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Clovis: On the Edge of a New Understanding

Clovis: On the Edge of a New Understanding

by Ashley M. Smallwood

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New research and the discovery of multiple archaeological sites predating the established age of Clovis (13,000 years ago) provide evidence that the Americas were first colonized at least one thousand to two thousand years before Clovis. These revelations indicate to researchers that the peopling of the Americas was perhaps a more complex process than previously


New research and the discovery of multiple archaeological sites predating the established age of Clovis (13,000 years ago) provide evidence that the Americas were first colonized at least one thousand to two thousand years before Clovis. These revelations indicate to researchers that the peopling of the Americas was perhaps a more complex process than previously thought.
The Clovis culture remains the benchmark for chronological, technological, and adaptive comparisons in research on peopling of the Americas.

In Clovis: On the Edge of a New Understanding, volume editors Ashley Smallwood and Thomas Jennings bring together the work of many researchers actively studying the Clovis complex. The contributing authors presented earlier versions of these chapters at the Clovis: Current Perspectives on Chronology, Technology, and Adaptations symposium held at the 2011 Society for American Archaeology meetings in Sacramento, California.

In seventeen chapters, the researchers provide their current perspectives of the Clovis archaeological record as they address the question: What is and what is not Clovis?

Editorial Reviews


"The look and feel of solid chapters written by highly competent archaeologists, and edited for readability and uniformity by equally competent editors. Well illustrated and the references are invaluable.Well worth having on the shelf." --Antiquity
Great Plains Research

"An Important update to our understanding of the Clovis complex." — Great Plains Research

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On the Edge of a New Understanding

By Ashley M. Smallwood, Thomas A. Jennings

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2015 Texas A&M University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62349-228-1



By Ashley M. Smallwood

Edgar B. Howard's visit to the Blackwater Draw site in Clovis, New Mexico in 1932 marked the beginning of decades of archaeological work. In the spring of 1933, Howard's excavation crew found fluted lanceolate points, distinct from points found at the Folsom site, in direct association with the remains of extinct elephant and bison (Figgins 1933; Howard 1933, 524). Since this initial discovery, the definition and characterization of the Clovis technocomplex have been developing and expanding.

Early Discoveries and Definitions of Clovis

Clovis became recognized for its characteristic bifacial point, a type defined by Wormington (1957, 263) as a lanceolate-shaped point with flutes that originate at the base and extend no more than half way up to the tip. With the discovery of additional Clovis sites throughout the Plains, Sellards (1952) offered a broader definition of the Clovis complex, which he termed the "Llano complex." The proposed Llano toolkit included Clovis points, bone implements, hammer stones, smaller non-fluted points, and scrapers. Other hints of important technological traits were also emerging. In 1963, Green (1963) was the first to link blade production to Clovis people, and he highlighted the importance of a unique behavior known as "caching." Yet, early Clovis technological studies focused on discoveries and descriptions of finished Clovis points.

Early definitions of the timing of the Clovis period hinged on the deposition and association of Clovis points with the remains of extinct Pleistocene megafauna. At Blackwater Draw, Clovis points were found in situ, stratigraphically below deposits with Folsom points, proving the antiquity of the Clovis archaeological record (Sellards 1952). The earliest explanation of the process of Clovis migration into North America was based on the geological evidence of a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska (Meltzer 2009). Based on the work of Canadian geologists, Howard and Antevs predicted that the first Clovis colonizers entered North America sometime between 20,000 and 15,000 years ago over the Bering Strait and through an ice-free corridor into the Great Plains (Meltzer 2009). In 1964, C. Vance Haynes (1964, 1411) reported the first radiocarbon ages from five stratigraphically secure Clovis sites in the Plains and Southwest. His evaluation reduced this time range to between 11,500 and 11,000 radiocarbon years before present.

The repeated associations of Clovis points and extinct Pleistocene megafauna from kill sites shaped early perceptions of Clovis adaptations (Haynes 1964; Wormington 1957), and Clovis people were described by Sellards as "the elephant hunters" (Sellards 1952, 17). To Martin (1973), hunting not only characterized Clovis subsistence, but it also explained Clovis colonization. Mosimann and Martin's (1975) Wave-of-Advance simulation model proposed that Clovis big-game hunters explosively spread southward into the Americas leading to the demise of Pleistocene megafauna through overkill. This was the first Clovis model to address the nature of colonization on a continental scale.

Significant Advances in Clovis Chronology, Technology, and Adaptations

Since the 1980s, research of the Clovis complex has greatly intensified. The discovery of new sites and the refinement of dating, sourcing, excavation, and analytical techniques have led to new emerging definitions of the timing of the Clovis period, the organization of Clovis technology, and the complexities of Clovis lifeways.

