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The Oldest Weapon Discovered in North America is a 15,000-Year-Old Spearhead
The weapon has archaeologists rethinking America's earliest settlers.
Archaeologists in Texas have discovered what they believe are the oldest weapons ever found in North America: spear-point tips from 15,500 years ago. Ostensibly used to hunt game, the weapons offer new insight about the continent's earliest settlers, according to a new paper published in Science Advances.
The weapons, which were found at a site in Texas named for its landowner, Debra L. Friedkin, appear to predate the Clovis people, a paleo-Indian culture believed to have settled North America some 13,000 years ago, during the final stages of the Late Pleistocene era. A team from Texas A&M, Baylor University and the University of Texas found the tools buried near Buttermilk Creek, Texas, in a layer underneath spearheads from the Clovis and the Folsom traditions (the Folsom people lived later&mdashfrom 9,000 to 8,000 BCE).
The spear points were a momentous find, said Michael Waters, distinguished professor of anthropology and director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M, in a press release. Prior to the discovery, spear points hadn't been found at any pre-Clovis sites.
"The dream has always been to find diagnostic artifacts&mdashsuch as projectile points&mdashthat can be recognized as older than Clovis, and this is what we have at the Friedkin site," he said.
In short, small finds of archeological evidence from Florida, Wisconsin, Washington and Oregon have started to convince scientists that the Clovis were not the first peoples in North America, and that humans settled here closer to 14,000 to 15,000 years ago. These spear points support that idea. "The findings expand our understanding of the earliest people to explore and settle North America," Waters said. "The peopling of the Americas during the end of the last Ice Age was a complex process and this complexity is seen in their genetic record. Now we are starting to see this complexity mirrored in the archaeological record."
It's been a good year for finding important stuff just lying around. Earlier this year, scientists found what they believe to be Europe's oldest bronze sculpture, tools in India that were made before humans were supposed to have left Africa, and even some extremely old bread.
What’s the Point: All about Clovis Points
This is the second post in a new series called “What’s the Point?” Allen Denoyer and other stone tool experts will be exploring various aspects of technologies and traditions.
(February 9, 2021)—In this post, I’ll explain how people made Clovis points and what is important to look at in order to recognize them. You’ll see that it’s possible to read a Clovis point like a map.
Over most of North America, 12,000 to 13,000 years ago, ancestral Indigenous people were making distinctive fluted projectile points known as “Clovis points.” Clovis points are easily recognized because of their large size, their exquisite craftsmanship, and the beautiful stones toolmakers chose for them. Although there are regional differences in style, the technology for making the points is the same.
Hunters used these dart points to bring down mammoths and other now-extinct large game animals. Through their mobile lifestyle, people subsisted on these and other animals, as well as plant foods.
Clovis archaeological sites are rare. Points are found at single-episode kill sites, multiple-episode kill sites, campsites, in caches, and as isolated artifact finds. Campsites and caches are extremely rare finds.
Our best information on how Clovis points were made comes from caches. One cache seems to have been with a burial, but the purpose or meaning of other caches is not clear. Caches often contain earlier-stage bifaces, unused finished points, and even some reworked points. Points in a cache typically show a wide range of stone types, often from long distances apart, which suggests these people were traveling great distances to obtain high-quality stone.
Casts of three points from a cache at the East Wenatchee Clovis site in Washington state.
Casts of five points from the Fenn cache, which may have come from the area where Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah meet.
Clovis points range in size. At the time of manufacture, the average Clovis point was probably about 4 to 5 inches long. The vast majority of these points were broken when they were used, however, and re-sharpened if possible. Experts think hunters may have used the largest examples as knives or on thrusting spears to finish off an injured mammoth.
The large point is more than 8.5 inches long. It is from the East Wenatchee cache. The small white point is from the Lehner Clovis site near Herford, Arizona, and is about 1.25 inches long. The blueish one is made out of chert from Arizona’s Whetstone Mountains. It is from a private collection.
These points from Utah are good examples of what archaeologists usually find in the field. All of these points were found in campsites, which is where hunters would have changed the points out of their foreshafts. The two points in the image at right are heavily patinated, showing their great antiquity. The point at left was re-sharpened while in the haft. All are made of chert and chalcedony.
Flake Maps Reveal How People Made Clovis Points
This is an illustration of a replica point that shows a lot of the flaking details you can expect to see on Clovis points. Note the colors, which will guide the following discussion.
This is the map we will follow to understand how Clovis points were made.
The yellow flake scar is a basal thinning flake called a flute. Both faces of a Clovis point were often fluted in the final stages of manufacture. In technological terms, this is a percussion biface thinning flake struck from the base. These flute flakes usually extend about one-third of the length of the point. The point bases were thinned for hafting.
The basal margins are heavily ground to about the length of the flutes. The black line outside the point indicates the ground area. Grinding covers the area of the point that would have been wrapped in its haft. No preserved examples of hafted Clovis points have been found.
