Pursuing the Pre-Clovis Paradigm

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on February 7, 2013 in Archaeology |

Ever since the early 20th century, when important investigators such as William Henry Holmes and Aleš Hrdlička debunked claims of evidence of Ice Age human populations in the Americas, archaeologists and anthropologists have considered the matter very carefully (and with due skepticism). The Holmes and Hrdlicka-inspired hard-line eased in the 1920s and 30s with discoveries at Folsom and Clovis, New Mexico. These finds demonstrated that Paleoindians with distinctive (fluted) projectile points lived in North America at the very end of the Ice Age. At these sites (and eventually others), fluted projectile points were found to be contemporaneous with ancient animals such as mammoths and the extinct Bison antiquus. At some sites, people with Clovis and Folsom-type artifacts even hunted these animals. Although some archaeologists sought a North American human antiquity significantly older than the Clovis and Folsom cultures, the developing and widely-accepted view was that humans arrived late in the Ice Age, crossing from Siberia into Alaska via the Bering Land Bridge, and entering the Lower 48 when an ice-free corridor through Canada opened at the end of the glacial epoch.

By the 1960s, radiocarbon research seemed to show that the Clovis culture not only provided the earliest evidence of Paleoindians, but appeared rather suddenly about 11,500 radiocarbon years before present (equivalent to about 13,340 calendar years before present; Meltzer 2009:9). Since the recognition of the age of the Clovis culture, a variety of sites have been presented as evidence of pre-Clovis occupation, but by and large, were not accepted as such by the archaeological community. “I think rightly” states Paleoindian specialist David J. Meltzer (2009:131-132), citing that there were specific issues with each site, while pointing out that nonetheless, future discoveries of pre-Clovis sites can be expected.

The single, widely-adopted exception to the general skepticism about pre-Clovis sites is the Monte Verde site in Chile. In the 1990s the Monte Verde evidence was evaluated on-site by a diverse panel of experts (including Meltzer), and determined to be a legitimate pre-Clovis site. They found that the Monte Verde site was occupied perhaps a thousand years earlier than Clovis.  Now, with the Clovis-barrier broken, expectations rise for the discovery of other evidence of a pre-Clovis human presence. As Meltzer (2009:132-33) reasons, Monte Verde is not likely the only, nor even the earliest pre-Clovis site (for example, generations of people must have covered a lot of ground before arriving in southern Chile, some of it more than likely in North America).

Now, some of the best current claims for sites of pre-Clovis antiquity are reviewed by science writer Guy Gugliotta in the February 2013 issue of Smithsonian magazine. I highly recommend reading Gugliotta’s review of this subject. As a bonus, the article provides a guide to Clovis sites (and a pre-Clovis contender, Meadowcroft Rockshelter) which are open to the public.

Opening his report with archaeologists diving into Florida’s Aucilla River, Gugliotta’s story guides us through the landscape of pre-Clovis archaeology in North America. The archaeologists on the Aucilla, led by Michael Waters, have reopened a submerged site that had produced a cut mastodon tusk believed to have been worked by human hands 14,500 calendar years ago (1,000 years earlier than Clovis). The search for more evidence is on-going, and more fossils are emerging.

Gugliotta also takes us to the Texas location (the Debra L. Friedkin site) where Waters and colleagues have found over 15,000 artifacts (flint-knapping waste plus stone tools) below a soil layer containing Clovis artifacts. The pre-Clovis assemblage has been dated to 15,500 years ago, and is referred to as the Buttermilk Creek Complex.

We learn that in California’s Channel Islands, a maritime-adapted people were present at least 12,000 years ago, possibly representing a culture adapted to the exploitation of resources found in kelp-beds around the Pacific Rim. This maritime orientation suggests an alternative, coastal, and potentially earlier route of entry from Asia compared to the interior part of the Bering land bridge and the ice-free corridor east of the Rockies.

The early Channel Islands finds appear to represent a non-Clovis cultural tradition referred to as the Western Stemmed point tradition. Gugliotta reports that at Paisley Caves in Oregon, the Western Stemmed point tradition has been radiocarbon dated about 13,000 years old, roughly contemporaneous with Clovis.  Not demonstrably pre-Clovis, but definitely pushing it, since some time was necessary for people to move and adapt (and develop a stone tool tradition separate from Clovis). In addition, the human presence at Paisley Caves circa 14,000 years ago is indicated by analysis of human coprolites (fossil dung) that included radiocarbon dating and DNA-analysis. The DNA analysis demonstrated a human association, and specifically, an “apparently Asian genome.”

