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The (Pre) History of Clovis

Early Colonizers of the American Continent

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Clovis from North America

Clovis from North America

Clovis points, Center for the Study of the First Americans, Texas A&M University
Clovis Site Well

Glen Evans at the site of an Archaic period well at Blackwater Draw

David J. Meltzer (c) 2005
Archaeological Excavations at the Gault Clovis site

Archaeological Excavations at the Gault Clovis site

[Image courtesy of the Center for the Study of the First Americans, Texas A&M University]

Clovis is the name archaeologists have given to the earliest well-established human culture in the North American continent. Clovis were the first big game hunters of the Paleoindian tradition, although they were probably not the first people in the American continents. The first people are tentatively called Pre-Clovis, I suppose for lack of a better terminology.

Clovis archaeological sites are dated between 11,000-10,800 RCYBP (which converts to circa 12,500-12,900 calendar years before the present) and they are found pretty much throughout North America. The point and culture are named after the town in New Mexico near where it was first identified, although the name of type site is officially Blackwater Draw Locality 1.

Clovis Life Styles

The Clovis people were primarily, but not exclusively of course, big game hunters of megafauna, now extinct forms of large bodied animals like mammoth, bison, horse and camel, hunted using a highly mobile hunting strategy.

Environmental conditions at the time were dry, and it might be speculated that the Americans took up big game hunting (from the mixed hunter-gatherer-fisher strategy of pre-clovis) as an adaptation to drought. But, for whatever reason the people started hunting elephants and horses and bison, the big-game hunting strategy only lasted as long as there were big game to hunt.

The End of Clovis

The end of the big game hunting strategy used by Clovis appears to have occurred very abruptly, sometime about 9,800 to 10,800 RCYBP. The reasons for the end of big game hunting is, of course, the end of big game: most of the megafauna disappeared about the same time.

Scholars are divided about why the big fauna disappeared, although currently they are leaning towards a natural disaster combined with climate change that killed off all the large animals. It's possible that the extinction was helped along by over-kills. Overkills are known from buffalo jumps at the Murray Springs and Head-Smashed-In sites, among others. A buffalo jump is when a herd of buffaloes are purposefully stampeded off a cliff; the hunters then butcher a few of the animals and leave the rest, usually with quite a bit of waste. But, there aren't that many buffalo jumps and no elephant jumps, so, that kind of evidence is not strongly compelling.

One recent discussion of the natural disaster theory concerns the identification of a black mat marking the end of Clovis sites. This theory hypothesizes that an asteroid landed on the glacier that was covering Canada at the time and exploded causing fires to erupt all over the dry North American continent. An organic "black mat" is in evidence at many Clovis sites, which is interpreted by some scholars as ominous evidence of the disaster. Above the black mat are no more "clovis" sites.

Read more about the Black Mat theory

Clovis Sites

Despite the brevity of the culture (between 300-500 years), Clovis sites are found throughout the United States, northern Mexico and southern Canada. Very few large Clovis sites are known--the largest is the Gault site in Texas.

An equivalent big-game hunting lifestyle in South America is characterized by Fishtail Points.

Clovis Sites

Clovis Issues

Sources

This glossary entry is part of the About.com Guide to Paleoindians in America and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Boldurian AT. 1991. Folsom mobility and organization of lithic technology: A view from Blackwater Draw, New Mexico. Plains Anthropologist 36(137):281-295.

Meltzer DJ, and Collins MB. 1987. Prehistoric water wells on the Southern High Plains: Clues to Altithermal climate. Journal of Field Archaeology 14:9-28.

Seebach JD. 2002. Stratigraphy and Bonebed Taphonomy at Blackwater Draw Locality No. 1 during the Middle Holocene (Altithermal). Plains Anthropologist 47(183):339-358.

Smallwood A. 2012. Clovis Technology and Settlement in the American Southeast: Using Biface Analysis to Evaluate Dispersal Models. American Antiquity 77(4):689-713.

Waters MR, and Stafford Jr. TW. 2007. Redefining the Age of Clovis: Implications for the Peopling of the Americas. Science 315:1122-1126.

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