are associated because insufficient diagnostic artifacts were found to provide a relative age for this specimen.

Thamnophis sp.

Material examined. -- One trunk vertebra (Lot 133, 41CK79; Fig. 2G-I) was found 22.9-30.5 cm below the surface in association with rich cultural deposits including freshwater mussel shell, flint, and hearthstones. Artifacts recovered suggest a time span of about A.D. 800 to 1600 (1100 to 200 YBP). This specimen appears to be Thamnophis, because of its elongated shape. However, it could be Nerodia harteri paucimaculata, although the neural arch is not quite the same. Nonetheless, the hypapophysis of Thamnophis is similar to N. harteri (Parmley pers. comm.), therefore, the possibility that this specimen could be N. harteri paucimaculata cannot be ruled out. At any rate, lack of adequate N. harteri reference skeletons make a positive identification difficult to impossible. Both Thamnophis marcianus marcianus and Thamnophis proximus rubrilineatus presently occur in or near the site. Thamnophis marcianus marcianus is widely distributed in the arid Southwest and T. proximus rubrilineatus occurs in central to west-central Texas. Both seldom stray far from streambeds, springs, or other places where water may be present (Conant & Collins 1991), however, this site occurs at the western extremes of N. harteri paucimaculata range (Dixon 1987).

Crotalus sp.

Material examined. -- Five trunk vertebrae (FS 141.1, 41CC131; Lot 115 (n = 2), Lot 77, and Lot 231, 41CK79) are identified as Crotalus. Vertebra FS 141.1 (Fig.2J-L) was found 170 cm below the surface during the testing phase in TP 4, north of the deep gully. No dates are associated and insufficient diagnostic artifacts were found to provide a relative age for this specimen. The vertebra appeared to be that of a moderately sized individual with signs of burning. FS 141.1 was identified as Crotalus sp. indet., in that it is rather short and wide, the zygosphene is thick, and the hypapophysis base is thick like a viperid. The remaining four trunk vertebra (Lot 115, Lot 77, and Lot 231) are from moderately sized rattlesnakes and more associated with artifacts suggesting a time span of about A.D. 800 to 1600. Two large vertebrae (Lot 115) were found 22.9-30.5 cm below the surface during the recovery phase in Level 4. All were charred and extremely fragmented. One vertebra (Lot 77) was found 15.2-22.9 cm below the datum during the recovery phase in Level 3, and one vertebra (Lot 231) was found 30.5-38.1 cm below the surface during the recovery phase in Level 5. The overall shape (squareness), robustness, and low neural arch of the vertebra are characteristic of the genus Crotalus. Because of the poor preservation and fragmentation of the specimens, allocation to species cannot be ascertained.

One trunk vertebra (FS 692.1, 41RN169; Fig. 2M-O) was found 70-80 cm below the surface within the central pit of a burned rock oven. This vertebra is relatively well preserved and appears to be either C. atrox or C. viridis. Both species presently occur at or near the site, but the single vertebra is indistinguishable from either species. In fact, Crotalus molossus may occur there as well. This vertebra is rather large indicating a large, adult snake with signs of slight weathering and being burned. The artifacts and C-14 dates support use of the oven between A.D. 700 and 1200. The specific identification of Crotalus vertebrae presents special problems that are yet to be worked out (Holman 1981; Parmley 1986; 1988a; 1990). Parmley (1988a) states that fossil vertebrae of C. atrox and C. viridis of comparable size cannot be distinguished. He further states that specific identification of isolated Crotalus vertebrae has never been satisfactorily analyzed, and it is possible that Crotalus vertebrae are not diagnostic at the species level. The same problem exists for C. molossus. Both C. viridis and C. molossus are medium-sized rattlesnakes (range 89-114 cm, record 144.8 cm; 76-106.7 cm, record 125.7 cm, respectively) compared to C. atrox (range 76-183 cm, record 213 cm) (Conant & Collins 1991). All three species presently occur at or near the fossil sites (Dixon 1987).


The purpose of analyzing the few herpetofaunal remains recovered from 41CN19, 41CC131, 41RN169 and 41CK79 was twofold. First, the prehistoric occupation sites where the fossils were collected are in proximity to the mainstem stream riffles of the Colorado River. With the knowledge that the aboriginal inhabitants utilized riverine based resources (Carlson et al. 1982), the question was asked whether natracines, specifically, the Concho water snake (N. harteri paucimaculata), occurred in the region prior to European occupation. Second, the opportunity to report the dietary use of prehistoric snakes by early native Americans.

