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.

Technology. 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.

Origins. 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.

For additional information on the major Clovis sites visit the Clovis and Beyond web site. The site has brief bios on most of the Clovis sites. Also, there are several photos of Clovis tools.

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Luzia  | Spirit Cave Man  | Buhl Woman
Kennewick Man  | Prince of Whales Island Man  | Clovis


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Nation Peoples of North America

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