A Clovis point I made and hafted into a wooden foreshaft. The haft is wrapped in rawhide and covered with a layer of pitch.
Here are some examples of fluting and flute flakes. Flute flakes are very distinctive.
Flute flake placed back on finished point. The surface flake scars are parallel to the long axis of the flake.
The light green flakes are called percussion flakes. These were struck during the earlier stages of manufacture, using an ivory or antler tool (which flintknappers call a billet). Those strikes left broad flake scars across the biface. The wide spacing between flakes allowed faces to be thinned with only three or four flakes, sometimes.
People used early-stage bifaces as cores for striking the large flakes that would become points and tools. Overshot flakes travel all the way across bifaces and remove some of the margin on the opposite side of the biface. This is a common thinning strategy in Clovis.
The purple flakes are pressure flakes from the final finishing work on the point. Some points show very little pressure flaking, and others show much more extensive pressure flaking.
It appears that Clovis points often started out mostly percussion flaked. Through use and reshaping, they came to have have more extensive pressure flaking across their surfaces. Clovis knappers took care to preserve the flute scars, and did not pressure flake across them if they could help it.
The final step was the heavy grinding to margins of the base. This was done to all finished points, and is a good indicator that the maker considered the point to be finished.
This Clovis point from Naco, Arizona, is quite thick. It has extensive pressure flaking across its surfaces. This seems common among points found at the Naco, Murray Springs, and Lehner mammoth kill sites. These sites are all from the same area along the San Pedro River in southern Arizona. It is likely they are all from a single group of hunters utilizing this area for a period of time, probably hunting the last herds of mammoths in the area.
The first clear evidence of human activity in North America are spear heads like this. They are called Clovis points. These spear tips were used to hunt large game. The period of the Clovis people coincides with the extinction of mammoths, giant sloth, camels and giant bison in North America. The extinction of these animals was caused by a combination of human hunting and climate change.
Clovis Spear Point, c. 11,000 B.C.E., flint, 2.98 x 8.5 x 0.7 cm, found Arizona © Trustees of the British Museum
How did humans reach America?
North America was one of the last continents in the world to be settled by humans after about 15,000 BC. During the last Ice Age, water, which previously flowed off the land into the sea, was frozen up in vast ice sheets and glaciers so sea levels dropped. This exposed a land bridge that enabled humans to migrate through Siberia to Alaska. These early Americans were highly adaptable and Clovis points have been found throughout North America. It is remarkable that over such a vast area, the distinctive characteristics of the points hardly vary.
Typical Clovis points, like the example above, have parallel to slightly convex edges which narrow to a point. This shape is produced by chipping small, parallel flakes off both sides of a stone blade. Following this, the point is thinned on both sides by the removal of flakes which leave a central groove or “flute.” These flutes are the principal feature of Clovis or “fluted” points. They originate from the base which then has a concave outline and end about one-third along the length. The grooves produced by the removal of the flutes allow the point to be fitted to a wooden shaft of a spear.
The people who made Clovis points spread out across America looking for food and did not stay anywhere for long, although they did return to places where resources were plentiful.
Clovis points are sometimes found with the bones of mammoths, mastodons, sloth and giant bison. As the climate changed at the end of the last Ice Age, the habitats on which these animals depended started to disappear. Their extinction was inevitable but Clovis hunting on dwindling numbers probably contributed to their disappearance.
Although there are arguments in favor of pre-Clovis migrations to America, it is the “Paleo-Indian” Clovis people who can be most certainly identified as the probable ancestors of later Native North American peoples and cultures.
© Trustees of the British Museum
B. Fagan, Ancient North America (London, 2005).
G. Haynes, The Early Settlement of North America: The Clovis Era (Cambridge, 2002).
G. Haynes (ed.), American Megafaunal Extinctions at the End of the Pleistocene (New York, 2009).
D. Meltzer, First Peoples in a New World: Colonizing Ice Age America(Berkeley, 2009).
S. Mithen, After the Ice: A Global Human History 20000-5000 BC (London, 2003).
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Despite their differences, both the North America and Arabian techniques can fairly be called fluting, argue Crassard, Michael Petraglia from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and archaeologists and anthropologists from France, the United States, Australia and Kuwait in the Plos One paper.
The fluted American tools, at least the original Clovis ones, seem to have served as spear points and were probably used to kill the last mammoths and other toothsome megafauna.
The actual Clovis culture lasted only around 500 to 1,000 years it was followed by the Folsom, Cumberland, Barnes and other North America cultures which also arose and passed on quite rapidly. Altogether these early groups lasted perhaps some 3,000 years. Possibly their rapid rise and fall had to do with difficulty transiting from being colonizers of unoccupied space &ndash requiring new adaptations and behaviors &ndash to being settlers, suggests anthropologist Dr. Metin Eren of Kent State University, a Clovis expert who was not involved in the Arabian research.
