As we focus on management of the Edwards Aquifer for the benefit of today's humans and endangered species, it is easy to overlook the long prehistory of the large Edwards springs.
For one thing, there is very little imagery to remind us of the very long and profound connection between these sites and the humans they have sustained for thousands of years. We are simply the latest in that chain of humanity.
For the descendants of native tribes, the Edwards spring sites are still sacred, places that are central to their traditions and religion.
In 2014, I commissioned artist Susan Dunis to create glimpses of these places as they may have appeared about 4,000 years ago. Working with historians, archaeologists, and hydrologists, we created a series of images that illustrate various aspects of the prehistoric cultural importance of the major Edwards springs.
All of these places have a record of human history stretching back at least 10,000 years and had great significance on many levels. For pure utility, hundreds of generations of people who visited or lived at these places hunted and gathered, built fires, cooked their foods, made tools, and carried out countless other ordinary daily-life activities.
On a social level, they were gathering places where diverse groups speaking different dialects and languages came together for feasts, special celebrations, courtship, trade, and negotiations.
On a sacred level, they were places where special rituals took place such as religious ceremonies and burial of the dead.
Why did we pick 4,000 years ago as the time to represent?
The answer lies in an ancient painting in the Lower Pecos region of southwest Texas known as the White Shaman panel. Natives believe the painting depicts the fountain springs of the Edwards Aquifer as part of a sacred geography, and the panel is nothing less than the earliest map of Texas. One of its functions was serving as a guide for a sacred pilgrimage that people would endeavour to undertake at least once in their lives.
The paintings follow a family of Coahuiltecan Indians from that time period as they make this pilgrimage from spring to spring. Each painting illustrates at least one aspect of the interaction people had with these places.
We may be reminded that we are not so far removed from those ancient people as we think; we still rely on these springs for many of the same things.
The first painting in the series depicts Barton's Upper Spring, which still flows as a fountain when pressure in the Aquifer is high. For the younger persons on the voyage, this is the first fountain spring they have seen, and it elicits a sense of wonder and awe. The older travelers greet it like an old friend.
If you have seen Upper Spring flowing at fountain stage, whether just once or many times in your life, you have no doubt experienced the same feelings as those ancient persons. You are therefore bonded in spirit directly to those persons of 40 centuries ago.
Of all the springs and sites that would have been visited on the Coahuiltecan pilgrimage, the San Marcos Springs are key. This is the creation site of the Coahuiltecan Indian tribes, shown here in ceremony.
Natives explain that when they were in their pre-human spirit form, they do not really know what they looked like. After following a deer through the underworld, they took on their human form when they emerged as people from the fountain springs of San Marcos.
Today the fountains are inundated under Spring Lake, although in recent years there is increasing discussion of removing the dam and restoring the natural beauty and dignity of this place by letting the springs be fountains once more.
The native tribes still maintain their covenant with sacred sites like San Marcos through the Indigenous Cultures Institute. Visit their site to learn more about their programs and sign up for a guided tour. They will tell you more about the significance of the other sacred animals and many other elements in this painting.
In this painting, the theme is the use of the springs for everyday activity - cooking dinner. The site is still largely recognizable today, and the rock being used for cleaning a fish is still there, with traces of animal residue from thousands of cooking events still visible.
In this painting of The Blue Hole, largest of the San Antonio Springs, the theme is trade. While the ladies enjoy some cool refreshment, men are bartering for goods which were painted using excavated artifacts in the Witte Museum collection as references.
Here the theme is the use of the springs for gathering food and tools, and their use for simple pleasure and relaxation. While the younger family members take a swim in the sun-drenched springs, the men are selecting chert for point-making, collecting wild grapes, and fishing.