- About four miles from the tiny cattle town of Florence,
Texas, a narrow dirt road winds across parched limestone, through juniper,
prickly pear and stunted oaks, and drops down to a creek. A lush parkland
of shade trees offers welcome relief from the 100-degree heat of summer.
Running beside the creek for almost half a mile is a swath of chipped,
gray stone flakes and soil blackened by cooking fires - thousands of years
of cooking fires. This blackened earth, covering 40 acres and almost six
feet thick in places, marks a settlement dating back as far as the last
ice age 13,000 years ago, when mammoths, giant sloths and sabertoothed
cats roamed the North American wilderness.
- Since archaeologists began working here systematically
seven years ago, they have amassed an astonishing collection of early prehistoric
artifacts - nearly half a million so far. Among these are large, stone
spearheads skillfully flaked on both sides to give an elegant, leaf-shaped
appearance. These projectiles, found by archaeologists throughout North
America and as far south as Costa Rica, are known as Clovis points, and
their makers, who lived roughly 12,500 to 13,500 years ago, are known as
Clovis people, after the town in New Mexico near where the first such point
was identified some seven decades ago.
- A visit to the Gault site - named after the family who
owned the land when the site was first investigated in 1929 - along the
cottonwood- and walnut-shaded creek in central Texas raises two monumental
questions. The first, of course, is, Who were these people? The emerging
answer is that they were not simple-minded big-game hunters as they have
often been depicted. Rather, they led a less nomadic and more sophisticated
life than previously believed.
- The second question - Where did they come from? - lies
at the center of one of archaeologyís most contentious debates.
The standard view holds that Clovis people were the first to enter the
Americas, migrating from Siberia 13,500 years ago by a now-submerged land
bridge across the Bering Strait. This view has been challenged recently
by a wide range of discoveries, including an astonishingly well-preserved
site in South America predating the supposed migration by at least 1,000
- Researchers delving into the origins question have sought
to make sense of archaeological finds far and wide, from Canada, California
and Chile; from Siberia; and even, most controversially, from France and
Spain. The possibility that the first people in the Americas came from
Europe is the boldest proposal among a host of new ideas. According to
University of Texas at Austin archaeologist Michael Collins, the chief
excavator of the Gault site, "you couldn't have a more exciting time
to be involved in the whole issue of the peopling of the Americas. You
can't write a paper on it and get it published before it's out of date.
Surprising new finds keep rocking the boat and launching fresh waves of
- For prehistoric people, one of the chief attractions
of the Gault site was a knobby outcrop of a creamy white rock called chert,
which conceals a fine, gray, glasslike interior. If struck expertly with
a stone or antler tool, the rock fractures in predictable ways, yielding
a Clovis point. In the end, each spearhead has distinctive grooves, or
"flutes," at the base of each face and was fastened to a wooden
shaft with sinew and resin.
- Ancient pollen and soil clues tell archaeologists that
the climate in Clovis-era Texas was cooler, drier and more tolerable than
todayís summertime cauldron. Vast herds of mammoths, bison, horses
and antelope ranged on the grasslands southeast of Gault, and deer and
turkeys inhabited the plateau to the west. Along the creek, based on bones
found at the site, Clovis hunters also preyed on frogs, birds, turtles
and other small animals.
- This abundance of food, coupled with the exceptional
quality of the chert, drew people to Gault in large numbers. Unlike the
majority of Clovis sites, which are mostly the remains of temporary camps,
Gault appears to have been inhabited over long periods and thus contradicts
the standard view that Clovis people were always highly mobile, nomadic
hunters. Michael Collins says that of the vast quantity of artifacts found
at the site, many are tool fragments, left behind by people who'd stuck
around long enough to not only break their tools but also to salvage and
rework them. The researchers also unearthed a seven by seven foot square
of gravel - perhaps the floor of a house - and a possible well, both signs
of more than a fleeting presence.