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More to the point, the original Clovis-culture inventors of fluting may have passed it on to their immediate descendants, who passed it on, et cetera. Or, given the differences between fluting patterns in paleo-North America &ndash perhaps the technology emerged more than once just in the context of the New World, as well as in Arabia some millennia after the Clovis and post-Clovis cultures had disappeared, says Eren.
He warmly applauds the discussion in the new paper by Cressard et al of convergent evolution in the case of the North American and Arabian fluted tools.
&ldquoIn just the last couple of years we have learned that convergence in stone tools is so much more common than we thought,&rdquo Eren tells Haaretz: &ldquoFor production reasons and mechanical reasons and physical reasons and functional reasons, people were reinventing the tools over and over again throughout the entire Stone Age and after. We&rsquore all the same species and all pretty smart and come to the same solutions when facing similar problems.&rdquo
Examples of convergence beyond fluted tools include the Levallois knapping technique named for a site in France, which emerged in the Old World perhaps as long as half a million years ago &ndash and seems to have been rebirthed in Clovis tools, despite separation by continents and several hundred thousand years. Completely different people were performing the same technique in vastly different times and places. Actually, fluting could be seen as a subset of Levallois, Eren suggests. &ldquoWhat to do to achieve a successful flute is very similar to what do to get a successful Levallois flake,&rdquo he says.
Other examples of convergence in tool technology include serrating on the edges of stone knives and similar types of hide scraping tools, Eren adds.
No question about it, fluting is a huge pain and has been estimated to result in the breakage of one out of every four or five projectile points in the process, which begs the question of why anybody in their right mind would do it. The payoff has to be commensurately valuable.
So how utile were the fluted tools anyway? Ostensibly removing a chunk from either side of a projectile&rsquos base, as was done in the Americas, would make it more brittle. But Eren and his colleagues demonstrated that although fluting tools from the base is tedious and tricky and about one in four or five the tool shatters in the process &ndash which must have been frustrating &ndash thinning the base actually makes the stone point more shock-absorbent.
Yes, the paleo-Indians were putting shock absorbers on their spears.
&ldquoThink of a car crashing into something. The front end crumples, protecting the people inside. It&rsquos a shock absorber,&rdquo Eren explains.
Now if one stabs a mammoth with a great big spear that has a fluted spear point, it turns out that the fluted base &ldquocrumples&rdquo a bit, absorbing stress and sparing the sharpened point. Not quite like one&rsquos car, he hastens to clarify &ndash tiny bits of stone chip off the fluted base, yet remain inside the haft. The end result is a better, more utile spear. The end.
Over in Arabia, the fluting was from the tip and could get very elaborate &ndash possibly requiring manufacture by a master crafter, Cressard says (some of the later North American examples were also extremely elaborate). That suggests that the Arabian and later American fluted points were made as a sheer display of knapping skills that they played a &ldquosociocultural role.&rdquo
Such specialized knapping is "a way to display someone's skills, this person being part of a group who can then show to other groups their very special skills. It's a whole virtuous circle of social connections," Cressard suggests.
Rmy Crassard CNRS
He and the team point out that at Ad-Dahariz, Oman they found similar fluted and unfluted points which could suggest that the unfluted ones had a functional use and the fluted ones didn't.
It is still possible that the Arabian fluted tips were used as arrowheads, Cressard and the team suggest, noting that knocking bits off from the tip downward made them lighter. For sure the points weren&rsquot fluted for the sake of hafting since the gouges were from their tip, not their base. But absent a clear practical function, Cressard et al postulate a cultural role for the colorful, intricately carved points. They may have been manufactured as a display of skill and/or status &ndash you strangle a bull, I knap an extraordinary point without breaking it.
&ldquoA potentially wasteful display of expertise, fluting may nonetheless signal another expertise: prowess in hunting game while defending one&rsquos own territory or herd,&rdquo the team writes. &ldquoThere was care lavished on delicate tangs and futile fluting&rdquo &ndash which demonstrated great individual skill but conferred little adaptive advantage in the physical requirements of hunting or defense.
In any case Cressard and the team plan future use-wear analysis which will hopefully shed light on the function the Arabian points really served.
Meanwhile, Eren agrees that the function in prehistoric Arabia may well have been to show off, as may also have been the case in some of the more elaborate post-Clovis fluted offerings.
&ldquoIn Clovis it seems very clear that it [fluting] was functional. In later cultures, when it becomes much more elaborate, we are not yet sure if it was functional or symbolic,&rdquo he says. He adds that they haven&rsquot yet tested the post-Clovis North American points to see how well they penetrate prey if they don&rsquot, that would strongly indicate a cultural context too.
Asked if the more elaborate North American tips might have been used as arrowheads, Eren points out that the bow and arrow may have arisen in South Africa some 70,000 years ago, but only reached the Americas, or was reinvented there, between 3,000 to 1,000 years ago &ndash a very late arrival and well after all the Clovis-related cultures were long gone. Spears, however, they definitely had.
