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Hueco Tanks: A Gallery Unto The Past and Present of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

chilton tippin

Hueco Tanks: A Gallery Unto The Past and Present of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

On a chilly Spring morning, Fernando Arias tucked his walking stick behind a bush and prepared to scramble up a flank of slick igneous rock. To climb, he placed his hands and feet in huecos, bowl-shaped divots which had formed when ancient magma bubbles popped, cooled, and hardened to stone.

“I’ve been coming here since I was a kid,” Arias told me. “This is a special place—calm, away from the city.”

Arias is president of the El Paso Archaeological Society, and he was leading me into the heart of Hueco Tanks, an area of low-rising mountains in the Texas deserts near the Mexican border. As we hiked among the towering, red-brown rocks, Arias told me stories about the canyons. He spoke of the Butterfield Overland Stage, which passed among these hills, and of Apache standoffs that lasted for weeks. He described how Stone-Age hunters drove wooly mammoths into the valleys between escarpments, slaughtering them with spears and rocks.

In his eyes, it was clear: The landscape was alive with its past. For my part, I had come with Arias to learn about that past, to see what the history of these particular mountains has to say about life in the borderlands today.

A Historic Sanctuary

Hueco Tanks is not your typical jumble of desert rocks. Owing to a fortuitous geological event, which took place some 30-35 million years ago, the park stands as a historic sanctuary, a place where people of various walks have gathered and worshiped for thousands of years.

The original magnet attracting people here was water. It collects in the caves and indentations and in the thousands of little potholes that give Hueco Tanks its name. Because of that water, dating back to the earliest years of the region’s human habitation, Hueco Tanks became a place of trading and ritual significance. To this day, it remains an important ceremonial gathering place for groups such as the Apache, Hopi, and Tigua.

“As far as we can tell,” Arias explained, “we’ve had people here from between 8,000 and 12,000 years ago.”

And the history of those people is quite literally written on the walls. Hueco Tanks contains an outdoor gallery of more than 3,000 rock images. The petroglyphs and pictographs span a time period of some 8,000 years and represent native traditions ranging from the plains of North America to the Mesoamerican region of south-central Mexico and Central America. These signify a long-standing trading route stretching along the great American Cordillera, one which ran north from the continent’s southern tip to Santa Fe, New Mexico and beyond. Hueco Tanks lies near the midsection of this corridor, at the pass in the mountains where people and goods have flowed and mixed for centuries. Not only does the park contain the highest concentration of ceremonial mask paintings in North America, but it also reveals some of the earliest evidence of a north-south connection—in a sense, the same connection for which the border is famous today.

The first people Hueco Tanks is about 1.1 square miles, comprising three rock mountains, their connective valleys, and a fourth, smaller mountain called a spur. Today, the park is known as a mecca for climbers who use the huecos as holds in routes up cliffs and overhangs.

But this is only the latest iteration in a long chain of spiritual and recreational connections that people have made with the park. As Arias explained, evidence of the presence of the earliest humans came with the discovery of numerous arrowheads called Folsom points, many of which are more than 10,000 years old. Folsom points were attached to the tips of spears and used to hunt wooly mammoths and other megafauna in the steep-walled canyons.

“The members of the folsom culture were Paleo-Indians,” wrote the late archaeologist Kay Sutherland in her archaeological history of the park. “They belonged to the Ice Age peoples that spread across North and South America after crossing the then Bering land bridge between Siberia and Alaska.”

Art of the animists

Advancing past the time of the earliest humans, evidence in the park chronicles increasing human sophistication, artistry, and religion. The first rock imagery in Hueco Tanks dates to the archaic period, 6,000 B.C. to 450 A.D. During the Middle and Late Archaic (3,000 B.C.-450 A.D.), people painted hunting scenes on the walls of caves. Interpreting these rock images, archaeologists inferred that the Archaic people practiced animism. Broadly speaking, animistic religions hold that humans are part and parcel of nature and that all of nature is sentient and imbued with spirituality.

In the earlier Archaic works of Hueco Tanks, humans in the scenes were shown as being apart from the projectile points—images, in other words, of men holding spears. Over time, however, they began to merge in the drawings with the projectile points, so that their heads became pointy or the human figures appeared as projectile points with arms.

“The association of hunter with spearpoint implies a strong spiritual relationship between the killer and the killed,” wrote Sutherland. This, she explains, is the sign of the turn toward animism.

As we shall see, at Hueco Tanks archaeologists uncovered a bespoke artistry that seems to have emerged from the blending of animism with cultural elements from the south. This mixing of people and cultures found expression in a unique religion forged in the sere hills of this desert crossroads.

A Current Connection in Ancient Context

In addition to the works of local peoples, Arias showed me pictographs depicting Mesoamerican gods, such as Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, and Tlaloc, the god of lightning and rain. I was startled to learn these gods were represented here, for they came from a pantheon of Aztec origin—a religion whose roots are in central and southern Mexico, thousands of miles to the south. How did depictions of these gods make it all the way north to Hueco Tanks?

“We have Mayan, Aztec, and Inca influence here,” Arias said. “And why do you think they came here?”

Trade routes. Much like goods exchanged on ancient trading thoroughfares, Hueco Tanks rock depictions show a syncretic mix of mesoamerican deities with animistic religious elements. “Mesoamerican gods,” wrote the archaeologist Sutherland, “many of whom manifested different aspects of the same elements, combined with earlier animistic concepts of the desert Archaic peoples to create a new religious force.”

This “new religious force” represented itself artistically in the depiction of “masked spirit beings,” and arose from a unique conjoining of originally distinct beliefs and gods. In other words, the influence of Mesoamerican religious cults collided with that of animistic religions in the desert southwest, creating something new to the world. These religions—animism and Mesoamerican polytheism—fused and are represented today in the portraits of the hundreds of masks at Hueco Tanks.

As Arias and I parted ways at the end of the tour, I couldn’t help but think how the masks represented something emblematic of life in the Chihuahuan Desert. The masks show us that, as far back as 450 A.D., if not earlier, cultures have mixed and mingled in the borderlands. Today, as in the past, that fusion forges something unique—a people whose character is sculpted partly by the harsh realities of a sparse desert environment, and partly by the compromise and sharing that necessarily flows into a culture born of multiples joining together.


Cliton Tippin is currently a graduate student at UTEP. You can learn more about another project he is apart of—listen to William Hargrove's interview under the Scholars and Historian tab.

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