More than 50,000 bone specimens were recovered during the archaeological testing and data recovery within the Ivie Reservoir basin. A majority of the bone specimens recovered represent small-to large-sized animals, many of which persist in or near the area today. Only a few of these bones were attributed to avifaunal, ichthyofaunal, and herpetofaunal assemblages (Lintz et al. 1993). The 13 snake vertebrae recovered represents only 0.03% of the total bones recovered.

A total of 147 vertebrate bone specimens were recovered from the Spence Reservoir site, and snake vertebrae represented only 3.4% of that total. A review of earlier studies (Carlson et al. 1982; Steele & DeMarcay 1985; Steele & Mokry 1985; Steele 1986a; 1986b; Steele & Hunter 1986; Hellier et al. in press) indicates that numerically the herpetofaunal portions of the assemblages are poorly represented. Steele (1986b) explains this apparent disparity by suggesting that mammals constitute the largest faunal remains because of a greater utilization by early man. His reasons were: (1) the bones of the other classes are smaller and more fragile, therefore more subject to destruction and loss; and (2) when the amount of meat contributed by each class of vertebrates is considered, the mammals are the most important, since most species of mammals are considerably larger than other vertebrates. Driver (1969) indicated that when large game animals were scarce, the hunters and gatherers relied more on rodents, reptiles, and insects. However, Steele & Mokry (1985) state that faunal utilization involved all classes and sizes of vertebrates, and furthermore, there is no evidence indicating any fauna was favored to the exclusion of others.

Another question to be addressed is whether the fossils recovered at human habitation sites were intrusively or consumptively deposited. Steele & DeMarcay (1985) lists two criteria with which one can, with assurance, make these decisions. First, the disarticulation of the skeleton and its overall incompleteness represented by single bones or bone fragments indicates probable consumption. Second, a skeleton found articulated and generally complete, indicates an intrusive element. However, they admit one should be judicious when drawing conclusions based upon faunal remains. Nonetheless, the archaeological evidence suggests that when faunal remains are recovered disarticulated, few in number, and within the tight stratigraphic context directly associated with an archaeological habitation, then the taxon represented was most likely consumed. Bones recovered from hearth areas and showing signs of burning (charring) and disarticulation clearly point to human involvement, particularly dietary consumption (Shafer 1986). Furthermore, through coprolite examination Williams-Dean (1978) confirmed that snakes were consumed.

A complete review of the available literature, concerning the dietary use of natracines by prehistoric peoples was not attempted, however, one example was found. Steele (1986b) examined the vertebrate remains recovered from a Late Prehistoric site (ca. A.D. 1250-1500) and identified four snake genera, one being a Nerodia (sp. indet.). He noted that five aquatic taxa, including the water snake, indicated the presence of a nearby stable aquatic habitat.

If colubrines and crotalines have consistently been reported as probable, if not actual food items, why then has Nerodia been noticeably absent. The close proximity of Prehistoric campsites to intermittent and perennial streams draining this xeric region, in conjunction with an abundance of mussel shell accumulations, clearly indicates the utilization of riverine resources. If natracines occurred here at this time, as the paleoherpetofaunal evidence attests (Holman 1981), and if the Prehistoric peoples were in somewhat of a continuous contact with this riparian habitat, why is one of the most numerous water snakes, N. harteri paucimaculata, (or any other water snake species) not represented in the fossil collections.

To answer this question, an analogy between two predator-prey relationships is necessary. First, Parmley (1986) examined a herpetofaunal assemblage from a sinkhole located in the karst terrain characteristic of south-central Texas. The faunal remains were primarily attributed to feeding activities of the Common Barn Owl (Tyto alba), although some may have entered voluntarily or simply fallen into the hole (Dalquest et al. 1969). Parmley (1986) explains the apparent lack of natracine fossils compared to the overwhelming abundance of colubrines fossils by indicating a bias in raptor selection of prey. He suggested that the woodland and grassland forms (especially colubrines) were an easier prey for the owls simply because they often forage in the open. However, aquatic forms such as natracines were usually more restricted to their habitat, hence, more protected. Second, the vast majority of the faunal remains recovered and attributed to food procurement, were diurnal creatures.

Following Parmley's (1986) suggestion, the analogy between predators (humans or owls) becomes obvious. Furthermore, the herpetofaunal remains recovered in the cultural context strongly suggests warm weather harvesting (Steele & Hunter 1986). As diurnal temperatures increase in the summer months, natracines are known to become more crepuscular or nocturnal. Another important consideration is the medium in which the various snakes escape predation. Although the terrestrial refuges sought by escaping snakes makes it somewhat difficult for hunters to capture their prey, it can be done. Contrary to this, field experience with water snakes reveals that once they enter the water, the chance of capturing them diminishes greatly. It then becomes apparent why colubrines dominate the fossil snake assemblages in ancient campsites. First, terrestrial snakes are more numerous; second, most of the larger forms are diurnal; and third, the hunting area and it's resources are dominated by the arid landscape. Today in this region water is still a limited resource surrounded by the arid uplands. One could reliably conclude that the faunal assemblage, whether intrusively or culturally deposited, would reflect this ecological reality as well.