Oldest weapons ever discovered in North America pre-date Clovis
Texas A&M University researchers have discovered what are believed to be the oldest weapons ever found in North America: ancient spear points that are 15,500 years old. The findings raise new questions about the settlement of early peoples on the continent.
Michael Waters, distinguished professor of anthropology and director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M, and colleagues from Baylor University and the University of Texas have had their work published in the current issue of Science Advances.
The team found the numerous weapons -- about 3-4 inches long -- while digging at what has been termed the Debra L. Friedkin site, named for the family who owns the land about 40 miles northwest of Austin in Central Texas. The site has undergone extensive archaeological work for the past 12 years.
Spear points made of chert and other tools were discovered under several feet of sediment that dating revealed to be 15,500 years old, and pre-date Clovis, who for decades were believed to be the first people to enter the Americas.
"There is no doubt these weapons were used for hunting game in the area at that time," Waters said. "The discovery is significant because almost all pre-Clovis sites have stone tools, but spear points have yet to be found. These points were found under a layer with Clovis and Folsom projectile points. Clovis is dated to 13,000 to 12,700 years ago and Folsom after that. The dream has always been to find diagnostic artifacts -- such as projectile points -- that can be recognized as older than Clovis and this is what we have at the Friedkin site."
Clovis is the name given to the distinctive tools made by people starting around 13,000 years ago. The Clovis people invented the "Clovis point," a spear-shaped weapon made of stone that is found in Texas and parts of the United States and northern Mexico and the weapons were made to hunt animals, including mammoths and mastodons, from 13,000 to 12,700 years ago.
"The findings expand our understanding of the earliest people to explore and settle North America," Waters said. "The peopling of the Americas during the end of the last Ice Age was a complex process and this complexity is seen in their genetic record. Now we are starting to see this complexity mirrored in the archaeological record."
The project was funded by The North Star Archaeological Research Program and the Elfrieda Frank Foundation.
During the 100,000 years of the most recent Ice Age, while much of the Earth’s water was locked up in the ice caps, the level of the oceans at times dropped by as much as 300 feet. At these times the Bering Strait became dry land, and animals migrated across a wide territory known as Beringia. Species that had evolved in the Old World were able to migrate east these included mammoths, bison and early humans. Horses and camels, which had developed on the American continent, migrated west to Asia and survived there even after they became extinct in the Americas.
Of course, all these movements did not occur suddenly but over immense stretches of time during glacial fluctuations. Mammoths were in the Americas about 1.5 million years ago, while humans were latecomers, probably arriving in various waves of migration between 30,000 and 11,500 years ago. One of the early cultures has been named “Clovis” after a type of spear point found at Clovis, New Mexico.
Although the “Clovis hunters” have for many years been considered to be the earliest known culture in the New World, recent research has modified the traditional idea of the Clovis being the“First Americans.” In a recent issue of Science magazine, authors Michael R. Waters and Thomas W. Stafford, Jr. present a series of new radiocarbon dates on several Clovis sites. Using modern radiocarbon dating techniques, the authors advance the view that the Clovis culture dated from about 13,100 to 12,900 years ago and may have persisted for as little as a few hundred years. If this is correct, this way of life was probably contemporary with other New World cultures such as Folsom and Goshen. [Waters, Michael R. and Thomas W. Stafford Jr. “Redefining the Age of Clovis: Implications for the Peopling of the Americas” in Science 23,February 2007, Vol. 315. no. 5815, p. 1049.]
Clovis Spear Points
Some of the early hunter-gatherers in the American Southwest used very distinctive razor-sharp stone spear points to hunt large mammals including bison, horse, deer, elk, mastodon, and mammoth. Scientists named these spear points “Clovis” after Clovis, New Mexico. The people who used them probably hunted other species of smaller game as well and very likely supplemented their diet with native nuts, roots, berries, and seeds.
No skeletal evidence of these ancient people has yet been found, and our information about their domestic and social life is minimal. As nomadic hunters their belongings would have been few and easily portable from one camp to the next. Small bands of twenty-five to thirty people would likely have ranged over a territory that might extend several thousand square miles, regulating their movements by the season, the amount of game, and the availability of native plant foods.
These hunters seem to have been fairly widespread across North America, but some of the most interesting sites are found bordering the San Pedro River in southeast Arizona, near the Mexican border. At these sites mammoth bones and the bones of other extinct mega-fauna are found in association with fire hearths, Clovis points, and tools.
The fact that some of the earliest Clovis sites contained mammoth bones sparked a popular idea that these hunters lived primarily on mammoth meat. Closer examination makes this appear unlikely. The primary factor would be the enormous size of the Columbian mammoth, which was considerably larger than the Woolly Mammoths discovered in Siberia. A healthy, full-grown male Columbian Mammoth was about 13 feet high at the shoulder and weighed in at some ten tons. His powerful trunk and tusks up to ten feet long were impressive defenses.
