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K. Kris Hirst

Pre-Clovis in Texas: the Debra L. Friedkin Site

By March 24, 2011

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In the March 25th, 2011 issue of Science magazine, Michael R. Waters and associates report on the discovery of the Debra L. Friedkin site, a multicomponent archaeological site in Texas with what looks to be a buried, intact Pre-Clovis site at its base. The Friedkin site's Pre-Clovis occupation dates between 14,350-16,170 years ago (optically stimulated luminescence dates), making it one of the oldest accepted sites in the Americas (assuming it will be accepted). It is located within the floodplain of Buttermilk Creek, a small valley cut into limestone bedrock some 250 meters downstream of the famous Gault Clovis site.

But is it an intact site?

Excavation at the Debra L. Friedkin Site
Excavation at the Debra L. Friedkin Site. Photo courtesy Michael R. Waters

Pre-Clovis in the Floodplain

Floodplain deposits are dicey to interpret, because of the way they come into existence. Essentially, terraces along creeks, streams and rivers are built up naturally during flood events. Floods, especially flashy ones, erode soil out from places higher in the streamshed and move it downstream where it's deposited in thin layers. Over time, the thin deposits can add up to substantial landforms. Most of the Friedkin site profile, down through the Early Archaic period levels, was probably laid down by natural processes; that is to say, when the flood events eroded soil, they also picked up artifacts and dropped them in the area of the Friedkin site.

Waters and his colleagues are arguing, however, that the Pre-Clovis and Paleoindian layers represent in situ occupations, that people in these groups actually did live on the creek terrace. They're basing that interpretation on the lack of artifact sorting and the presence of refits in these levels, compared to the higher levels at the site. Basically, artifacts that have been laid down by natural forces have certain characteristics: they're size-sorted. Water sorts artifacts by size and weight before dumping them out. If you're making a stone tool, you get tiny, small, medium and large-sized pieces scattered randomly in a circle around you; if that collection of artifacts is flooded, the tiny stuff floats to the top, and the heavy stuff drops out first: that's size sorting.

At the same time, fluvial deposits are random collectors, that is to say, fluvially-collected artifacts may not be associated with one another and in fact may have been eroded out of more than one site. Refits--when two pieces of a broken artifact fit together and are found close together--are evidence that the breakage occurred on site, and not elsewhere and transported in by random flooding.

  • Refits are quite an interesting study in archaeology, so feel free to read more about refits

Artifacts from the Pre-Clovis Occupation at Debra L. Friedkin Site
Artifacts from the Pre-Clovis Occupation at Debra L. Friedkin Site. Photo courtesy Michael R. Waters

This in situ evidence is an important argument for Waters and associates to make, because the Gault site, an enormous Clovis site (Gault is the largest Clovis site ever discovered, with over 600,000 artifacts), is located upstream from the Friedkin site, and if the artifacts were fluvially-placed, Gault could be their source. Artifacts similar to the Pre-Clovis artifacts found at Friedkin have been recovered at the Gault Clovis occupation. Gault's location upstream from Friedkin is also why Waters and his colleagues were so careful about compiling a large suite of dates, to support the integrity of the stratigraphy.

Bottom line: Is Friedkin a Pre-Clovis occupation, or the relocation of artifacts from Gault? There are no features at Friedkin, and artifacts are limited to stone tools and debitage; but the artifacts don't seem to be size-sorted, and there are refits among them. You wouldn't necessarily expect to find features or charcoal at a temporary camp suggested by the assemblage. In my opinion, the evidence is pretty strong for an in situ occupation, but clearly there are some caveats to be considered.

Waters and colleagues believe Friedkin is the latest evidence for Pre-Clovis in North America; based on the OSL dates that it certainly is. I would argue that Friedkin doesn't put the nail in the coffin for Clovis-First theories, because I suspect that theory is already dead anyway.

Sources and further Information

Waters MR, Forman SL, Jennings TA, Nordt LC, Driese SG, Feinberg JM, Keene JL, Halligan J, Lindquist A, Pierson J et al. 2011. The Buttermilk Creek Complex and the Origins of Clovis at the Debra L. Friedkin Site, Texas. Science 331:1599-1603.

News Reports


March 25, 2011 at 12:26 pm
(1) rick doninger says:

15,000 “artifacts” and 56 “tools” and 1 core makes one wonder where all the other tools went or if that is indicative of how much waste was involved in the reduction process. I wonder if that is sufficient for them to claim a pre-clovis technology different from clovis. With such a very few actual “tools” from all of the proposed pre-clovis sites combined(less than a couple hundred) I would say it is quite a leap to lay claim on a new pre-clovis technology, but it sure appears that that is what may be being said. I can see the real possibility that they are just into some downstream debitage from Gault clovis and if so that certainly could water down the headlines. Are these 56 “tools” so remarkebly different from clovis to be identified as something unique and will their morphology play that great a role in the conclusion of a pre-clovis tech? One core is a long way from identifying a new technology but it should be sensational enough to keep the funding and donors alive. They are to be commended for their persistance in the search for understanding our true history. jmo

March 28, 2011 at 6:23 pm
(2) Charles Dohogne says:

Perhaps someone should do some digging UPstream of the Clovis site??

March 28, 2011 at 6:34 pm
(3) Richard Guy says:

I maintain that elevations above sea level should play a major role in any Archaeological investigation. It could be in fact the arbiter in this case. Inland seas covered North America Millions of years ago: that is generally known. As these seas receded the native population followed the downward progression of the sea. Clovis is 4000 feet above sea level today: When Clovis man lived there it was very close to sea level. The recent finds unearthed by the Bebra L Freidkin site should be aware of this sea level anomaly. The crux of the matter is wether the elevation above sea level relates comparatively with the Clovis site elevation above sea level. I personally would like to know?

March 28, 2011 at 7:02 pm
(4) Charles Dohogne says:

I taks strong exception to the statement that Clovis has climed 4000 feet in 12000 years!! I had Geology 101, way back when, do not remember anything moving that fast, other than a volcano, perchance.

March 28, 2011 at 8:18 pm
(5) larry lahren says:

I liked the quote on the NPR hype, ” the artifacts are so small because they liked to travel light” So maybe we are looking for Pre-Clovis-Lite peoples.

December 17, 2011 at 1:32 am
(6) Richard Welch says:

It is virtually impossible that Asians could have reached the American heartland prior to the Bolling interstadial of ca. 14,500 years ago. Since some of the Texas material dates older than that, the site — along with Cactus Hill and Meadowcroft — supports the theory that the first people to reach the New World were actually from Europe. In short, some version of the Solutrean hypothesis is nearly inescapable (see Roots of Cataclysm, Algora Publ. NY 2009).

November 21, 2012 at 6:58 pm
(7) solkoski says:

The material looks like material I recovered photographed at site in NW Durango State Mexico Rio los Veultas country

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