For most students of archeology, “Clovis” conjures up a vision of a distinctive spear point like the one shown on the left and of small groups of “big game” hunters killing Ice-Age elephants as they migrated across North America. For over five decades the Clovis-first hypothesis—the idea that Clovis hunters were the first people to explore the New World—has been a fundamental part of the story of the peopling of the Americas. Clovis peoples with their remarkably sophisticated hunting technology were seen as the first pioneers, highly mobile hunters who walked to North America via the Bering Land Bridge. Once below the Ice Sheet, small groups of Clovis hunters and their families expanded rapidly across the continent killing mammoths so effectively that the species was pushed over the brink of extinction. Or so the standard story goes.
In the past decade, the Clovis-first hypothesis has come under attack from many directions. There have been multiple claims of earlier, pre-Clovis sites in North and South America, none totally accepted, but several very credible. And then there are the early skeletal remains found in North America, such as the controversial Kennewick Man, whose features are said to more closely resemble certain Caucasian populations than later Native Americans. Adding to this, some stone tool experts have made a case for a close resemblance between Clovis technology and that of Late Paleolithic Europe. In the last few years these claims, pro and con, have been reviewed in Time, Newsweek, New Yorker, National Geographic and on the Discovery Channel, among others.
Meanwhile at the Gault site deep in the heart of central Texas, Clovis culture is being reconsidered week by week, midway through a planned five-year dig. The emerging view hardly resembles the Clovis story known to generations of archeology students. Instead of a new group of people exploring an unknown land, we seem to see a people thoroughly familiar with their surroundings. Instead of highly mobile elephant hunters, we see what looks like a full-blown generalized hunting and gathering culture living in the same kind of places and doing many of the same kinds of things that characterized Archaic-era life all across the continent a few thousand years later. This is more than a new spin, this is a whole new way of thinking about what is still, to many, America’s earliest recognizable culture.
A new view of Clovis culture is taking hold. Clovis peoples may not have been the pioneers who first settled North America. Leaving aside the direct evidence for pre-Clovis sites, there is this: Clovis artifacts are known from all 48 of the lower states plus southernmost Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and northern South America. These continent-wide localities occupy a tremendous range of environments, from coastlines to mountains and almost everything between. The inescapable conclusion from these facts alone is that most Clovis peoples were NOT highly mobile, specialized mammoth hunters—they were generalized hunter-gatherers who must have relied on animals of all sizes and a great many plants. The emerging data from the Gault site lend very strong support to this interpretation.
In addition to what has already been mentioned, here are several more examples of the kinds of evidence from Gault that reinforce this view. Among the bones found in the Clovis deposits are turtle bones, burned frog bones, burned bird bones, and small mammals yet to be identified. In Clovis faunal assemblages across North America, the most commonly identified animals are not elephants—they are turtles. And the Clovis diet was not based on animals alone. This, of course, is obvious anyway because humans can’t live for long on just meat. But at Gault, use-wear studies are already finding evidence of a wide range of contact materials including the stunning example of the Clovis blade with the highly developed use-wear signature of grass cutting. While grass-cutting may not have been for food (the tall grasses of the Black Prairie are ideally suited for thatching and bedding), it is another indication of the diversity of behaviors that are being documented at the Gault site.
It should not seem surprising at all that Clovis peoples were more than one-dimensional. They were, as we are learning at Gault and elsewhere, much more interesting people who adapted to a wide range of environments and climates and behaved like generalized hunters and gatherers of the later Archaic cultures of North America. Contrast this with Folsom culture, the quintessential specialized big game hunters of the Plains. All known Folsom sites occur within or near the Great Plains and prairies of the midcontinent. And all of the Folsom sites with animal bones have extinct bison bones. No Folsom caches are known, suggesting perhaps that Folsom peoples were so mobile and so focused on “encounter” hunting strategies, that they did not plan ahead by caching materials for the future. Folsom peoples did not make much use of the prismatic blade technology, perhaps because blade cores are heavy things that don’t travel well. The ultra-thin Folsom bifaces are light and the thinning flakes struck from them well suited for making Folsom points and other artifacts. Clovis is anything but Folsom-like.
For now, this is where we leave the story of Gault and of Clovis reconsidered. Clovis culture will never be seen again in the same light, as it has for so long. The Clovis-first hypothesis—with all its implications of specialized big-game hunters—is all but shattered. While it hasn’t been proved beyond doubt that pre-Clovis peoples existed in North America, Clovis peoples weren’t anything like those described by the long-held ideal. If they were the first pioneers, as many archeologists still believe, they were exceptionally adaptable and extremely fast learners (not to mention prolific breeders) for whom killing mammoths was just one of many successful strategies. The results of work at the Gault site in central Texas will help lead researchers, students, and the public to a much more sophisticated and accurate understanding of Clovis culture.
The Gault exhibit was written by Steve Black. The Clovis Reconsidered section is based on interviews with Dr. Michael B. Collins. Clark Wernecke, Jon Lohse, and Marilyn Shoberg provided photographs and information.