To kill such an animal would be a formidable task, especially for humans unequipped with the claws or teeth of such proficient predators as the saber-tooth cats. However, it would have been much less difficult for humans to “finish off” calves or young individuals who were venturing away from the protection of the herd for the first time, especially if they were in some sort of environmental distress (such as a drought), injured, or immobilized in a pit trap. The archaeological evidence supports this thesis since the sites contain almost exclusively the bones of young mammoths near watering places.
Mammoth Sites in Cochise County
At several sites in Cochise County, Arizona, the distinctive Clovis spear points have been found in association with bones of bison, camel, tapir, bear, and horse in addition to mammoth.
Naco Mammoth Site
In August 1951, summer rains brought heavy flooding to the Greenbush Creek a mile northwest of Naco, Arizona, a border town south of Bisbee. Erosion in the arroyo exposed part of a skull with teeth and the tusk of a large animal. Further excavation revealed ribs, vertebrae, and scapula along with eight Clovis spear points of various sizes.
Lehner Mammoth-Kill Site
About ten miles away, the following spring Ed Lehner was inspecting a washout. He found what he judged to be the bones of an extinct animal in an arroyo two miles south of the ghost town of Hereford, Arizona, on the west side of the San Pedro River. He removed a few fragments and took them to the Arizona State Museum where some of them were identified as tooth plates of a mammoth.
Another summer of heavy rains in 1955 exposed more bones, and excavation was begun. Shortly two Clovis projectile points were found among ribs of what was adjudged to be a young mammoth. Although the condition of the bones was poor, elements of eight mammoths were counted as well as bones of numerous bison. Thirteen projectile points, eight cutting and scraping tools, and a chopper were also found. The bones were found in a mixture of sand and gravel. The area was probably a shallow pool which attracted animals as a watering place. Some of the animals found there may have died of natural causes, especially if there had been a drought.
Along with the bones of a varied selection of game including one horse, one tapir, several bison, a camel, a bear, several rabbits and a garter snake, the site contained the first definable fire hearth associated with the Clovis people. The Lehner site also offers a tantalizing mystery: although mandibles (lower jaws) of eight mammoths were recovered in fair condition, not a single skull was found intact. Several masses of crushed bone were found which might have been parts of skulls but these still would not be sufficient to account for all the crania one would have expected to find. The site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1967 and in 1988 was donated by Mr. and Mrs. Lehner to the Bureau of Land Management for the benefit and education of the public. For more information about the Lehner Site, contact the Bureau of Land Management Sierra Vista Office, (520) 458-3559.
Murray Springs Clovis Site
Excavations at the Murray Springs Site, just east of Sierra Vista, were conducted from 1966-71 and revealed a wealth of material about the Clovis hunters. In addition to the bones of a mammoth, North American horse, camel, lion, and dire wolf were found. Bison appears to have been a favorite with the Clovis hunters since the bones of eleven young bison were found. Of course, the animals were most likely killed one by one, perhaps over a period of years, as the nomadic hunters traveled back and forth over their range to check their favorite hunting grounds. It is likely that the young mammoth and bison were ambushed as they came to the water. The site also contained sixteen Clovis spear points and a wrench-type tool fashioned from a mammoth leg bone.
The Murray Springs site is readily accessible by the public since it is located on one of the trails of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. (Removal of any material from the site is, of course, prohibited.) Further information and maps are available for downloading over the Internet at the BLM web site or call the Sierra Vista Office at (520) 458-3559.
At this site twelve miles northwest of Douglas in the Whitewater Draw area, bones of mammoth, horse, bison, antelope, coyote and dire wolf were found associated with artifacts in re-deposited stream sediments. Artifacts included fire-cracked rock, projectile points, and small grinding stones. Although there are hunting tools at the site, the 316 milling stones are the most prominent evidence. The presence of grinding stones has been interpreted to mean that humans were beginning to adapt to the changing environment that followed the end of the Ice Age and the extinction of many of the large mammals. The coming of the Holocene Era (10,000 Before Present Era) brought warmer and drier conditions to the southwest, and people either moved on to other areas or modified their lifestyles to suit local resources.
