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Clovis culture

The Clovis culture is a prehistoric Native American culture that first appears in the archaeological record of North America around 13,500 years ago, at the end of the last ice age. They are named for artifacts found near Clovis, New Mexico, where the first evidence of this tool complex was excavated in 1932. Clovis sites have since been identified throughout all of the contiguous United States, as well as Mexico and Central America. The Clovis people, also known as Paleo-Indians, are generally regarded as the ancestors of the indigenous cultures of North and South America.

For much of the 20th century, the Clovis people were universally regarded among archaeologists as the first people of the New World. Recent scholarship has begun to challenge this theory, supported by the possible discovery in 2004 of worked stone tools at the Topper site in South Carolina that have been dated by radiocarbon techniques to 50,000 years ago.


A hallmark of Clovis culture is the use of a distinctively-shaped fluted rock spear point, known as the Clovis point. The Clovis point is distinctively bifacial and fluted on both sides, a feature that possibly allowed the point to be mounted onto a spear in a way so that the point would snap off on impact. Archaeologists do not agree on whether the widespread presence of these artifacts indicates the proliferation of a single people, or the adoption of a superior technology by non-Clovis people. It is generally accepted that Clovis people hunted mammoth: sites abound where Clovis points are found mixed in with mammoth remains. Whether they drove the mammoth to extinction via overhunting them--the so-called Pleistocene overkill hypothesis--is still an open, and controversial, question.

Since the mid 20th century, the standard theory among archaelogists has been that the Clovis people were the first inhabitants of the Americas. The primary support of the theory was that no solid evidence of pre-Clovis human inhabitation has been found. According to the standard accepted theory, the Clovis people crossed the Beringia land bridge over the Bering Strait from Siberia to Alaska during the period of lowered sea levels during the ice age, then made their way southward through an ice-free corridor east of the Rocky Mountains in present-day western Canada as the glaciers retreated.

Alternative theories

Archaeologists have long debated the possible existence of a culture older than Clovis in North and South America. Some archaeologists have claimed that certain sites contain pre-Clovis artifacts. One such site, Monte Verde in Chile, appear to have remains from before Clovis mixed with Clovis technology. Archaeologists do not currently agree, however, that anything found at these sites establishes a human presence prior to Clovis.

Recent studies of the DNA of mitochondria in First Nations/Native Americans suggests that the people of the New World may have diverged genetically from Siberians as early as 20,000 years ago, far earlier than the standard theory would suggest. According to one alternative theory, the Pacific coast of North America may have been free of ice such as to allow the first peoples in North America to come down this route prior to the formation of the ice-free corridor in the continental interior. No solid evidence has yet been found to support this hypothesis.

Another controversial hypothesis suggests that the Clovis people were descended from the Solutrean people who lived in southern Europe between 19,000-16,000 years ago, and who created the first Stone Age artwork in present-day southern France. The link is suggested by the similarity in technology between the spear points of the Solutreans and those of the Clovis people. Such a theory would require that the Solutreans crossed the ice-choked North Atlantic Ocean at the edge of the ice sheet that existed at the time. Supporters of this hypothesis suggest that stone tools found at Cactus Hill (an early American site in Virginia), that are knapped in a style between Clovis and Solutrean, support a possible link between the Clovis people and Solutrean people in Europe. Opponents of the hypothesis that the Solutreans crossed the Atlantic point to the difficulty of the ocean crossing, as well as the lack of art work (such as that found at Lascaux in France) among the Clovis people, as indicative that no such link exists. However, the idea that the Solutreans crossed the Atlantic is supported by mitochondrial DNA analysis (see Map in Single-origin hypothesis).


CNN article on the South Carolina discoveries

Last updated: 05-07-2005 14:57:44
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04