In February, Andrew Kowalik of Rockport, Texas was sentenced to five years of home confinement and a $10,000 fine for smuggling over 500 pre-Columbian artifacts from Mexico to Texas’ Big Bend National Park. The agents recovered ceramics, lithics, figurines, and 2,000-year-old shoes, “all estimated to be worth $250,000 on the black market.” The objects are thought to be looted from the canyons around the Rio Grande on the northern Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexican border.
A Big Bend National Park Ranger noticed Kowalik’s suspicious activity in April 2016. Upon further investigation by National Parks Service officials, he was found with hundreds of artifacts. Homeland Security Investigators, The National Park Service, and the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service worked together to prosecute Kowalik. Questioned about Kowalik’s motive, Tim Stone of Homeland Security Investigations said “It is like almost any crime, it’s really the same—it’s profit.”
The National Park itself and United States’ and Mexico’s larger Rio Grande region is home to an immensely rich archaeological heritage. Occupation spans from the Late Paleo-Indian Period (ca. 8000-6500 BCE) through the Historic Era. The earliest inhabitants of the region lived as hunter-gatherers and hunted large game animals for subsistence, clothing, and shelter. In the Archaic Period (6500 BCE-1000 AD), the climate began to change, as did human lifeways. In this period, inhalants of the area relied largely on plants for food and developed a more complex, hierarchical social organization. The atlatl also became popular during this period. The Late Prehistoric Period (ca. AD 1000-1535) saw the sedentary Jornada Mongolian archaeological culture influence the people of the Big Bend region. The Mogollon had a great artistic tradition of ceramic production and also practiced very complex agricultural methods. These traditions were also adopted in the region. Interregional trading also characterized the Late Prehistoric. Lastly, the Historic Period spans from 1535 AD to the present. During this period, several distinctive cultural groups inhabited, and continue to inhabit, the larger Big Bend region. These include the Chiso and Concho indigenous communities, with the Apaches settling the region in the 18th century. All of these communities’ lives were, and continue to be, heavily impacted by Spanish and Euro-American colonization.
We do not know the exact site or region that the objects were looted from, but the majority of the objects that were trafficked were lithics, or stone tools, from the region south of Big Bend. Stone tools include projectile points, bifaces, ground stone artifacts, and unifies. Lithics allow scientists to understand socioeconomics, technology, and cultural organization in an archaeological culture. Debitage, or lithic production by-products, such as flakes and cores, are also heavily studied by archaeologists and provide data about prehistoric technological processes. Looters such as Kowalik tend not to collect the debitage associated with their ‘loot,’ because the small pieces are difficult to recognize and have little to no monetary value.
The staff of Big Bend National Park “will be working with partners in Mexico to repatriate the artifacts involved back to Mexico.” After the objects are repatriated they will be most likely studied by trained lithic analysts. Because the objects were illegally looted, the exact provenance of the objects will never be known. The associated debitage was also permanently lost, which greatly inhibits the amount of data archaeologists can gather from the tools.
The “preservation of cultural resources is important to understanding history,” says Acting Parks Superintendent Vidal Davila. “National Park Rangers are committed to preserving these resources within our parks, as well as ensuring that these lands are not used for smuggling artifacts from other countries.” Though this particular act of looting was not within the United States, this type of crime underscores the importance of fighting for the newly declared Bears Ears and Golden Butte National Monuments.
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