The prehistoric people of South Texas lived as family groups and small bands. Their languages were similar though moderate geographical isolation or distance spawned dialects that overtime evolved into new languages. People living at the extremes of the region whether at the eastern end along the gulf shore or several hundred kilometers to the west could no longer understand each other after a few centuries. Regardless, trade in essential goods continued and cultural similarities made coexistence possible. These were basically nomadic people who relied on staple foods such as the prickly pear and mesquite as well as other plants. Meat sources included small animals and the occasional deer and javelina. Bison were rare and found only to the north of the South Texas Sand Sheet. Deep South Texas was an amalgam of dense riparian woodland and sparser upland brush interspersed with native grasses. The waterway known as the Rio Grande (in Mexico it is called El Río Bravo) was literally a raging river known for massive floods that stretched north and south for many kilometers. Within the waterway were thousands of islands on which many natives lived. Their chief mode of transportation was the dugout canoe made either from the trunk of a Montezuma bald cypress (Taxodium mucronatum) or Sabal palm (Sabal texana). Those living near salt or freshwater ate fish and mollusks and those food sources were a boon for maintaining viable human populations. Regardless, diseases like malaria and yellow fever were present and often made life difficult.
In the upland regions the people waged a continuous battle to find food and water. The Sand Sheet farther to the north was a desert without surface water and with minimal food sources. Spanish explorers reported that the vast desert was essentially unpopulated and prior to the arrival of the horse it is difficult to imagine that any natives ever chose to cross that expanse. Migratory excursions would have been around The Sand Sheet to the west or perhaps along the coast. Archeological digs on the northern part of The Sand Sheet in what is now known as Brooks County show that at the end of the Pleistocene about 11,700 years ago small groups of people lived along streams and rivers that flowed into the Gulf of Mexico.
Regardless of whether people lived in the rich riparian belts along the Rio Grande or in the sparser upland regions the main plant food source was probably the prickly pear cactus. To the Indians of the region the prickly pear (Opuntia sp.) was a multiple food. By that I mean that different parts of the plant offered sustenance all year long. In addition the prickly pear (el nopal) provided for other human needs both medicinal and structural.
The vast majority of people living in South Texas today are of Native American decent. Political designations aside (Hispanic, Latino) their genetic lines can be traced back over 10,000 years to the earliest settlements in the region. Amazingly, few people in this vast area understand that they are the progeny of the original inhabitants of the land. Even so, the culture is rich with telltale signs of the past. Among those signs are the many uses of nopal that tell a story reaching back into distant millenniums.
The prickly pear is such an important plant that without it the ecology of the region would probably change dramatically. For humans the prickly pear provides food from the young pads (nopalitos) and the fruit (tunas); and the sap is brewed into an alcoholic drink or used unfermented as a tea to treat various ills like gallstones, colitis and diarrhea. Some people today use prickly pear to combat diabetes and benign prostatic hypertrophy. The fruit is made into a sort of cheese known as queso de tuna. When I was young spending summers at a remote ranch in southeastern Tamaulipas, Mexico I witnessed the native people using nopal as a poultice to treat burns and minor skin abrasions. The sap or juice from the plant has been used to make candles and I have found the sap a particularly good source as a sealant in woodworking. In making a survival bow, for example, use the thick nopal juices to cover the ends of the bowstave and thus keep the wood from checking.
We are currently experiencing an exceptional drought in South Texas. But as far back as I can remember ranchers have used nopal pads to feed livestock when times get bad. Prickly pear is not particularly high in protein but it will serve over the short haul. One frequently hears the roar of a propane “prickly pear burner” hundreds of yards away as ranch hands scorch off nopal spines so cows can feed. But cattle are a recent phenomenon (some would argue not particularly beneficial overall) and before that el nopal provided both protection and food to another animal that even today provides a nourishing fare for people living in remote mountain regions to the south. Known as the “nopal rat” this large rodent builds its nests in clumps of prickly pear. The nests often extend all around the plant with strategically placed entrance/escape holes. The nest entrance/escape holes are usually guarded with the spines from another cactus known as tasajillo, (tas-ah-hee-oh). Cooked over a spit or roasted in an oven these rodents are a delicacy.
Prickly pear ecology is a complex subject but whether as a prime nesting source for birds or a natural erosion control mechanism or an important source of honey during droughts the prickly pear has offered untold generations food, medicine and even shelter. In parts of Mexico I’ve seen indigenous people use prickly pear as fences and on several occasions we constructed wickiup shelters using nopal pads as roofing material. When the shelters crumble the pads fall to the ground and in a year’s time a number of new clumps mark the spot where the shelter once stood.