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The Americas

Early Cultures


Clovis Culture (Palaeo-Indian Era)
c.11,500 - 10,900 BC

The term Palaeo-Indians or Palaeo-Americans is applied to the first peoples who entered and afterwards inhabited the Americas during the concluding glacial episodes of the late Pleistocene period. The prefix 'palaeo-' originates in the Greek adjective, palaios, meaning 'old' or 'ancient'. The term 'Palaeo-Indians' relates precisely to the 'stone-tools' period in the western hemisphere and is different from the term 'Palaeolithic'.

The Clovis culture is a prehistoric Native American culture which first appears in the south-western region of North America, roughly between 11,500-10,900 BC. Until comparatively recently the Clovis people were thought by many to have been the first to appear in the Americas, but recent finds and a process of revision have shown that the earlier Palaeo-Indians are now to be regarded as the first human inhabitants of the New World and the ancestors of all other indigenous cultures of North America and South America.

Clovis culture is part of this Palaeo-Indian era, but is generally accepted not to have been influenced by the discredited Solutrean hypothesis. Artefacts which have been found near the town of Clovis in New Mexico gave this culture its name following a 1932 excavation. Clovis people were efficient, successful big-game hunters and foragers, especially with ice age mammoths and mastodons. Evidence found in 1926 included a mammoth skeleton with a spear-point in its ribs.

Clovis cultural sites have been located throughout the contiguous United States plus Mexico and the rest of Central America. A single animal was able to provide meat for several weeks on end and, if dried, for much of the winter too. Despite this, a proportion of the kill was never used.

Bison kills were more comprehensively exploited and a lesser amount remained at the kill sites. It is presumed that the hides, tusks, bones, and pelts were used to make domestic belongings or survival tools, or were used for shelter and even clothing.

The main hallmark of Clovis culture is the use of a distinctive leaf-shaped rock spear point, known as the Clovis point. This is fluted on both sides, allowing the tip to be mounted on a shaft. There is some disagreement regarding whether the extensive presence of these objects suggests the development of a single people or the advocacy of these methods by non-Clovis people.

In some respects, the Clovis people seem to have magically appeared on the North American continent. It has been assumed that their ancestors moved south from Alaska in pursuit of the mammoth herds. However, both in Alaska and Canada, Clovis sites are conspicuous by their absence. Similarly, there are no scientific precursors for Clovis people anywhere in the Americas or in Asia. Clearly the Clovis people only invented their fluted spear points after arriving in the south-west, making it the earliest-known American invention (to date).

Clovis points were made for only about six centuries before they disappeared, along with the culture which created them. As Clovis people settled into different ecological zones, their culture divided into separate groups, each adapting to its own separate environment. However, a more immediate reason for the termination of the culture may be found in climate change around 10,900 BC (see the timeline below), something which the contemporary Western Fluted Point and Western Stemmed traditions were able to survive.

Those cultural groups which subsequently appeared - such as the Folsom tradition - shows the Clovis survivors beginning to rebuild after the catastrophe, but along varying lines which effectively produced new cultures. The end of the Clovis marked the beginning of the enormous social, cultural, and linguistic diversity which characterised the next ten thousand years of pre-history in the Americas.

Buffalo on the North American plains, by Dave Fitzpatrick

(Information by Mick Baker and Peter Kessler, with additional information from The First Americans: The Pleistocene Colonization of the New World, Nina G Jablonski (California Academy of Sciences, 2002), from The Brave New World: A History of Early America, Peter Charles Hoffer (JHU Press, 2006), from First peoples in a new world: colonizing ice age America, David J Meltzer (University of California, 2009), and from External Links: The Clovis Point and the Discovery of America's First Culture, and Why won't this debate about an ancient cold snap die? (Science News), and Clovis People, and Clovis people not first to arrive in North America, Kazi Stastna (CBC News).)

c.10,900 BC

Archaeological evidence from the Topper site in South Carolina, USA, suggests that Clovis populations here go through a population collapse at the time of the proposed ice age blast.

North American large mammals
The Younger Dryas cold spell hit North America hard, just when things were starting to warm up at the end of the ice age - not only did many of the large mammals die out but so did the Clovis culture (click or tap on image to view full sized)

Earth is abruptly plunged back into a deep chill which is known as the Younger Dryas. Temperatures in parts of the northern hemisphere plunge to as much as eight degrees Celsius colder than they are today.

This cold snap lasts 'only' about twelve hundred years before, just as abruptly, Earth begins to warm again. But many of the giant mammals are dying out and the Clovis people have apparently vanished. However, Western Fluted Point, Western Stemmed, and Post Pattern have all survived the cold snap.

The cause of this sudden cold spell is a mystery. Most researchers suspect that a large pulse of freshwater from a melting ice sheet and glacial lakes flood into the ocean, briefly interfering with Earth's heat-transporting ocean currents.

FeatureA more radical and controversial theory states that a comet - or perhaps its remnants - hits or explodes over the Laurentide ice sheet which covers much of North America (see feature link).

Retreating ice sheet
The retreat of the glacial ice sheet made progressively more land available in North America, but the melting ice and resulting fresh water mega-lakes caused at least two great flooding events and potential effects on world climate change

The explosion would result in great wildfires across the continent, producing enough soot and other compounds to block out the sun and cool the planet (similar to the much smaller effect experienced after the 1908 Tunguska comet strike which then affects Tungusic tribes in that region). Clovis technology disappears, along with the culture which had created them.

10,900 BC

While the Clovis has not survived the cold snap in the Americas, its contemporaries have. These continue to flourish for many more centuries in the form of the Western Fluted Point and Western Stemmed traditions.

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