1600 CE to 1880 CE
The historic rock art is not a style but rather a grouping of sites that show evidence of contact with European culture or, to a lesser degree, stylistic characteristics that clearly were introduced into the region by Plains Indians after about 1700 CE. Although Spanish explorers penetrated the Lower Pecos as early as 1590, the difficult terrain, lack of water and arable land, dearth of valuable minerals, and sparse population proved discouraging. The indigenous people they encountered were soon eradicated by disease, starvation, warfare, and the collapse of their social systems. After a few unsuccessful expeditions into the desert, the colonial empire split into two waves—one that went east through the border mission of San Juan Bautista, headed for the settled lands of East Texas and another that went west through Presidio del Norte to Santa Fe. Isolated, the arid lands of northern Mexico and southwest Texas became known as the despoblado or uninhabited lands where displaced native people found a refuge from slavery and disease.
At first contact, the people living along the Rio Grande were known to the Spanish as Cibolas and Jumanos until about 1700 CE when the Apaches moved in and decimated the local tribes. Their tenure was short. The Comanches followed hard on their heels and drove their traditional enemies, the Apaches, into the mountains of Mexico and into alliances with the fiercest warriors of the southern Plains, the Kickapoos. The Kiowas were often allied with the Comanches, taking part in raids in and around the Lower Pecos up until about 1875. The last vestiges of indigenous art were painted just before the final eradication of all the native peoples and the coming of the railroad that opened the Lower Pecos to colonization in 1881.
Within the diverse body of art classified as historic, an internal chronology can be proposed based on subject matter, artistic conventions, and cultural affiliation. In the earliest paintings, the artists seem concerned with the novel aspects of Spanish material culture that most engaged the attention of native people - domestic livestock, especially horses; permanent architecture, usually in the form of mission churches; items of wearing apparel such as hats, belts, and boots; and weapons. Since no missions were established in the Lower Pecos region, the models for the churches that so intrigued the authors of the early paintings must have been images carried in the mind's eye - from San Antonio, San Bernardo, Santa Fe, or Monclova - wherever the missionaries put down roots long enough to build the edifices shown in the pictographs. This initial innocence soon gives way to an increasing awareness of the consequences of contact. Hostility is graphically expressed by scenes of “killed” churches, horsemen, and soldiers. The arrival of the Plains Indians about 1700 CE is manifested in paintings of hand-to-hand combat, horse theft, bison hunts, sun symbols, and thunderbirds. A subtle shift in the physical setting becomes evident as the needs of the horse culture are expressed in a preference for shallow overhangs near more accessible water holes with plenty of grazing area as opposed to the steep canyon contexts of the earlier art styles. In the end, the amalgamation of European techniques and native subject matter produced vivid, naturalistic paintings that, like a candle, flared briefly before extinction.