The actual dietary use of natracines in this region cannot be documented, but can be confirmed for some of the crotalid and colubrid taxa recovered. Ruecking (1953) and Sjoberg (1953) have documented the consumption of rattlesnakes by the Historic Coahuiltecan and Tonkawa Indians. Crotalids have also been documented as food items for Archaic, Prehistoric, and Late Prehistoric Indians (Newcomb 1961; Steele & Mokry 1985; Shafer 1986; Steele & Hunter 1986; Steele 1986a; 1986b; Hellier et al. in press;). Colubrids were consumed as well (Newcomb 1961; Steele & DeMarcay 1985; Steele & Mokry 1985; Shafer 1986; Steele 1986b), however, Steele & Hunter (1986) admit that the ranges in size of the snake vertebrae recovered clearly indicates that a variety of these reptiles were being harvested. Interestingly, from Post-Pleistocene hearths dated ca. 8,000 YBP, 16 species of snake were recovered ranging from large rattlesnakes to very small nonpoisonous snakes (Shafer 1986). The identified genera include Crotalus (prob. C. atrox), Agkistrodon (prob. A. contortrix), Elaphe (sp. indet.), Nerodia (sp. indet.), and Lampropeltis (sp. indet.). Excluding the unidentified snake species, the percentages of the remaining snakes are: crotalids, 57.1%; terrestrial colubrids, 35.8%; and aquatic natracines, 7.1%. The percentages of snake taxa recovered indicates a strong preference for crotalids, however, if indeterminate species are included the percentages are: crotalids, 44.4%; colubrids, 27.8%; indeterminate snakes, 22.2%; and natracines, 5.5%. Presently, 36 taxa of snakes occurs in or near the fossil sites (Dixon 1987). Of these, colubrids represent 83.3% and crotalids 16.7%.

Upon examination of the snake remains recovered from 41CN19, 41CC131, and 41RN169, it is apparent that these Prehistoric people were consuming E. obsoleta, Crotalus (prob. C. atrox), Masticophis (prob. M. flagellum), and possibly Coluber (prob. C. constrictor). This is based upon the observation that E. obsoleta, C. atrox, and M. flagellum occur in the area today, and they are the largest members (length and mass) of the locally occurring terrestrial or aquatic taxa. These snakes are also more commonly found than their con-specifics (E. guttata, C. viridis, C. molossus, and M. taeniatus).


We sincerely thank Dr. Chris Lintz and Mariah Associates, Inc., for the opportunity and the privilege of studying the snake fossils recovered during the course of the Stacy Dam Archeological Project. Dr. Lintz also reviewed this paper and provided valuable inputs. Gratitude is also extended to Dr. Darrell Creel of the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory for loaning us the snake vertebrae recovered during the Lake Spence archeological investigations. Sincere gratitude is extended to Dr. Dennis Parmley for taking the time to confirm our tentative identifications and for making the final taxonomic determinations of the fossils. Dr. Parmely's critical review greatly improved this manuscript. The archeological investigations of the Texas Archeological Salvage Project (Lake Spence) were in fulfillment of the terms of Memorandum of Agreement 14-10- 7:931-27 submitted to the National Park Service. The cultural resource studies (Stacy Dam Project) of Mariah Associates, Inc., were permitted under United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Permit W-N-443-41-Permit 225 and Texas Antiquities Committee Permit Numbers 609 and 809. Funding and facilities were provided by the Colorado River Municipal Water District, Big Spring, Texas, during the course of this study. Drawings are by the junior author.

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Steele, D. G. 1986b. Analysis of vertebrate faunal remains from 41JW8, Jim Wells County, Texas. Appendix VII, In The Clemente and Herminia Hinojosa Site, 41JW8: A Toyah Horizon Campsite in Southern Texas, by S. L. Black. Center for Archaeological Research, The University of Texas at San Antonio, Special Report 18:108-136. 302 pp.

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Okla W. Thornton, Jr. and J. R. Smith

Colorado River Municipal Water District, Ivie Reservoir Field Office, HCR 82, Box 4B Leaday, Texas 76888
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Author:Thornton, Okla W., Jr.; Smith, J.R.
Publication:The Texas Journal of Science
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:Nov 1, 1995
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