- Another clue was concealed on a 13,000-year-old Clovis
blade about the size of a dinner knife. Under a magnifying lens, the blade's
edge is glossy, rounded and smooth. Marilyn Shoberg, a stone tool analyst
on the Gault team who has experimented with replicas, says the blade's
polish probably came from cutting grass. This grass could have been used
for basketry, bedding, or thatching to make roofs for huts.
- Among the most unusual and tantalizing finds at the Gault
site are a hundred or so fragments of limestone covered with lightly scratched
patterns. Some resemble nets or basketry, while a few could be simple outlines
of plants or animals. Although only a dozen can be securely dated to Clovis
times, these enigmatic rocks are among the very few surviving artworks
from ice age America.
- "What this site tells us is that Clovis folks were
not specialized mammoth hunters constantly wandering over the landscape,"
says Collins. "They exploited a variety of animals, they had tools
for gathering plants and working wood, stone and hide, and they stayed
through the useful life of those tools. All these things are contrary to
what you'd expect if they were highly nomadic, dedicated big-game hunters."
Yet this unexpected complexity sheds only a feeble glimmer on the more
contentious issue of where the Clovis people came from and how they got
- In the old scenario, still popular in classrooms and
picture books, fur-clad hunters in the waning moments of the last ice age,
when so much seawater was locked up in the polar ice caps that the sea
level was as much as 300 feet lower than today, ventured across a land
bridge from Siberia to Alaska. Then, pursuing big game, the hunters trekked
south through present-day Canada. They passed down a narrow, 1,000-mile-long
treeless corridor bounded by the towering walls of retreating ice sheets
until they reached the Great Plains, which teemed with prey. The human
population exploded, and the hunters soon drove into extinction some 35
genera of big animals. All of these were supposedly dispatched by the Clovis
point, a Stone Age weapon of mass destruction.
- For more than half a century, this plausible, "big-game"
theory carried with it an appealing, heroic image. As James Adovasio of
Mercyhurst College puts it in his book The First Americans, it was as if
the ice sheets had parted "like the Red Sea for some Clovis Moses
to lead his intrepid band of speartoting, mammoth-slaying wayfarers to
the south." But recent discoveries are indicating that almost everything
about the theory could be wrong. For one thing, the latest studies show
that the ice-free corridor didn't exist until around 12,000 years ago -
too late to have served as the route for the very first people to come
- Perhaps the strongest ammunition against the old scenario
comes from Monte Verde, an archaeological site on a remote terrace, which
is today some 40 miles from the Pacific in southern Chile. Here, about
14,500 years ago, a hunting-and-gathering band lived year-round beside
a creek in a long, oval hide tent, partitioned with logs. Archaeologist
Tom Dillehay of Vanderbilt University began probing Monte Verde in 1977,
unearthing the surface of the ancient encampment, complete with wood, plants
and even remains of food, all preserved under a layer of waterlogged peat.
Dillehay recovered three human footprints, two chunks of uneaten mastodon
meat and possibly even traces of herbal medicine (indicated by nonfood
plants still used by healers in the Andes). The dating of these extraordinary
finds, at least 1,000 years before the earliest Clovis sites in North America,
aroused skepticism for two decades until, in 1997, a group of leading archaeologists
inspected the site and vindicated Dillehayís meticulous work.
- No such triumph has emerged for any of the dozen or so
sites in North America claimed to predate Clovis. But among the most intriguing
is a rock overhang in Pennsylvania called Meadowcroft, where a 30-year
campaign of excavation suggests that hunters may have reached the Northeast
3,000 or 4,000 years before the Clovis era.
- Meanwhile, genetics studies are pointing even more strongly
to an early entry into the continent. By analyzing the mitochondrial DNA
of living Native Americans, Douglas Wallace, a geneticist at the University
of California at Irvine, and his colleagues have identified five distinct
lineages that stretch back like family trees. Mitochondria are the cells'
energy factories. Their DNA changes very little from one generation to
the next, altered only by tiny variations that creep in at a steady and
predictable rate. By counting the number of these variations in related
lineages, Wallace's team can estimate their ages. When the team applied
this technique to the DNA of Native Americans, they reached the stunning
conclusion that there were at least four separate waves of prehistoric
migration into the Americas, the earliest well over 20,000 years ago.
