Friday, January 24, 2014

The Ancient Fishing People of the Río Grande Delta Region of South Texas and Northeastern Mexico….

When most of us think of the bow and arrow we imagine prehistoric cultures hunting large animals like deer, bear and buffalo.  But in some regions they were used more often for fishing.  One place in particular that saw extensive use of the bow and arrow for fishing was the delta region of Deep South Texas and extreme northeastern Mexico.  It’s not hyperbole for people to refer to the river traversing that expanse as the “Rio Grande” on the Texas side and “El Río Bravo” on the Mexican side.  The word “grande” means “big” and the word “bravo” means “fierce.”  In ancient times it was indeed a large and ill-tempered river.  Massive floods increased the river’s girth by many miles and likewise turned much of it into a killer of both men and beasts.  No one knows what tragedies occurred along the Río Grande/Bravo but we can assume its name is well deserved.  Of course, “progress” turned this once raging river into a bloated sloth with dozens of dams built along its route from New Mexico to the tip of Texas.  Today the Rio Grande (Río Bravo) is but a vestige of its former times.

The earliest Spanish explorers to the region made frequent note of coming across Indians who were fishing the tributaries, resacas, and the great river itself with bows and arrows.  Others mention that family groups dwelled on islands within the Rio Grande and traveled from one small village to another using canoes made from carrizo (Phragmites australis) and perhaps dugouts of Sabal palm or Montezuma Bald Cypress.  Some of these islands still exist in Starr County, Texas near the town of Roma.  In my book, Adios to the Brushlands, (Texas A&M University Press, 1997) I write about a trip to those islands.  They are small compared to the larger islands of ancient times but one still captures the sense of tranquility and remoteness the people of those times must have felt.  They were hidden and protected and at the same time surrounded by an abundant food source.  The great river on all sides of them teamed with sustenance ranging from fish to clams to small river shrimp.  In addition the people planted gardens and made forays into the riparian forests along the river’s banks to hunt deer and small game.  Perhaps the only drawback was swarming mosquitoes so the people covered themselves with mud to thwart the insect’s seasonal attacks.  Of course, there were also tropical diseases to contend with from malaria to yellow fever.  Life had its challenges but it cannot be said that today’s lifestyles are less stressful than those of the people who lived on the islands and surrounding areas near the Rio Grande.

Spanish explorers were not prone to study the people’s technologies other than in passing.  Some of them noted that the Indians used arrows made of “carrizo” (reed) with hardwood fore-shafts.  Arrow points were sometimes hafted with asphaltum acquired from las playas (the beaches) along the Gulf of Mexico.  We can conjecture that a substantial trade in asphaltum worked its way inland from the coastline.  I have not read any accounts of bows being backed and it is unlikely, given the high humidity and rainfall, that prehistoric groups in the region used sinew or rawhide or any type of hide glue given the water-soluble nature of those products.  Most likely (based on my personal experience making dozens of bows and arrows using resources from the region) the Indians used cordage made from Agave (americana, lophantha, and scabra),and pita (Yucca treculeana) to secure the points and reinforce their carrizo arrow shafts.

The photos represent a conceptual representation of what the fishing arrows might have looked like.  The designs are, of course, universal and we know that North American fishing arrows more-or-less followed similar construction criteria: barbed points, plant-derived cordage, and in the case of reed arrow shafts, a hardwood foreshaft incorporating the point and barb.  The three arrows pictured have foreshafts made from mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa).  An arrow like the one pictured on the far right will plow through a large fish like an alligator gar if the bow is of adequate draw weight.  Agave cordage is used to reinforce the forend of the Phragmites arrow as well as to fashion the string that retrieves the fish.

Arrow nocks were sometimes reinforced with cordage.  Of course, no fletching was used on these fishing arrows and it is quite possible that within the riparian zones these same types of arrows may have been used to dispatch small game and even deer snared or trapped within the sinuous trails that wound through the forests.

Bow fishing or hunting using tools you made yourself is in fact no more challenging than if you were to employ store bought items.  But learning to make selfbows and arrows takes practice and patience as does learning to use them properly.  Even so, acquiring those skills provides a certain satisfaction and as many suggest places one ahead of those who venture into the wilds as if nothing more than appendages of the sporting goods store.


  1. Fascinating stuff. I'm wondering about how the mesquite foreshafts would be attached. Just from looking I'd say a combination of as close a pressure-fit as possible into the hollow carrizo reinforced by cordage?

    1. Yes, you want a pressure fit but not too tight since you want to save the reed shaft...particularly in the case of hunting arrows. Sometimes you will interchange fore-shafts when fishing so you want a snug fit but not so tight that you can't switch out to another shaft. The cordage is made from Agave americana.