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Guide to Western Stemmed Tradition

Paleoindians in the American Deserts


Western Stemmed Points from Paisley Caves

Displayed in the hand of University of Oregon Dennis Jenkins are three bases for Western Stemmed projectiles from the Paisley Caves in Oregon. The bases date to some 13,000 years ago.

Photo by Jim Barlow, ©Science

Western Stemmed Tradition (often abbreviated WST) is what scholars call the material culture left by early Archaic/late Paleoindian hunter-gatherer-foragers who lived in the American western desert. WST people resided in what are now the American states of Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Nevada and Colorado beginning at least 12,300 radiocarbon years ago (RCYBP, which calibrates to 14,150 calendar years ago [cal BP], using InterCal09). WST are believed to be contemporaneous with or perhaps slightly younger than Clovis: although the contemporaneity is contentious among some scholars.

Clovis and WST

In a 2010 article in American Antiquity, Beck and Jones described their thesis that WST derives from descendants of Preclovis peoples, who entered the New World along the Pacific Coast (known as the Pacific Coast Migration [PCM] model). Not all scholars are in agreement, indeed with the PCM model (see Fiedel and Morrow): but it's safe to say the majority do in fact believe PCM is a plausible hypothesis.

The Clovis/WST debate stems from the long-time presumption in American archaeology that Clovis point makers were the original colonists. Clovis has a distinguishing characteristic of a channel flaked vertically up the point called a "flute"; WST points are stemmed points without fluting. A problem with Clovis being first has always been the lack of similar lithic technologies in eastern Asia, where the first American colonists are widely presumed to have come from. There are stemmed points in Asia: they are not, however, directly tied to WST. The identification of preclovis sites in South America, and the fairly wide acceptance of the Pacific Coast Migration model has opened this debate yet again.

Evidence supporting the WST as earlier than Clovis in the Great Basin region at least came in 2012 at Paisley caves (Jenkins et al. 2012). Clovis sites are found throughout the eastern and central North American continent, dated between 12,500-12,900 cal BP.Also discovered at Paisley are four Western Stemmed projectile point fragments, in layers dated between 10,200-12,140 RCYBP (11,860-13,990 cal BP). These predate Clovis in the northwestern United States: Jenkins et al. argue that the two technologies were parallel innovations, WST in the northwest, and Clovis in the Plains and east.

Stone Tools at WST

Stone tool assemblages from Western Stemmed sites include the Western Stemmed point, a projectile point with several morphologies made on a flake, a thick, curved piece of stone chipped from a core. The WST category of point includes indented bases (such as Windust), lanceolate forms (Haskett), side-notched (Silver Lake), straight stem (Lake Mohave) and contracting stem versions (Cougar Mountain, Lind Coulee and Parman). WST forms are not fluted, although the assemblages occastionally include fluted and unfluted lanceolate forms.

Points with long, thick stems (such as Cougar Mountain) are believed to have been inserted into socket hafts and would have been used primarily as knives, although some tip damage suggests they may have been used as projectiles as well.

Recent studies of dacite core reduction strategies (Jones et al. 2003) suggests that side-struck flakes were the preferred flake blank, which were then reduced at the quarry site and transported. Most stemmed points are manufactured from volcanic materials, such as dacite, andesite and obsidian. Other WST tools, included fluted and unfluted lanceolate forms, are typically made from locally available cherts. Source obsidian quarries used for WST points have been identified regional: Jones et al. 2003 have used these to construct regional foraging patterns.

The toolkit also includes gravers, spurred endscrapers, side, concave, and beaked scrapers, drills, and notched flakes. Bifacially flaked crescentic-shaped stone tools, called crescents, are also common.

WST Archaeological Sites

  • Coopers Ferry site (Idaho, 11,410 and 11,370 RCYBP)
  • Lind Coulee (Washington, 9,810-10,250 RCYBP)
  • the Buhl burial site (Idaho, 10,675 RCYBP)
  • C.W. Harris site (California, 8,490-9,030 RCYBP)
  • Smith Creek Cave (Nevada 10,570-11,140 RCYBP)
  • Paisley Caves (Oregon, 10,200-12,100 RCYBP)


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Paleoindian, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Beck C, and Jones GT. 2010. Clovis and Western Stemmed: Population Migration and the Meeting of Two Technologies in the Intermountain West. American Antiquity 75(1):81-116.

Beck C, and Jones GT. 2012. Clovis and Western Stemmed Again: Reply to Fiedel and Morrow. American Antiquity 72(2):386–390.

Erlandson JM, and Braje TJ. 2011. From Asia to the Americas by boat? Paleogeography, paleoecology, and stemmed points of the northwest Pacific. Quaternary International 239(1-2):28-37.

Fiedel S, and Morrow JE. 2012. Comment on “Clovis and Western Stemmed: Population Migration and the Meeting of Two Technologies in the Intermountain West” by Charlotte Beck and George T. Jones. American Antiquity 72(2):376–385.

Gilbert MTP, Thomsen PF, Binladen J, Willerslev E, Jenkins DL, Götherstrom A, Naveran N, Sanchez JJ, Hofreiter M, Higham TFG et al. 2008. DNA from Pre-Clovis Human Coprolites in Oregon, North America. Science 320(5877):786-789.

Jenkins DL, Davis LG, Stafford Jr. TW, Campos PF, Hockett B, Jones GT, Scott Cummings L, Yost C, Connolly TJ, Yohe II RM et al. . 2012. Clovis Age Western Stemmed Projectile Points and Human Coprolites at the Paisley Caves. Science 337:223-228.

Jones GT, Beck C, Jones EE, and Hughes R. 2003. Lithic Source Use and Paleoarchaic Foraging Territories in the Great Basin. American Antiquity 68(1):5-38.

Jones GT, Fontes LM, Horowitz RA, Beck C, and Bailey DG. 2012. Reconsidering Paleoarchaic Mobility in the Central Great Basin. American Antiquity 77(2):351–367.

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