This Week In Pennsylvania Archaeology
Pre-Clovis populations were very small and sites dating to this time are extremely rare, consisting of less than twenty sites across the continent. However, beginning at 11,200 years ago there is a significant increase in human populations. Clovis spear points appear at thousands of archaeological sites throughout the unglaciated regions of North America. These points are lanceolate in shape, parallel sided, 5 cm to 8 cm long (2 ½ to 3 ½ inches), 2 cm to 3 cm ( ¾ to 1 ¼ inches) wide with flutes that extend no further than the mid-point of the blade. Fluting is a technique whereby a flake was removed from the base of the spear point on each side forming a grove in the blade that extend up the face of the point. The base was indented or slightly concave with grinding on the base and lower lateral edges to protect the lashing that secured the point to the spear shaft. The production of Clovis points has been analyzed in detail and Paleoindian spear point makers followed a specific set of steps for making the point. These are bifacial pieces, that is, flaked on both sides and there is an effort by Native flint knappers to thin the piece of stone. Along with fluting, another technique for thinning the spear point was “over shot” flaking – striking a flake on one side of the point that extended over the midline almost to the other edge. These two techniques, fluting and overshot flaking required a great deal of skill and were used to thin the block of stone to achieve the final product.
|Diagram of hafting technique for Clovis spear points using a bone fore shaft.||Carr and Moeller 2015|
Fluting is a unique stone tool production technique and is only found in the New World and specifically only in North America. It is a difficult procedure and approximately 10 percent of the spears were broken in production. Fluting served to thin the spear point, but why did these people choose such a difficult technique for thinning when there were other techniques to achieve the same goal? The functional explanation for this technique is that it provided a mechanism to secure the point to the spear shaft as exhibited in the figure above. However, its unique form and difficulty to make may have been used by the makers to distinguish themselves from everyone else – a badge of honor and symbol of their group. In addition, brightly colored jaspers and cherts were frequently chosen to make Clovis points possibly incorporating symbolic meanings. Fluting was almost certainly associated with social organization and rituals (Jennings and Smallwood 2019:46). Imagine a ceremony with dancing and singing when a young person successfully fluted their first spear point. Or prayers being given to the spirit of fluting prior to a hunting trip.
Clovis points are almost always made of relatively hard stones that flake well such as chert and jasper, or less commonly, quartzite, and quartz. These rocks have a high silica content that allows for controlled flaking and a more durable edge than other rock types. By tracking the location of the sources of the types of rock used by Clovis people and the distance to where the artifacts were found, archaeologists have been able to determine the size of Clovis hunting territories and their seasonal movements. Paleoindians in general were highly mobile groups, frequently traveling between 200 and 300 km per year: two to three times as large as later groups. For example, the inhabitants of the Shoop Paleoindian site in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania traveled over 350 km. (200 miles) to western New York to collect Onondaga chert to make their tools (Carr, Adovasio and Vento 2013).
Interestingly, Clovis points are found at sites all over North American below the glacial limits as if the spread of this spear point type represents one culture. The oldest dates are in the Southwestern United States, while the highest density of sites are found in the Southeast, so both regions have been proposed as the origin of this technology. In addition, this point type was only used for about 400 years and then it was replaced by other types of fluted points that have longer flutes, some extending to the point tip and points that have a slightly flaring base, giving it a fishtail shape. The prevailing scenario has the invention of fluting taking place somewhere in the southern part of North America by Pre-Clovis people. The idea probably had functional advantages but was also associated with exciting rituals. The idea was widely accepted and spread either by diffusion from one group to another or was carried by rapidly moving small groups across the continent. As these groups settled in new territories, they developed their own style of fluted points and the Clovis style disappears by 10,800 years ago.
Pennsylvania lies on the boundary between the glaciated New England region, that does not have any Clovis points and the unglaciated Southeast which has the highest density of points. Based on the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey files, over 135 Clovis sites have been identified in the Commonwealth. Most of these are located in the river valleys and are associated with major streams. Less than a dozen of these have been archaeologically tested. One of the most important sites in terms of its contribution to our understanding of Paleoindian lifeways is the Shawnee Minisink site located in the Poconos along the Delaware River. This site produced two Clovis points, along with hundreds of hide scrapers and other tools. The scrapers were probably used to process caribou or elk hides into clothing. It was radiocarbon dated to 10,900 years ago (Gingerich 2013) and represents the oldest dated Clovis site in the region and probably represents one of the first groups migrating into the Northeast.
We hope that you have enjoyed this blog on the oldest fluted spear point type in the New World. This is a unique technological weapon that was used in the western United States to kill mammoth and mastodons. In Pennsylvania, caribou were more likely the subject of the hunt. Considering its unique shape and its difficulty in production this point type had symbolic significance and was probably incorporated into social, religious, or political events. Please visit our blog again as we present more in the series on projectile point types found in the archaeological sites of Pennsylvania.
Carr, Kurt W. and James M Adovasio
2020 The Paleoindian Period in Pennsylvania. in The Archaeology of Native Americans in Pennsylvania, Volume I. pp. 59-105. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.
Carr, Kurt W., James M Adovasio and Frank J. Vento
2013 A Report on the 2008 Field Investigations at the Shoop Site (36DA20). In The Eastern Fluted Point Tradition, edited by Joseph A. M. Gingerich, pp. 75-103. University of Utah Press, Salt Latke City.
Carr, Kurt W. and Roger W. Moeller
2015 First Pennsylvanians: The Archaeology of Native Americans in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
1973 The First Americans. The Emergence of Man series, Time-Life books, New York.
2013 Revisiting Shawnee-Minisink. In The Eastern Fluted Point Tradition, edited by Joseph A. M. Gingerich, pp. 218-256. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.
