The Early People
The Clovis Complex
The oldest easily identifiable American culture. It is so named from the first important site examined, in 1932, near Clovis, N.M. The culture lasted for about a half a millennium, from about 11,200 to 10,900 years ago. People of the Clovis culture were successful, efficient big-game hunters and foragers. Judging from sites on the North American Great Plains, the Clovis people were especially fond of mammoth and bison. We do not know whether the hunters attacked mammoth individually or in groups, but it's likely they often ambushed the animals at watering places, spots where the soft ground impeded movement. A single animal could provide meat for weeks on end, and if dried, for much of the winter, also. Not that the people used all the meat they butchered. Whenever they killed a mammoth, they only partly dismembered the carcass, taking away some choice parts with them. Bison carcasses were more heavily utilized and less was left at the kill sites. Presumably, the hides, tusks, bones, and pelts were used to make household possessions, subsistence tools, for shelter, even clothing.
It would be a mistake to think of the Clovis people merely as big-game hunters. Undoubtedly they also took medium-sized animals like deer, and small rabbits and other mammals as well. During spring, summer and fall, they also must have exploited wild plants for nutritional, medical, and industrial purposes, as well perhaps as fish and other aquatic resources when the occasion arose. While the hunting of large mammals was important, and the people wandered far and wide in search of them, we can be sure that there were many distinctive adaptations to locally plentiful and predictable resources.
Clovis toolkits were highly effective, lightweight, and portable, as befits people who were constantly on the move. Their stone technology was based on precious, fine-grained rock that came from widely separated outcrops, ones that were exploited for thousands of years afterwards by later people. Their most famous, celebrated, and distinctive part of their toolkit were their fluted projectile points. The typical Clovis point is leaf shaped, with parallel or slightly convex sides and a concave base. The edges of the basal portions are ground somewhat, probably to prevent the edge from severing the hafting cord. Clovis points range in length from 1 1/2 to 5 inches (4 to 13 centimetres) and are heavy and fluted, though the fluting rarely exceeds half the length. Some eastern variants of Clovis, called Ohio, Cumberland, or Suwannee, depending on their origin, are somewhat fish tailed and also narrower relative to length. Exactly how these points were hafted is unknown, but the men probably carried a series of them mounted in wooden or bone foreshafts that worked loose from the spear shaft once the head was buried in its quarry. The Clovis people became successful hunters, often killing mammoth, mastodons, huge bison, horses and camels throughout the great plains of North America and into northern Mexico. Also associated with Clovis are such implements as bone tools, hammerstones, scrapers, and unfluted projectile points. Besides projectile points, the Clovis people used bifacially trimmed points and other woodworking and butchering artifacts, as well as flakes used simply as sharp-edged, convenient tools in their struck-off form.
In many ways, the Clovis people seem to appear by magic on the North American continent. The assumption has been that their ancestors moved south from Alaska, pursuing their favorite prey, the mammoth. However, there are no Clovis sites in either Alaska or Canada; likewise, there are no technological antecedants for Clovis anywhere in the Americas nor are their any technological antecedants in northeast Asia, extreme eastern Asia, or anywhere in Asia. So from where did the Clovis people come - or at least, from where did their technology of producing finely crafted, fluted spear points, come?
Some scientists have speculated that the ancestors of the Clovis people perfected their distinctive toolkits and fluting techniques while in route, via the (in)famous "ice-free corridor", from Alaska to the great plains of North America. Other scientists have suggested that the ancestors of the Clovis people lived SOUTH of North America since there are isolated hints of human settlement earlier than 11,500 years ago (the earliest time Clovis appears in North America), at places like Monte Verde in southern Chile and Pedra Furada in Brazil. Alternately, there are a few sites in North America which pre-date Clovis, such as Meadowcroft Rockshelter, in western Pennsylvannia, and Pendejo Cave in New Mexico, and it may be that these sites represent not only a Pre-Clovis population, but one technologically ancestral to Clovis.
Recently, several scientists have suggested that the technological ancestors of Clovis lie in Europe, specifically on the Iberian peninsula and France, with the so-called Solutrean culture. According to archaeologist Dr. Bruce Bradley, both the Solutreans and the Clovis folks made beveled, crosshatched bone rods, idiosyncratic spear points of mammoth ivory, and triangular stone scrapers. And while independent invention could account for these similarities (i.e., finding the same solutions to the same questions), the oldest Clovis tools are not on the Great Plains, or in the Great Basin or Southwest of the U.S. - where they should be if the Clovis people trickled in from Siberia and then fanned out across the continent - but rather they are found in the eastern and southeastern regions of the U.S. It's possible that Ice Age Europeans may have crossed into North America by boats, hugging the edges of the great ice sheets that stretched from Greenland westward to what is now upstate New York.
