Big Bend National Park

Archaeology
Gorp.com

Big Bend National Park has been home to peoples of a wide variety of cultures, and the land where the park now stands has been, at various times, claimed by six countries (Spain, France, Mexico, Republic of Texas, Confederate States of America, and the United States). By examining the remains of the civilizations that have called the Big Bend home, archaeologists have been able to piece together a history of human life in this region.

Even before humans came to live on the earth, though, prehistoric creatures—dinosaurs, ancient reptiles, and flying reptiles like the Pterodactyl—roamed the Big Bend region. Paleontologists have excavated the remains of numerous different species in the park. The park land is especially significant to scientists trying to understand the changes in the earth's climate around the time of the dinosaurs' extinction. The Big Bend lies near the Yucatan peninsula, where many researchers believe a meteor hit the earth and sparked great global climate changes at the end of the Cretaceous Period.

Peoples of the Big Bend
At Big Bend National Park, only two prehistoric archaeological sites are presently considered "public"—the Hot Springs pictograph site and the Chimneys. As research is completed on other archaeological sites, they may be opened to the public, too. There are six National Register historic sites or districts in Big Bend National Park: Castolon Historic District, Hot Springs Historic Site, The Mariscal Mining District, the Homer Wilson Ranch Site, Rancho Estelle, and Luna's Jacal. Thousands of archaeological sites within the park hold traces of the material remains of 10,000 years of Native American occupation of the Big Bend. When properly studied, these sites can provide very valuable information about past lifeways.

Prehistoric Creatures of the Big Bend
In 1971, Douglas A. Lawson, a graduate student from the University of Texas at Austin, found a large bone in the Javelina Formation in Big Bend National Park. This proved to be the radius bone of a pterodactyl larger than any previously known. He named this huge pterodactyl Quetzalcoatlus northropi for Quetzalcoatlus, an Aztec god who took the form of a feathered serpent. Seventy-five percent of the wing skeleton was recovered. Several smaller specimens confirmed the nature of the large bone, proving it to belong to the largest flying creature ever found. Quetzalcoatlus was indeed a giant among the pterodactyls, most of who were the size of birds. Although most pterosaurs lived on or near water, the rocks containing Quetzalcoatlus were formed far from the sea. The fossils are on display in the Texas Memorial Museum, University of Texas at Austin.

Flight tests with models of Quetzalcoatlus suggest that it was primarily a soaring creature, controlling its direction by turning its head, flexing the three fingers on the wing's leading edge, and by warping the wing tip. These giants, the last of the flying reptiles, were able to climb or dive by changing the wing sweep, but were unstable in gusty winds.

Dinosaur remains have been discovered in the non-marine Aguja and Javelina Formations in the park. Although dinosaur remains are relatively uncommon at Big Bend, skeletal remains of duck-billed, horned, and the large sauropod and carnivorous dinosaurs have been found.

The skull and jaws of a 50-foot-long crocodile were found in the upper Aguja Formation near Glenn Springs. The specimen is on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.


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