This Fifth Grader Found a 14,000-Year-Old Clovis Point, Likely Unearthed From Hurricane Sandy
Noah Cordle and his family were vacationing on Long Beach Island in New Jersey last summer when a discovery cut his boogie boarding session short. Something pointy brushed against his leg. “It didn’t feel like any of the other shells,” he says. He reached into the water and pulled out an object. Without his glasses on, he thought it looked like an arrowhead or a giant shark tooth. It was about the length of his palm and the color of charcoal. His family contacted the New Jersey State Museum and learned that it was likely a hunting tool used by early Americans thousands of years ago. Any doubts they had turned to excitement. “I thought it was a waste of time,” Brian Cordle, Noah’s father, says was his initial reaction. “I was a nonbeliever, but they converted me.”
Yesterday, Noah, who is 10 years old and lives in Fairfax, Virginia, visited the National Museum of Natural History to meet with archaeologists and donate his finding, which experts say is a Clovis point. The museum has several hundred in its collection – one of which was discovered as far back as the 1870s – but Noah’s is the first one to join the collection from New Jersey. “You can lay out Clovis points from one end to the other, from California and now New Jersey, and look at them and study them side by side,” says Pegi Jodry, a curator in the museum’s archaeology department. She says the museum will make a cast of Noah’s point for him.
Hurricane Sandy devastated Long Beach Island in October 2012, and it’s possible that efforts to restore sand to the beaches made Noah’s discovery possible. The point may have been buried for thousands of years until those replenishment efforts moved sand around, a New Jersey archaeology expert told Asbury Park Press.
Pegi Jodry (left) and Dennis Stanford (second from left), archaeology experts at the Natural History Museum, explained to Noah and his family how the tool was once used. (Donald E. Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution)
At the Natural History Museum yesterday, Dennis Stanford, the Smithsonian’s expert in Paleoindian archaeology and stone tool technology, showed Noah how ancient hunters would have attached the point to a spear and thrown it at creatures like mastodon. “It’s been used and re-sharpened several times,” Stanford told Noah about his artifact. Noah's response: “Whoa.”
Experts consider the Clovis to be among the first Americans. Stanford says the artifact is “a classic Clovis point”, dating from 13,500 to 14,000 years ago and made of a silicate, probably jasper. The museum will conduct a morphometric analysis to study its shape and how it was made. Stanford says it’s black because it had been in salt water for so long, left behind when sea levels rose after the Ice Age.
Smithsonian experts say the point is likely 13,500 to 14,000 years old. (Donald E. Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution)
Noah is in the fifth grade and says his favorite school subject is science. He’s a fan of ancient artifacts. Before his grandfather passed away earlier this year, the two of them would walk around in search of arrowheads, which are typically around 5,000 years old. Noah says he’s unsure of what he wants to be when he grows up, but Stanford hints that he should consider a career in archaeology. After all, Stanford discovered his first arrowhead when he was nine years old, he says, “and look what happened to me.”
Stanford says that Clovis points are rare, but it’s not uncommon to find them on beaches. However, usually someone goes looking for them, not the other way around. “That’s never happened to anybody that I know of,” he says about the point washing up to Noah. “You gotta be in the right place at the right time or it will disappear just like that. He was really lucky.”
Noah Cordle, a fifth grader who lives in Virginia, found the Clovis point while boogie boarding last summer in New Jersey. (Donald E. Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution)
Spear Points Found in Texas Dial Back Arrival of Humans in America
For many years, scientists have thought that the first Americans came here from Asia 13,000 years ago, during the last ice age, probably by way of the Bering Strait. They were known as the Clovis people, after the town in New Mexico where their finely wrought spear points were first discovered in 1929.
But in more recent years, archaeologists have found more and more traces of even earlier people with a less refined technology inhabiting North America and spreading as far south as Chile.
And now clinching evidence in the mystery of the early peopling of America — Clovis or pre-Clovis? — for nearly all scientists appears to have turned up at a creek valley in the hill country of what is today Central Texas, 40 miles northwest of Austin.
The new findings establish that the last major human migration, into the Americas, began earlier than once thought. And the discovery could change thinking about how people got here (by coastal migrations along shores and in boats) and how they adapted to the new environment in part by making improvements in toolmaking that led eventually to the technology associated with the Clovis culture.
Archaeologists and other scientists report in Friday’s issue of the journal Science that excavations show hunter-gatherers were living at the Buttermilk Creek site and making projectile points, blades, choppers and other tools from local chert for a long time, possibly as early as 15,500 years ago. More than 50 well-formed artifacts as well as hundreds of flakes and fragments of chipping debris were embedded in thick clay sediments immediately beneath typical Clovis material.
“This is the oldest credible archaeological site in North America,” Michael R. Waters, leader of the discovery team, said at a news teleconference.