Around 10,500 years ago, Clovis abruptly vanish from the archaeological record, replaced by a myriad of different local hunter-gatherer cultures. Why this happened no one knows but their disappearnce coincides with the mass extinction of Ice Age big-game animals, leading to speculation that Clovis people either overhunted these mammals and drove them into extinction or over-hunting eliminated a "keystone species" (usually the mammoths or mastodon) and this led to environmental collapse and a more general extinction.
CLOVIS PEOPLE 11,540 YEARS
Aubrey Site a Deep, Undisturbed Camp
When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created Lake
Ray Roberts with a 2-mile-long dam on the Elm Fork of the Trinity River
north of Denton, Texas, they had to dig an artificial channel to connect
the spillway to the natural river channel some distance downstream. As fortune
would have it, the Corps had been contracting with C. Reid Ferring, an
archaeologist with particular expertise in late Quaternary geology of the upper
Trinity basin. Dr. Ferring, of the Institute of Applied Sciences at the
University of North Texas, recalls the December day in 1988 that resulted in
discoveries that are providing better understanding of Clovis people.
"On a Saturday, almost literally on the
last day of our field work, I took my son out to this channel because Cretaceous
bedrock is exposed there and there are good fossils," Ferring said in a
recent telephone interview. His ulterior motive was to examine the Quaternary
alluvium that lay above the bedrock. "I had deduced some years earlier that
the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary should be very deeply buried below the
floodplain," he said, but until the Corps cut the 35-foot-deep outlet
channel through the thick alluvium, his deduction, which conflicted with
previous geologic theory, could not be proved or disproved.
"When we walked down in there, the first
things I found were bison bones, Pleistocene mollusks and lacustrine
sediments." The hunt for Cretaceous fossils would wait. "I ran right
back and called the Corps and said 'I think we have some late Pleistocene
material in this, and it's full of fossils--we really should study it.'"
Three days later Ferring and Corps officials walked into the channel excavation.
"We found a Clovis point and five flakes."
Test excavations revealed more evidence of
Clovis occupation--in situ--under about seven meters of alluvium. "The more
we tested, the more it became clear that we had a really complex occurrence,
with multiple areas of activity."
What followed was a year-long excavation with a
full crew, with support from the Corps of Engineers. Ferring seems to have been
the perfect investigator for this Clovis discovery, termed the Aubrey site,
after the nearby town of about 1,100 residents. A Texas native, he had a
doctorate in archaeology from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, about 50
miles to the south, with a dissertation on Old World lithic technology--Upper
Paleolithic blades. He had done field work in Israel as well as in Texas. Soon
after earning a Ph.D., he found he wanted to know much more about geology and
started taking some classes. Two years ago he completed a second doctorate,
having done a dissertation on late Quaternary geology of the upper Trinity
"So I spent years and years working within
50 miles of my house, and Aubrey is eight miles from my house." The
fortuity, Ferring agrees, is incredible. "It was really serendipitous that
I found the Aubrey site, because that site had to be excavated
His research has revealed that the Corps of
Engineers had sliced across an extensive Clovis camp that lay beside a seasonal
spring-fed pond, which had formed in a depression left where the river had run
against a bluff of Cretaceous bedrock between 25,000 and 15,000 years ago. Some
gradual filling of the pond had occurred before Clovis people camped beside it.
Soon after Clovis time, deposition of alluvium became more rapid, eventually
burying Pleistocene deposits under several meters of Holocene deposits. Had it
not been for the construction of the artificial channel, the Clovis camp would
have remained a secret of time.
The channel excavation provided only a single
transect through the site. That transect, however, eventually revealed four
distinct areas of Clovis activity. There was the pond area with a bison-butchery
area at its west edge, unmodified blades, and a feature Ferring believes was a
well; east of the pond area was a camp with multiple-surface hearths,
tool-making and tool-sharpening debris, a lithic-processing area, an area where
discarded tools were tossed, and faunal remains including bison, deer, turtles,
fish and small game; and about 100 meters farther east, adjacent to the
Clovis-age river channel, was an area that yielded four elephant ribs and
evidence that biface and uniface lithic tools had been resharpened. Ferring has
recently found a fourth cluster eroding out near the Clovis-age river channel
still farther east.
There apparently was only one Clovis occupation
and because no later peoples occupied the site, there is no chance for confusion
with younger archaeological materials; Ferring and his team have carefully
analyzed Aubrey stratigraphy from the surface down through the Pleistocene
sediments deposited on Cretaceous bedrock.
The Aubrey team excavated a 50-square-meter
block in sediments where the pond had been and did limited excavations west of
the pond. The investigators also examined a 115-square-meter block in the camp
area east of the pond and a 65-square-meter block about 125 meters farther east
beside what had been the river channel.
Chronology of the Aubrey site has resulted in a
significant lengthening of the generally accepted duration of Clovis culture.