- If the first americans did arrive well before the oldest
known Clovis settlements, how did they get here? The most radical theory
for the peopling of the New World argues that Stone Age mariners journeyed
from Europe around the southern fringes of the great ice sheets in the
North Atlantic. Many archaeologists greet this idea with head-shaking scorn,
but the proposition is getting harder to dismiss outright.
- Dennis Stanford, a Clovis expert at the Smithsonian Institution's
Department of Anthropology who delights in prodding his colleagues with
unconventional thinking, was a longtime supporter of the land bridge scenario.
Then, with the end of the cold war came the chance to visit archaeological
sites and museums in Siberia - museums that should have been filled with
tools that were predecessors of the Clovis point. "The result was
a big disappointment," says Stanford. "What we found was nothing
like we expected, and I was surprised that the technologies were so different."
Instead of a single leaf-shaped Clovis spearhead, ice age Siberian hunters
made projectiles that were bristling with rows of tiny razor-like blades
embedded in wooden shafts. To Stanford, that meant no Siberian hunters
armed with Clovis technology had walked to the Americas.
- Meanwhile, Bruce Bradley, a prehistoric stone tool specialist
at Britain's University of Exeter, had noticed a strong resemblance between
Clovis points and weapons from ice age Europe. But the idea that the two
cultures might be directly connected was heretical. "It certainly
wasn't part of the scientific process at that point," Bradley says.
"There was no possibility, forget it, don't even think about it."
Bradley eventually pursued it to the storerooms of the Musee National de
Prehistoire in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac in southwest France, where he pored
through boxes of local prehistoric stone tools and waste flakes. "I
was absolutely flabbergasted," he recalls. "If somebody had brought
out a box of this stuff in the United States and set it down in front of
me, I'd have said, 'Man, where did you get all that great Clovis stuff?'"
But the material was the work of a culture called the Solutrean that thrived
in southwest France and northern Spain during the coldest spell of the
ice age, from around 24,000 to 19,000 years ago.
- Thousands of years before their successors created the
masterworks of Lascaux and Altamira, Solutrean-age artists began painting
vivid murals in the depths of caves such as Cougnac and Cosquer. They made
delicate, eyed sewing needles out of bone, enabling them to stitch tightfitting
skin garments to repel the cold. They devised the atlatl, or spear thrower,
a hooked bone or wood handle that extends the reach of the hunter's arm
to multiply throwing power. But their most distinctive creation was a stone
spearhead shaped like a laurel leaf.
- Apart from the absence of a fluted base, the Solutrean
laurel leaf strongly resembles the Clovis point and was made using the
same, highly skillful flaking technique. Both Clovis and Solutrean stone
crafters practiced controlled overshot flaking, which involved trimming
one edge by striking a flake off the opposite side, a virtuoso feat of
handiwork rarely seen in other prehistoric cultures. To Bradley, "there
had to be some sort of historic connection" between the Solutrean
and Clovis peoples.
- Critics of the theory point to a yawning gap between
the two peoples: roughly 5,000 years divide the end of Solutrean culture
and the emergence of Clovis. But Stanford and Bradley say that recent claims
of pre-Clovis sites in the southeastern United States may bridge the time
gap. In the mid-1990s at Cactus Hill, the remains of an ancient sand dune
overlooking the Nottoway River on Virginia's coastal plain, project director
Joseph McAvoy dug down a few inches beneath a Clovis layer and uncovered
simple stone blades and projectile points associated with a hearth, radiocarbon
dated to some 17,000 to 19,000 years ago. This startlingly early date has
drawn skeptical fire, but the site's age was recently confirmed by an independent
dating technique. Stanford and Bradley suggest that the early people at
Cactus Hill were Clovis forerunners who had not yet developed the fullblown
Clovis style. They are convinced that many more sites like Cactus Hill
will turn up on the East Coast. But the burning question is, Did these
ice age Virginians invent the Clovis point all by themselves, or were they
descendants of Solutreans who brought the point with them from Europe?