Dr. Waters, director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University, and his colleagues concluded in the journal article that their research over the last six years “confirms the emerging view that people occupied the Americas before Clovis and provides a large artifact assemblage to explore Clovis origins.”
If the migrations began at earlier, pre-Clovis times, moreover, extensive glaciers probably closed off ice-free interior corridors for travel to the warmer south. Archaeologists said this lent credence to a fairly new idea in the speculative mix: perhaps the people came to the then really new New World by a coastal route, trooping along the shore and sometimes hugging land in small boats. This might account for the relatively swift movement of the migrants all the way to Peru and Chile.
The first of the distinctive Clovis projectile points represented advanced skills in stone technology. About a third of the way up from the base of the point, the artisans chipped out shallow grooves, called flutes, on both faces. The bifacial grooves probably permitted the points to be fastened to a wooden spear or dart.
Other archaeologists pointed out that the Buttermilk Creek dates, more than 2,000 years earlier than the Clovis chronology, are not significantly older than those for other sites challenging the Clovis-first hypothesis. In recent years, early human occupation sites have been examined coast to coast: from Oregon to Wisconsin to western Pennsylvania and from Maryland and Virginia down to South Carolina and Florida.
James M. Adovasio, an archaeologist who found what appears to be pre-Clovis material at the Pennsylvania site known as Meadowcroft Rockshelter, was not involved in the Buttermilk Creek excavations but has visited the site and inspected many of the artifacts. These pre-Clovis projectile points were also bifacial but not as large and well turned as the later technology. The most striking difference was the absence of the characteristic fluting.
Dr. Adovasio, a professor at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., said some of the Buttermilk Creek material resembled tools at his site and others at Cactus Hill, Va., and Miles Point, Md.
“It would appear the assemblage of artifacts is enough different from typical Clovis to be a distinct technology,” Dr. Adovasio said in an interview. “But it is not as much different as not to be ancestral to Clovis material.”
That is another likely implication of the new findings, also noted by Dr. Waters and his team. It would appear that the Clovis technology was not an Asian import it was invented here.
No one knows exactly who these migrating people were, scientists said. Genetic studies of ancient bones and later American Indians indicate their ancestors came from northeast Asia, possibly across the Bering land bridge at a time of low sea levels during the last ice age. But it has puzzled scientists that nothing like the Clovis technology has ever been found in Siberia.
The new findings, the Waters group reported, “suggest that although the ultimate ancestors of Clovis originated from northeast Asia, important technological developments, including the invention of the Clovis fluted points, took place south of the North American continental ice sheets before 13,100 years ago from an ancestral pre-Clovis tool assemblage.”
Among other implications of the discoveries, the Texas archaeologists said, a pre-Clovis occupation of North America provided more time for people to settle in North America, colonize South America by more than 14,000 years ago, “develop the Clovis tool kit and create a base population through which Clovis technology could spread.”
The Texas archaeologists said the new dig site has produced the largest number of artifacts dating to the pre-Clovis period. The dates for the sediments bearing the stone tools were determined to range from 13,200 to 15,500 years ago.
Given the lack of sufficient organic material buried around the tools, the radiocarbon dating method was useless. Instead, earth scientists at the University of Illinois, Chicago, used a newer technique known as optically stimulated luminescence. This measures light energy trapped in minerals to reveal how long ago the soil was last exposed to sunlight.
Steven L. Forman, who directed the tests, said that 49 core samples were drilled from several sections of the sediments associated with the tools. When the data were analyzed, they consistently yielded the same ages. “This was unequivocal proof of pre-Clovis,” he said at the news conference.
Other scientists examined the flood plain geology at the site and determined that the clay sediments showed virtually no sign of having been disturbed during or after the burying of the tools. Lee C. Nordt, a geology professor at Baylor University, said that the traces of previous cracks in the sediment were few and too narrow to have allowed more recent artifacts from above to have settled into the deeper pre-Clovis layers.
Until recently, Dr. Waters said, archaeologists had probably overlooked earlier artifacts because the Clovis points are so distinctive and, in contrast, the pre-Clovis material has no hallmark style calling attention to itself.
“Finally, we are able to put Clovis-first behind us and move on,” he said.
A few scientists, even among those who endorse the presence in the Americas, said they had some reservations about aspects of excavation methods at the Texas site. One who did not want to be quoted or identified questioned whether the reported artifacts justified such a fanfare. He considered the whole issue settled years ago when a panel of experts judged that the Monte Verde site in southern Chile was indeed pre-Clovis.
Dr. Adovasio noted that the Clovis model had been “dying a slow death.” He recalled that “Waters himself was a Clovis-firster, but changed years ago.” At a conference in 1999, the conventional hypothesis seemed to be on its last legs after a review of the Monte Verde data still a few holdouts stood fast in opposition.
“The last spear carriers will die without changing their minds,” Dr. Adovasio said.