When analyzed by accelerator mass spectrometer, two samples of charcoal from the
Clovis camp yielded ages of 11,540 +/- 110 (AA-5271) and 11,590 +/- 90 years
before present. Those dates are causing some authorities to call Aubrey the
oldest reliably dated Paleoindian site in North America. They prove that Clovis
traditions persisted for at least 600 years, twice as long as many investigators
had thought. At one time, some prehistorians suggested that Clovis was a brief,
perhaps spasmodic, tradition that quickly diversified into subsequent
Paleoindian traditions. Now, Clovis must be seen as relatively stable over a
long period, as well as over the continent.
What impresses Ferring about Aubrey's lithic
assemblage is that the tools are characterized by heavy usage. "They're not
the complete points that somebody found on the surface, but the majority of the
artifacts are resharpening flakes, and they're in nice little clusters where
people resharpened things. You can see scraper resharpening pieces and biface
resharpening pieces. They were using tools like crazy in this camp, but the
number of tools we recovered is very small." All matrix from the site was
Blade technology is represented by diverse
blade blanks and blade tools. Though no evidence of on-site blade core reduction
was found, Ferring reports recovery of a chalcedony core tablet that suggests
blade core maintenance in another part of the site, unless the tablet had been
brought in as an expedient tool blank.
Aubrey is typical of Clovis sites in that the
tool material all came from distant sources. Other than cobbles of Tertiary
quartzites and petrified wood, Ferring says, there is no knappable raw materials
within almost 40 miles. The source of the nearest tool material at the site is
about 200 miles away. "They were carrying stone from tremendous
distances," says Ferring, but identifying exactly where it all came from is
proving a challenge.
After returning from field work in the Caucasus
last summer, Ferring went to inspect the Aubrey site, where flooding had caused
some erosion. Downstream from where the elephant ribs had been recovered, he
discovered a new clue to the activities of the Clovis people. "I found a
mammoth metacarpal," he said. "It was on the surface, not in situ, but
most probably it eroded from the area where we found the ribs."
At the time of that original find, alongside
the river's paleo-channel about 100 meters east where the crew was working in
the big excavation at the camp site, Ferring discovered a bit of lithic debris.
"I found another cluster of chips, just six or seven chips on the
surface," he recalled. "So we put some test pits in and sure enough
there was another cluster of about 3,500 artifacts." The raw materials were
the same as those being found in the camp, but the tools and debitage patterns
were different. There was a big cluster of 1,500 resharpening flakes all in one
pile. "I knew somebody had sat down there to resharpen bifaces. The
question was, why right there? There was hardly any fauna in this part of the
The first clue to the puzzle came after the
Corps of Engineers released a flow of water. "As soon as we could get back
in there, here were these ribs coming out about four meters from where the
lithics were found." It was impossible to investigate the paleo-channel
area, but his recent discovery of the mammoth bone makes Ferring suspect that
the people had butchered a mammoth down there. "They climbed up that slope
to resharpen their bifaces while they butchered," he theorizes.
the Far Side of Possibility
Discovery of the Aubrey site illustrates the
difficulty of finding new records of Clovis occupation. If it weren't for the
construction of an artificial river channel through more than 25 feet of black
Texas clay, it might never have been discovered--and as it is, much of the
Clovis encampment may still lay buried beyond the bounds of the U.S. Army Corps
of Engineers project.
"The invisibility of Clovis sites in this
region now is less of a surprise than it was," says C. Reid Ferring,
principal investigator of the Aubrey site. "Now people are saying we don't
know how many Clovis sites are out there. Traditional survey methods can never
Might core-drilling be the answer? Perhaps not.
Ferring, who holds doctorates in both geology and archaeology, carefully studied
logs of the Corps' bore holes in the channel site, but these did not even
provide clues to the existence of the Clovis-age pond or the spring. "The
big question, of course, is how large is that site?" he said.
"I drilled bore holes all around the site
area--40- to 50-foot-deep bore holes." The cores enabled Ferring to
determine that the pond was about a quarter of a mile long, and allowed him to
map the land area between the pond and the river channel that had been the site
of the Clovis camp. But the cores revealed nothing of the occupation.
"Subsurface detection of these kinds of
things is going to be really difficult, to say the least," Ferring said.
Discovery of Aubrey, he says, should serve to remind us that maps of the
continent that indicate where Clovis points have been found "are terrible
indicators of where we might to expect to find Clovis sites."
The very geologic processes that preserve signs
of early human occupation by burying them under sediments are likely to cover
them so deeply they might never be found. Clovis-age occupations, of course,
will necessarily occur on surfaces created at the end of the Pleistocene, and
though sediments marking the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary are about 30 feet
deep in the Aubrey area, that boundary lies under 50 to 60 feet of alluvium
farther down the Trinity River in the Dallas area.
Aubrey is considered the easternmost of
"Western" Clovis sites, but perhaps a continuum of such camps, hidden
under Holocene deposits, is spread across the continent.
 The Center For The Study Of The First Americans, --Don Alan Hall
C. Reid Ferring, http://www.bigchalk.com/cgi-bin/WebObjects/WOPortal.woa/wa/HWCDA/file?fileid=109420&flt=CAB