Building on the work of Haynes (1964), Waters and Stafford (2007) redated 11 Clovis sites using modern purification techniques and redefined the age of Clovis to a narrower time range between 11,050 and 10,800 radiocarbon years before present (RCYBP). When calibrated to calendar years, they conclude Clovis flourished for a period of 200 to 400 years. Improvements to the radiocarbon calibration curve (Hua et al. 2009) also demonstrate that Clovis began before and persisted into the early phase of the Younger Dryas, which began approximately 12,800 calendar years ago. Researchers continue to refine our understanding of the timing and nature of Younger Dryas climate changes and the potential impacts on early Paleoindians (Meltzer and Holliday 2010; also see the papers in Straus and Goebel 2011). Defining the timing of the Clovis period is not only critical to understanding the process by which Clovis spread throughout the continent, but also how Clovis groups adapted to terminal Pleistocene environmental changes.

Significant advances in Clovis lithic studies began with the experimental work of Crabtree (1972), Sollberger (1977), and Callahan (1979). Their replicative experiments shifted the focus from finished point form and typology to a more thorough understanding of Paleoindian reduction techniques. Specifically, Callahan's (1979) general description of the process of biface production illustrated aspects of technology now considered unique to the Clovis complex (Bradley et al. 2010). Based on artifact assemblages from the High Plains, Bradley (1993) provided detailed descriptions of Clovis biface production and highlighted the importance of two distinct Clovis thinning techniques known as overshot flaking and fluting. Other site-level analyses by Morrow (1996) and Huckell (2007) demonstrated the prevalence of these diagnostic manufacturing strategies in Clovis biface assemblages throughout North America. Likewise, Collins (1999) brought blade production to the fore-front, and his work has shown that Clovis blade technology also involved diagnostic reduction techniques.

The ubiquity of Clovis across the continent, most clearly shown by the distributionof Clovis points in the Paleoindian Database of the Americas (Anderson et al. 2010), has led many researchers to attempt to explain how the complex developed and spread. Current perspectives of Clovis adaptations have grown increasingly complex. While archaeologists recognize that Clovis groups hunted megafauna, debate has developed regarding the relative importance of big-game in the Clovis diet. Generally, two competing perspectives have emerged, and subsistence strategies continue to factor prominently in modeling Clovis settlement. Some of these models highlight big-game hunting and high mobility, while others emphasize broad-spectrum diets and slower-paced settlement. Some models suggest the spread of Clovis was a rapid dispersal fueled by a subsistence strategy focused on mobile big game (Haynes 2002; Kelly and Todd 1988; Martin 1973; Waguespack and Surovell 2003), and alternative models propose Clovis dispersal was a slower-paced, step-wise process influenced by regional resources (Anderson 1990; Meltzer 2004).

An underlying driving force in recent research has been the evaluation of multiple archaeological sites in the Americas that date older than the established age of Clovis (Adovasio and Pedler 2004; Dillehay 1997; Gilbert et al. 2008; Joyce 2006; Waters et al. 2011a; Waters et al. 2011b). These sites provide evidence that the Americas were first colonized at least 1,000–2,000 years before Clovis and show that the peopling of the Americas was a complex process (Dillehay 2009; Goebel et al. 2008; Meltzer 2009; Pitblado 2011; Waguespack 2007). The Clovis record is at the crux of this debate, and Clovis remains the benchmark for chronological, technological, and adaptive comparisons in peopling of the Americas research. Discoveries have sparked renewed interest in these questions: what are the origins of Clovis? did Clovis spread via population dispersal or cultural transmission? and how does Clovis compare to other early archaeological complexes in the Americas?

Thus, early research efforts built a Clovis chronology, recorded technological traits, and described Clovis lifeways. These studies have molded our perceptions and interpretations of the nature of Clovis. New site discoveries and research approaches have broadened the geographic, chronological, and technological boundaries. Now, we are faced with an interesting new complexity—the need to refine what we mean by "Clovis."

Volume Organization

This volume brings together the work of many researchers actively studying the Clovis complex. The authors first presented these papers in a symposium (Clovis: Current Perspectives on Chronology, Technology, and Adaptations) held at the 2011 Society for American Archaeology meetings in Sacramento, CA. In the 16 chapters that follow, the researchers provide their current perspectives of the Clovis archaeological record as they address the questions—what is and what is not Clovis?

Part I addresses Clovis chronology, with reports of when the Clovis period began, when it ended, and how long the Clovis complex lasted. In this section, Fiedel discusses the impact of the 14C plateau and the calibration of radiocarbon dates on the interpretations of the timing and spread of Paleoindians. Prasciunas and Surovell reevaluate the duration of the Clovis period. Through computer modeling, they consider the problem of the small sample size of dated Clovis sites and how this affects estimates of the duration of Clovis.