In contrast to the Asian origin of the pre-Clovis population of America, Gugliotta explores the argument made by Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley that western European populations brought the Solutrean culture across the Atlantic some 20,000 years ago, providing the basis for the development of pre-Clovis stone technologies used at such sites as Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania and Cactus Hill in Virginia.  In my opinion, Gugliotta’s article does not sufficiently convey the extent to which the archaeological community is skeptical of the Stanford-Bradley hypothesis. Testing this hypothesis, however, has brought to light some interesting data cited in the article.

Balancing his presentation, Gugliotta also harkens to pre-Clovis skeptics, including the views of Stuart Fiedel, who famously published a long review critical of the Monte Verde data; and Gary Haynes, who is skeptical of Monte Verde and other pre-Clovis claims.

Nonetheless, the small space given to pre-Clovis critics may be indicative of the growing view that it is a matter of time before another strong pre-Clovis contender will be accepted widely as an authentic pre-Clovis site.  The Debra L. Friedkin Site/Buttermilk Creek Complex (Waters et al 2011) seems like this kind of site to me. The strength of the traditional argument that there is not enough evidence of pre-Clovis occupation is weakening with the well-dated stratigraphy associated with the Buttermilk Creek complex, and the increasing diversity of evidence continent-wide that has been brought about through wider application of radiocarbon dating, DNA analysis such as at Paisley Caves, the recognition of the significance of non-stone sources of early technology, such as bones and tusks, and the recognition of non-Clovis stone traditions, such as Western Stemmed.

What is the chance of pre-Clovis discoveries in my home-region, the Hudson and Mohawk valleys (where I conduct numerous archaeological surveys)? To answer this, I need to consider that unlike Florida or Texas, New York and New England were glaciated to varying extents during most of the period in question. There was no possibility of pre-Clovis occupation while the ice sheet stood upon the land.

On the other hand, this was the period when the ice sheet was melting. The deglacial process that uncovered the Hudson and Mohawk drainages had moved the ice front north about to the Canadian border by Clovis times, circa 13,500 years ago (cf. Ridge 2003). Through much of the expected pre-Clovis time frame, glacial lakes occupied the valleys as the ice melted. The environment may have been unpredictable, even harsh. A dynamic environment, surely, but one that was growing habitable. Radiocarbon dating of Ice Age fauna at the Dutchess Quarry Cave sites (near the Village of Florida in Orange County, New York) consistently indicates that potential prey species were adapted to portions of the Hudson drainage from about 11,670 to 13,840 radiocarbon years ago (approximately 13,500-16,000 calendar years ago).  These animals — including caribou and the now extinct flat-headed peccary and giant Pleistocene beaver —  lived around Dutchess Quarry Caves during the same pre-Clovis era reported on in Gugliotta’s article. Their presence signifies a larger late-Pleistocene biotic community.

Nevertheless, the artifacts (including fluted points) found in the Dutchess Quarry Caves are not as early as the radiocarbon dated animal bones: the artifacts post-date Clovis. The cave investigators, Robert Funk and David Steadman (1994:73), stated their belief that animal predators and scavengers brought the Pleistocene animals into the caves. They also noted that their analysis (including reanalysis of data collected in the 1960s-1980s) was timely referring in part (but obliquely) to Monte Verde (Funk and Steadman 1994:9).

Pre-Clovis in the Hudson valley is possible— for example, there was something to eat (caribou were pursued by Paleoindians at other sites). But there is an absence of evidence of pre-Clovis at the Dutchess Quarry Caves, and no other possible contenders emerge among archaeological sites in the Hudson-Mohawk region. At this time we can only speculate about whether an absence of evidence means evidence of absence, but it is not only the pre-Clovis evidence that seems lacking: as one looks northeast from Pennsylvania, radiocarbon dating of Paleoindian sites tends to post-date Clovis, suggesting that the lag between deglaciation and human pioneering in this region may have been considerable.

References Cited

Funk, Robert E. and David W. Steadman
1994 Archaeological and Paleoenvironmental Investigations in the Dutchess Quarry Caves, Orange County, New York. Persimmon Press, Buffalo.

Gugliotta, Guy
2013 The First Americans. Smithsonian (February) 43(10):38-47.

Meltzer David J.
2009 First Peoples in a New World: Colonizing Ice Age America. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Ridge, John C.
2003 The Last Deglaciation of the Northeastern United States: a Combined Varve, Paleomagnetic, and Calibrated C-14 Chronology. In Geoarchaeology of Landscapes in the Glaciated Northeast, edited by David L. Cremeens and John P. Hart, pp. 15-45.  New York State Museum Bulletin 497, Albany.

Waters, Michael R., et al
2011 The Buttermilk Creek Complex and the Origins of Clovis at the Debra L. Friedkin Site, Texas. Science 331:1599-1603.

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