- Many archaeologists ridicule the notion that people made
an arduous, 3,000-mile journey during the bleakest period of the ice age,
when the Atlantic would have been much colder and stormier than today.
Stanford believes that traditional Inuit technology suggests otherwise;
he has witnessed traditional seagoing skills among Inupiat communities
in Barrow, Alaska. Inupiat hunters still build large skin-covered canoes,
or umiaks, which enable them to catch seals, walrus and other sea mammals
that abound along the frozen edges of the pack ice. When twilight arrives
or storms threaten, the hunters pull their boats up on the ice and camp
beneath them. Ronald Brower of the Inupiat Heritage Center in Barrow says,
"There's nothing that would have prevented . . . people from crossing
the Atlantic into the Americas 19,000 years ago. It would be a perfectly
normal situation from my perspective."
- A different critique of the out-of-Europe theory dismisses
the resemblance between Solutrean and Clovis points. Many archaeologists
suggest that similarities between Clovis and Solutrean artifacts are coincidental,
the result of what they call convergence. "These were people faced
with similar problems" says Solutrean expert Lawrence Straus of the
University of New Mexico. "And the problems involved hunting large-
and medium-sized game with a similar, limited range of raw materials -
stone, bone, ivory, antler, wood and sinew. They're going to come up with
- More tellingly, in Straus' view, is that he can find
little evidence of seafaring technology in the Solutrean sites he has dug
in northern Spain. Although rising sea levels have drowned sites on the
ice age coastline, Straus has investigated surviving inland cave sites
no more than a couple of hours' walk from the beach. "There's no evidence
of deep-sea fishing," says Straus, "no evidence of marine mammal
hunting, and consequently no evidence, even indirect, for their possession
of seaworthy boats."
- And David Meltzer, an archaeologist at Southern Methodist
University and a critic of the European-origins idea, is struck more by
the differences between the Solutrean and Clovis cultures than their similarities
- particularly the near-absence of art and personal ornaments from Clovis.
Still, he says, the controversy is good for the field. "In the process
of either killing or curing" the theory, "we will have learned
a whole lot more about the archaeological record, and we'll all come out
smarter than we went in."
- Besides crossing the land bridge from Asia and traveling
to ice age America from Europe by boat, a third possible entryway is a
sea route down the west coast. Using maritime skills later perfected by
the Inuit, prehistoric south Asians might have spread gradually around
the northern rim of the Pacific in small skin-covered boats. They skirt
the southern edge of the Bering land bridge and paddle down the coast of
Alaska, dodging calving glaciers and icebergs as they pursue seals and
other marine mammals. They keep going all the way to the beaches of Central
and South America. They arrive at Monte Verde, inland from the Chilean
coast, some 14,500 years ago. Each new generation claims fresh hunting
grounds a few miles beyond the last, and in a matter of centuries these
first immigrants have populated the entire west coast of the Americas.
Soon the hunters start moving inland and, in the north, their descendants
become the Clovis people.
- Many archaeologists now accept the west coast theory
as a likely solution to the origin of the earliest Americans. On Prince
of Wales Island in southeastern Alaska, inside the aptly named On Your
Knees Cave, University of South Dakota paleontologist Timothy Heaton and
University of Colorado at Boulder archaeologist E. James Dixon recovered
an accumulation of animal bones from the last ice age. When mile-high ice
sheets still straddled the interior of the continent 17,000 years ago,
ringed seals, foxes and seabirds made their home on the island. "Humans
could easily have survived there," Heaton says.
- The ultimate evidence for the western sea route would
be the discovery of pre-Clovis human remains on the coast. No such luck.