Part II consists of lithic studies that document the geographic and technological limits of Clovis and investigate regional variation. Rondeau expands the sample of fluted points reported for the Far West and identifies evidence of Clovis technology, as well as fluted regional variants and temporal variants he indicates are distinct from Clovis. Reid, Hughes, Root, and Rondeau are the first to report a dated Clovis site in the Intermountain West, and based on this date and the associated artifacts, they suggest this site shares characteristics with classically defined Clovis technology rather than the "western fluted" forms. Morrow describes Clovis lithic technology in the Midcontinent and compares this technology to Gainey and Folsom fluted point production sequences. Ultimately, Morrow concludes that Gainey and Clovis points were manufactured differently, and Gainey has greater affinities to the later Folsom period points. Eren and Desjardine report an alternative perspective of the Lower Great Lakes. They argue that sites representing the earliest Paleoindian phase in this region possess the suite of technological traits traditionally used to define the Clovis complex and, therefore, may be unnecessarily referred to as Gainey. Morgan, Eren, Khreisheh, Hill, and Bradley investigate Clovis stone tool reduction techniques, specifically bipolar reduction—a poorly understood Clovis core technology. They find that Clovis stone workers at Paleo Crossing in the Lower Great Lakes region used bipolar reduction as an expedient production technique and possibly as an effort to conserve some types of raw material. Kilby examines the occurrence of Clovis blades and blade cores in cached assemblages. He suggests that distinctions in the geographic distribution of caches with blade technology, which predominately occur in the Southern Plains, reflect important differences in the way Clovis people in the region used resources and organized technology. Smith, Smallwood, and DeWitt use geometric morphometric shape analysis to explore the geographic limits of Clovis point variation. They compare Clovis points from securely dated sites and a sample of points from sites in the eastern United States to begin defining the morphological limits of Clovis point technology.

Finally, Part III includes site-level and regional analyses that explore Clovis subsistence and settlement adaptations. Through archaeofaunal analysis, Ballenger suggests that the upper San Pedro Basin of southeastern Arizona was a terminal Pleistocene biotic refugium, and he argues that in this unique setting Clovis hunting significantly impacted the mammoth population. Holliday reviews the distribution and contexts of Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene archaeological sites in the southwest US and northwest Mexico. Based on geoarchaeological evidence, he provides insights about site preservation and visibility and highlights distinctions between Clovis and Folsom landscape use. Sanchez, Holliday, Carpenter, and Gaines present new evidence of the Clovis record in Sonora, Mexico, and consider Clovis resource and landscape use in the region. Bement and Carter report a Clovis bison kill at the Jake Bluff site located in the Southern Plains. According to the authors, this site reflects the development of new hunting strategies during the late Clovis period. Jennings employs hunter-gatherer mobility theory to compare the Clovis and Folsom records on the Plains. He argues that Clovis bands in the Southern Plains were logistically mobile and only seasonally hunted large game. Gingerich and Kitchel review floral and faunal data from fluted point sites in eastern North America. Using optimal foraging models, they argue Clovis subsistence cannot be defined as a lifeway solely based on the hunting of megafauna. Daniel and Goodyear consider the spatial distribution of Clovis points in North Carolina. By mapping raw material distributions, the authors identify two Paleoindian settlement systems in the state and introduce evidence for a regional Clovis macroband centered on the Uwharrie Mountains.

The volume concludes with Goebel's summarizing chapter. He highlights important contributions of each research chapter and ties the volume together by placing each study within the broader contexts of Paleoindian research. Lastly, Goebel offers his thoughts on the current state of Clovis archaeology and proposes future research directions.

The papers in this volume are a testament to the enduring significance of Clovis research. With continued discoveries suggesting pre-Clovis occupations of the Americas, it is more important than ever to refine our understanding of the nature of Clovis chronology, technology, and adaptations. In many ways, the papers in this volume support the earliest definitions of Clovis, but in other ways, they also challenge them. With the addition of new sites and the reevaluation of data at multiple scales, these papers contribute new information to the question of what it means to be "Clovis."


