Was Clovis Culture the First Sign of Humans in the Americas After All?

New report focusing on undisturbed archaeological layers finds no proof of humans in the Americas below the ice sheet earlier than 13,000 years ago

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Clovis points from the Rummells-Maske site in Iowa.
Clovis points from the Rummells-Maske site in Iowa.Credit: Bill Whittaker
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Clovis first, after all? When humans reached the Americas is unknown. It is agreed that humans were thronging North America by 13,000 years ago, which in and of itself indicates the first arrival was earlier. The question is, how much earlier. Now a new paper argues that there is no satisfactorily-proven sign that humans had spread below the continental ice sheets more than 13,000 years ago.

The “Clovis First” theory says that the people associated with the “Clovis culture” were the first humans to reach the Americas, roughly 13,000 years ago. The hallmark of Clovis culture is fluted stone tools and distinctive bone tools, though fluted stone tools have been found elsewhere, including in prehistoric Saudi Arabia.

The Clovis First theory has ruled the paleo-roost for decades, but has been challenged in recent years. Now a new study published in April in PLOS One revisits the conundrum. Looking at archaeological sites possessing good stratigraphic integrity, meaning the archaeological layers were not disturbed, the team concludes: There is no sign that humans arrived in the Americas, spreading beyond the ice sheets, earlier than 13,000 years ago.

“Clear signs of discrete and minimally disturbed archaeological components do not appear south of the ice sheets until the Clovis period,” lead author Prof. Todd Surovell of the University of Wyoming and the team write.

Their study is a smack on the cheek for pre-Clovis hope. Several exciting claims have been made in recent years, including the purported discovery of stone tools from about 33,000 years ago in Mexico, and human footprints in New Mexico dating to 23,000 years ago. These and several more discoveries, if accurately dated and identified, would indicate a “pre-Clovis” arrival date – Clovis referring to a paleo-Indian culture in North Africa dating back around 13,000 years, named after the town in New Mexico where the hallmark “Clovis-type” stone tools were first noticed (together with bison bones) in the 1920s.

“I have seen many splashy claims hit the pages of Science and Nature, and 10 years later it is determined that they aren’t what they are initially claimed to be,” Surovell explains.

A Clovis point, dating to 11,500 to 9,000 years ago, Sevier County, Utah.Credit: Daderot

To be clear: The team is not stating that humans only reached the Americas in the so-called Clovis period. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. They are stating that based on undisturbed sites, there is no evidence of pre-Clovis occupation of the Americas below the continental ice sheet.

One supposedly pre-Clovis site is Buttermilk Creek in Texas. A wealth of “undisturbed” stone tools there were originally reported in 2011 to underlie a layer dating to Clovis, which, if true, would mean they predate Clovis. These tools were dated to 15,500 to 13,200 years. But a critique in the Journal of Archaeological Science published the following year posits that they were Clovis-period tools after all and that the site had been disturbed.

In the case of the supposedly 33,000-year-old Mexican tools, skeptics suggest they were not; they were just rocks. “There is nothing clearly made by human hands there,” says Surovell. Another disbeliever pointed out to Haaretz that if tools they were, they were stunningly backward – a regression of a million or two years in technique.

Regarding the 23,000-year-old footprints reported in New Mexico, Surovell says that dating assessment is being revisited by the very people who published it.

Another argument for pre-Clovis arrival suggested that a decline in the spores of a specific fungus, Sporormiella, in pond sediment in Indiana dating to the Late Glacial period indicates that megafauna were dying off, suggesting that people had arrived and were eating them. Thing is, another paper argued, the megafauna were alive and kicking at the time; and the fungus’ decline may have been due to climate change, not “relaxed herbivory.”

The most extreme of the pre-Clovis arguments is the Cerruti Mastodon site in southern California, where in 2017 a not-small team reported in Nature that they had identified a 130,000-year-old archaeological site. Tom Deméré and colleagues reported finding in situ hammerstones and stone anvils associated with a mastodon that, the researchers suggested, had been butchered and even had its marrow extracted.

A Clovis projectile point created using bifacial percussion flaking.Credit: Locutus Borg

No question, hunting elephantids and extracting the marrow from their long bones was a hominin thing in the Levant and Europe at least. We may well have met the elephant tribe in North America when we did arrive – but in California almost 120,000 years before humans were known to have arrived?

Critics howled. One paper ascribed the so-called marrow-extraction-crushing injury to the mastodon bones to Homo sapiens indeed, but operating heavy machinery – “modern construction equipment better explains the mastodon bone damage than does the handiwork of ancient hominins.”

The bottom line, the PLOS One paper finishes, is that there are multiple early Beringian sites with undisturbed layers dating to 14,200 to 13,000 years ago, above the ice sheets; and below them – nada, until the Clovis period. But by 13,000 years ago we were definitely in the Americas. And we were butchering its remaining elephantids.

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