Dixon and Heaton have found human jaw fragments and other remains in the
On Your Knees Cave, but those date to about 11,000 years ago - too recent
to establish the theory. And what may be the oldest-known human remains
in North America - leg bones found on Santa Rosa Island, off the California
coast - are from 13,000 years ago, the heart of the Clovis era. Still,
those remains hint that by then people were plying the waters along the
- If the trail of the very earliest Americans remains elusive,
so, too, does the origin of the Clovis point. "Although the technology
needed to produce a Clovis point was found among other cultures during
the ice age," says Ken Tankersley of Northern Kentucky University,
"the actual point itself is unique to the Americas, suggesting that
it was invented here in the New World." If so, the spearhead would
be the first great American invention - the Stone Age equivalent of the
Swiss Army Knife, a trademark tool that would be widely imitated. The demand
for the weapon and the high-quality stone it required probably encouraged
Clovis people to begin long distance trading and social exchanges. The
spearhead may also have delivered a new level of hunting proficiency and
this, in turn, would have fueled a population spurt, giving Clovis people
their lasting presence in the archaeological record.
- Sheltering from the broiling heat under the cottonwoods
at Gault, Michael Collins told me of his conviction that the Clovis people
who flocked to the shady creek were not pioneers but had profited from
a long line of forebears. "Clovis represents the end product of centuries,
if not millennia, of learning how to live in North American environments,"
he said. "The Clovis culture is too widespread, is found in too many
environments, and has too much evidence for diverse activities to be the
leavings of people just coming into the country." Collins reminded
me that his team has investigated less than 10 percent of the enormous
site. And archaeologists have barely scratched the surface of a handful
of other Gault-size, Clovis-era sites - Williamsburg, in Virginia, for
instance, or Shoop, in Pennsylvania. "One thing you can be sure,"
he said, beaming, "there'll be great new discoveries just around the
- Hunted to Extinction?
- At the end of the last ice age, 35 genera of big animals,
or ìmegafauna,î went extinct in the Americas, including mammoths,
mastodons, giant ground sloths, giant beavers, horses, short-faced bears
and saber-toothed cats. Archaeologists have argued for decades that the
arrival of hunters wielding Clovis spear points at around the same time
was no coincidence. Clovis hunters pursued big game - their signature stone
points are found with the bones of mammoths and mastodons at 14 kill sites
in North America. Experiments carried out with replica spears thrust into
the corpses of circus elephants indicate that the Clovis point could have
penetrated a mammoth's hide. And computer simulations suggest that large,
slowbreeding animals could have easily been wiped out by hunting as the
human population expanded.
- But humans might not be entirely to blame. The rapidly
cycling climate at the end of the ice age may have changed the distribution
of plants that the big herbivores grazed on, leading to a population crash
among meateating predators too. New research on DNA fragments recovered
from ice age bison bones suggests that some species were suffering a slow
decline in diversity - probably caused by dwindling populations - long
before any Clovis hunters showed up. Indigenous horses are now thought
to have died out in Alaska about 500 years before the Clovis era. For mammoths
and other beasts who did meet their demise during the Clovis times, many
experts believe that a combination of factors - climate change plus pressure
from human hunters - drove them into oblivion.
- Amid all the debate, one point is clear: the Clovis hunter
wasn't as macho as people once thought. Bones at the Gault site in central
Texas reveal that the hunters there were feeding on less daunting prey
- frogs, birds, turtles and antelope - as well as mammoth, mastodon and
bison. As the late, renowned archaeologist Richard (Scotty) MacNeish is
said to have remarked, "Each Clovis generation probably killed one
mammoth, then spent the rest of their lives talking about it."
- - EVAN HADINGHAM is the senior science editor of the
PBS series NOVA and the author of books on prehistory. PBS will broadcast
the NOVA program "America's Stone Age Explorers" November 9.
- Copyright 2004. Smithsonian Institution. All rights reserved.