The Clovis-Era Radiocarbon Plateau

By Stuart J. Fiedel

In 1999, I suggested that a reversal of radiocarbon ages just before the Younger Dryas onset had affected the dating of Clovis sites (Fiedel 1999). This inference was based upon analysis of dates from annually stratified sediments in the Cariaco Basin off Venezuela, in Lake Suigetsu in Japan, and in several varved Central European lakes. I also noted that 14C dates from single well-dated Clovis contexts (such as Lehner, Anzick, Murray Springs) and the ostensibly contemporaneous Goshen site at Mill Iron might be as late as 10,700 or as early as 11,200 or even 11,400 RCYBP. Acknowledging that this span might simply demonstrate the inherent imprecision of radiocarbon dating, instead I proposed an alternative explanation: that the apparent "wiggle" from ca. 11,400 RCYBP at the start of the Intra-Allerød Cold Period, down to 10,700, then back up to 11,000 before the YD-onset "cliff" when dates dropped sharply to 10,600, might be a real phenomenon reflecting climate-linked fluctuations in atmospheric 14C content.

Over the next few years, radiocarbon dating of the floating Allerød-age tree-ring sequence from Central Europe (Kromer et al. 2004) demonstrated the reality of the abrupt fall-off in radiocarbon age at the Younger Dryas onset (which I have referred to as a "cliff" by analogy with the term "plateau" that is regularly applied to periods of static radiocarbon age). The dated rings also revealed the existence of two century-long plateaus or age inversions during the late Allerød, at ca. 10,950 and 11,050 14C years, just before the YD onset (Litt et al. 2003, 11). The same plateaus also seem to be present in high-resolution uranium thorium (TIMS) dates on a coral from the Huon Peninsula of New Guinea (Burr et al. 2004). The tree rings also showed that there was a serious problem with the Cariaco record of the Allerød. Evidently, the marine reservoir effect in the Atlantic Ocean had fluctuated during this period (Bondevik et al. 2006, Litt et al. 2003), which resulted in a 200-year disparity between the corrected ages of Cariaco varves and the equivalent coeval tree ring dates. This meant that the IntCa198 calibration, based on Cariaco, had to be corrected.

Now, it is universally accepted that the radiocarbon cliff at the YD onset is somehow causally linked to the abrupt climate change at that time. For reasons that are not well understood (weakened sun? reduced absorption at the colder ocean surface?) there was a sudden small increase in the amount of 14C in the atmosphere. However, the calendar age of YD onset is still not precisely fixed (Fiedel 2011). Based on changes in deuterium and oxygen isotopes, which are proxies for changing wind patterns and atmospheric and sea surface temperatures, the most recent analysis of Greenland ice layers (NGRIP) puts YD onset at 12,860 CALYBP (taking "present" as 1950) (Steffensen et al. 2008). However, another recent study of varved sediments in a German lake (Meerfelder Maar) dates the onset at 12,680 CALYBP, when wind strength and temperature changed abruptly (Brauer et al. 2008). It must be noted that these varves are still explicitly tied to the short GRIP ice core chronology, which European paleoclimate researchers have always preferred to the older dates from the American GISP2 project. But GRIP has now been superseded by the revised NGRIP chronology, which is much closer to GISP2. Bakke et al. (2009), cognizant of this revision, resolve the dating problem by pushing the Meerfelder Maar record back by ca. 200 years, to fit their chronology for Lake Krakenes in Norway. Changes in the lake's sediments show a clear YD onset signal at 12,850 cal BP, synchronous with NGRIP. The Cariaco varves, proxies for changing trade winds, agree with GISP2 in showing a 1300-year long Younger Dryas, vs. the 1100 years of GRIP and the European varves (Lea et al. 2003). At Cariaco, the 14C cliff corresponds exactly to the YD onset (12,820±30 [Lea et al. 2003]) (this is unaffected by the reservoir problem). Surprisingly, Swiss and German tree ring researchers in 2004 tied their floating sequence to Cariaco and GISP2, rather than GRIP, so that they placed the cliff at 12,950 cal BP (Kromer et al. 2004). However, Hua et al. (2009) revised the age of the cliff, based on wiggle- matching of three tree ring sets: a floating record from Tasmania (which requires a correction for interhemispheric offset); the oldest fixed rings from Europe (now going back to 12,550 cal BP); and the recent end of the floating Allerød-age rings. This new chronology puts the cliff at 12,760 CALYBP; this date has been incorporated in the latest IntCa109 calibration curve (Reimer et al. 2009). Another recent study used the record of beryllium from Greenland ice to infer an even later date of 12,650 CALYBP for the cliff (Muscheler et al. 2008).


Excerpted from Clovis by Ashley M. Smallwood, Thomas A. Jennings. Copyright © 2015 Texas A&M University Press. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

ASHLEY M. SMALLWOOD is director of the Antonio J. Waring Jr. Archaeological Laboratory in the department of anthropology at the University of West Georgia. She is coeditor, with Mike Waters, of Clovis Lithic Technology: Investigation of a Stratified Workshop at the Gault Site, Texas. THOMAS A. JENNINGS, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of West Georgia, is also coeditor of Clovis Lithic Technology.

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