By Dale Weisman
The Stone Age peoples of the Americas go by many names: Paleoindians, Paleo-Americans, First Americans, Pleistocene peoples, and Clovis culture.
Many archeologists have long believed that Clovis culture was the oldest Paleoindian tradition, flourishing briefly during the late Pleistocene epoch from roughly 13,500 to 13,000 years ago. Clovis culture is defined by a signature lithic (stone tool) technology – large bifacial spear points thinned and fluted (grooved) at the base, presumably to ease attachment to the shafts of spears and atlatl darts. These beautifully crafted Clovis points embodied the Swiss Army knives of their time, used to hunt Pleistocene megafauna and also serving as trade goods, burial offerings, and perhaps status symbols.
Clovis culture gets its name from Clovis, New Mexico, near a “kill site” called Blackwater Draw, where archeologists found fluted Clovis points next to mammoth bones in the 1930s – unequivocal proof that Clovis culture dated to the late Pleistocene. Similar Clovis kill sites and caches of Clovis artifacts have turned up across North America, with the heaviest concentration in the Southeast. The rarest type of Clovis site is the base camp, epitomized by the famous Gault site in Bell County in Central Texas, the largest known source of Clovis artifacts to date.
Throughout the 20th Century, most Paleoindian experts believed that Clovis was the first culture of the Americas. According to this “Clovis-first” theory, highly mobile big-game hunters from Central Asia crossed the Beringia land bridge connecting Siberia to Alaska when sea levels were much lower than today at the end of the last Ice Age. They proceeded south through an ice-free corridor between glaciers and spread throughout the Americas in a lethal blitzkrieg, hunting mammoths and other megafauna to extinction. Or so the old theory goes.
“We honed the Clovis-first theory for more than 70 years, but a few of us for a long time thought there were an awful lot of flaws in the model,” says Clovis expert Mike Collins. He is among a growing number of experts who believe that humans reached the Americas long before the Clovis tradition appeared.
Paleo-experts are also challenging the “overkill theory” that Clovis big-game hunters wiped out all the megafauna. A more plausible theory suggests that the mass extinction of megafauna in the Americas resulted from climate change at the end the last Ice Age, causing shifts in ecosystems and plant communities that ultimately doomed ill-adapted mammals. Others point to the possibility of highly infectious hyper-diseases introduced by humans or even a cataclysmic comet or meteor impact. Many experts now believe the extinction process in the Pleistocene was gradual and complex, involving the interplay of human and climatic pressures.
The Clovis-first model began to crumble in the 1970s and ’80s when archeologists discovered numerous “pre-Clovis” sites in North and South America with lithic artifacts predating Clovis occupation by hundreds and even thousands of years. In recent years, the Gault site and neighboring Laura L. Friedkin site along Buttermilk Creek in Central Texas have yielded definitive evidence of human occupation much older than Clovis. Lithic artifacts unearthed at the Friedkin site date back 15,500 years, and similarly ancient stone tools have been excavated at the Gault site. Discoveries like these have shattered the Clovis-first model, and nowadays pre-Clovis advocates greatly outnumber “Clovis-firsters.”
“The term ‘pre-Clovis’ has become tainted,” cautions Collins. “To some it means Clovis ancestors. To others it simply means something older than Clovis. I prefer ‘older than Clovis.’ Clovis used to be the beginning, and now it is the midpoint for the chronology of human presence in the New World.”
Although the age of Clovis-first orthodoxy has come to an end, there is no general consensus for a new model for the peopling of the Americas. Some experts speculate human migrations came in waves along multiple routes and over many thousands of years. In addition to walking to the New World, Pleistocene peoples also could have migrated by watercraft and traveled down one or both coasts. After all, prehistoric humans reach Australia by sea 50,000 years ago – they had boats!
“I think the Americas were peopled on the Pacific side from Asia and on the Atlantic side from Europe, and both populations began to spread,” says Collins.
One of the most controversial migration models is the “Solutrean hypothesis.” This model proposes that people from the Solutrean culture, which existed in Spain and France 15,000-21,000 years, crossed the ice-bound North Atlantic in animal-skin boats, similar to Inuit sealskin kayaks, reaching the eastern seaboard of North America and evolving into the Clovis culture. Proponents of the Solutrean model point to the similarity of each culture’s lithic tools and tool-making techniques, but skeptics and critics dismiss the theory as implausible if not impossible. The “Siberia versus Iberia” migration debate rages on, and fresh discoveries of artifacts older than Clovis raise new questions.
“This is an exciting time in archeology because it is so open and there are so many hypotheses for the peopling of the Americas that should be investigated,” says Eileen Johnson, executive director of the Museum of Texas Tech University in Lubbock. “Shutting the door on new ideas and saying people were not here before Clovis stifles creative thinking. Science is about pushing the envelope, looking at new ideas and testing hypotheses.”
For further reading on Paleoindians, the peopling of the Americas, Texas prehistoric archeology and Pleistocene mammals, find these books at your local library, bookstore or Amazon.com.
From the August 2012 issue.