The geography of Texas is diverse, and its expanse is vast. With over 267,000 square miles contained in its borders, Texas is home to a staggering variety of environments, climates, and vegetation. According to the Texas Almanac, Texas can be divided into four different regions: the Gulf Coastal Plains, the Interior Lowlands, the Great Plains, and the Basin and Range Province.
Each of these regions includes its own diverse geographical features, making Texas’ environment quite varied and unique. It’s a diversity that informs our history, and one that shapes our daily lives and our state’s economy today. The state’s geology tells a story of great change over time. Fossils of marine life can be found far from today’s coastline, offering evidence of what was once a shallow inland sea that covered much of the land that is now Texas.
Oil, too, tells a story of the state’s history from millions of years ago. You can see evidence of the state’s distant past in dinosaur footprints like those found near Glen Rose, Texas; in fossils like the world-famous Texas pterosaur, which was unearthed near Big Bend and now hangs in Austin’s Texas Memorial Museum; and in traces of other long-extinct creatures that are found in rocks and museums across the state.
The region’s first people found their way here more than 13,000 years ago, and perhaps came earlier than that. Their arrival marks the beginning of the Paleolithic Era in Texas – the first of three time periods between the arrival of those first people and the arrival of European explorers: The Paleolithic Era (until about 6000 B.C.), the Archaic Era (6000 B.C. to A.D. 700), and the Late Prehistoric Period (A.D. 700-A.D. 1500).The earliest Texans lived as hunters and gatherers, sharing the landscape with ice age animals including mammoths, cave lions, giant sloths, and dire wolves. Texas has rich remains from the Clovis culture, long believed to be the earliest to spread across North America. Now some scholars believe the story of humans here is even older – dating back 15,000 years or more. Research to find traces of the earliest Texans continues.
As ice age animals became extinct and the climate began to change, the lifestyles of people living in Texas evolved. Those changes marked the beginning of the Archaic period. People began making a larger range of stone tools, using bows and arrows for hunting, creating pottery for food storage, and creating trade networks that stretched hundreds of miles.
The Late Prehistoric period is marked by a huge diversity in cultures across the state – a cultural distribution that early European explorers found when they arrived in the 1500s. Along the coast, early explorers encountered groups including the Karankawa and Akokisa. Farther inland, the Europeans encountered mostly hunting and gathering cultures, including proto-Apaches. In what is now far West Texas, they came across the easternmost remnants of the Mogollon culture, which is best known by many people today for beautiful Mimbres pottery.
The Caddo had a very different culture, with large settlements in what is now the Piney Woods of East Texas. They farmed and built a complex society, creating ceremonial plazas and large mounds that can still be seen today. The Caddo are credited for giving Texas its name. It’s said that when a group of Caddos encountered Spanish settlers, they met the settlers with a greeting of “Tay-yas, Tay-yas” (friends). The state’s name is a derivative of the Caddo greeting, as the state’s motto is “friendship.”