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.


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 basin.

"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 geologically."

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 fine-screened.

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 site."

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.

At 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 find them."

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.[1]


[1]  The Center For The Study Of The First Americans, --Don Alan Hall

C. Reid Ferring,