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Alternate Perceptions Magazine, August 2020

Problems in North American Chronology, Part 3: Clovis

by: Bill Branch


Though geologists may have different ideas on how the ice age ended, there has been a general consensus since as early as the 18th century that an “ice age” did in fact precede our warmer, modern geological era. There is also a broad consensus among geologists that the transition between the colder era and our warmer modern era occurred within a relatively small window of geological time. The Clovis people and their immediate ancestors appear to have lived through this transitionary period, as did the megafauna they hunted, such as mammoths and mastodons. The stone spear points and other material artifacts which the Clovis people left behind occur in and around the same strata of soil evidencing the geological changes themselves (including the “black mat” layer of incinerated debris) as well as the last examples of the giant bones of ice age mammals before their extinction from the continent. This is the general context of Clovis artifacts as archaeologists have discovered them, and most archaeological and anthropological work has been based on implications drawn from these contexts.

Another characteristic of Clovis artifacts is that they are rarer finds than artifacts from later archaeological periods. Robert E. Funk, contributing the essay “Post-Pleistocene Adaptations” to the Smithsonian’s 1978 reference volume Northeast, acknowledges and explains the relative lack of evidence for these earliest people in North America as a function of both time and smaller population sizes:

“These [earliest] cultures are meagerly represented in the archeological record in comparison to the considerable mass of information for the period of 3000 to 1000 B.C. (the Late Archaic period). The paucity of data relates in part to the usual loss of archeological resolution that results from the operation of natural processes over long periods of time. But it must also be a consequence of the low density of aboriginal populations possessing simple technologies in the relatively unfavorable environment of late glacial and early postglacial times.” [1]

In the same essay, Funk then attributes a generalized date of 10,500 B.C. to the “initial human penetration and settlement of the Northeast.” (He wrote this article over a decade before the discoveries at Cactus Hill.) That leaves a period of about 7,500 years between the first arrival of Clovis or Paleoindians in the region, and the later and better-attested people of the Late Archaic, which immediately preceded the Woodland period of the Adena and Hopewell moundbuilding societies. So the inhabitants of North America are “meagerly represented in the archeological record” for an incredible period of 7,500 years following the end of the ice age. This is over eighteen times longer than the time that has elapsed since Jamestown was founded, with hardly anything to show for it: no significant technological development, no population growth, and relatively little material evidence to attest to all of this time at all.

The Clovis people used a sophisticated type of stone point to hunt ice age animals, so sophisticated that modern archaeologists at first thought these points were created by accident rather than intentionally. [2] Most scholars reject the idea that Clovis’ large prey animals survived for long after the Pleistocene came to an end. (Carl Waldman in 1985 was one exception to this line of thinking, asserting that ice age megafauna still occupied North America as recently as 5,000 B.C.) [3] Are we then to suppose that the skillful Clovis people and their successors were unable to effectively adapt to a warmer environment with smaller animals, and unable to flourish for over seven millennia? Not only were environmental conditions becoming less inhospitable and the game becoming smaller and less dangerous, but again, these were anatomically modern humans. In fact their average brain capacities may have been even larger than the average modern brain, which is not entirely surprising considering the harsher and less forgiving environments they had to survive in. [4]

The two explanations Funk offers seem reasonable enough on the surface: the great age of Paleoindian artifacts, whatever their absolute age in years, has only helped to obscure them from modern archaeologists, and it also seems apparent that there were relatively few of these early people to begin with. These two factors, as reasonable and true as they may be, are nonetheless not an explanation for the apparent total lack of cultural development over many thousands of years following the end of the Pleistocene, even as environmental conditions were improving in North America. There may be a third reason why there seems to be so little evidence of these oldest cultures: modern geologists and archaeologists have made a mistake, grossly exaggerating the length of eras in their models of prehistory, and by doing so have spread the available evidence even more thinly across time than is justified. This has the effect of making prehistoric developments seem slower, more episodic, and more poorly-evidenced than they perhaps actually were.

In the 2000s, archaeologists were continuing their periodic revisions to the C-14 dates assigned to collections of Clovis material when they began to realize that there is only evidence for very brief occupations of North America by the Clovis culture. Specifically, a 2007 paper published in Science by Michael Waters and Thomas Stafford argued that, “In as few as 200 calendar years, Clovis technology originated and spread throughout North America.” Furthermore, they were unable to say what became of the Clovis people after this relatively short period of time, or if they were even the first people to arrive in North America. The two authors speculated as to whether the Clovis culture was perhaps absorbed into pre-existing populations, or if they had indeed been the first hunters to cross the continent following the Pleistocene. “Regardless of which hypothesis is correct,” they concluded, “our revised chronology indicates that Clovis technology spread rapidly.” [5] Stanford and Bradley point out that such an incredible dispersal of these prehistoric people represents “the most rapid terrestrial expansion and extensive colonization in the history of pre-literate people.” [6] No other known prehistoric culture, in North America or elsewhere, covered such an enormous amount of territory in such a small amount of time.

If the data highlighted by Waters and Stafford is accurate, then it is not only impressive on the part of the Clovis people, but it is also problematic and even disturbing in its implications for the rest of North American chronology. As discussed previously, the Clovis people were the likely inheritors of an even older Solutrean technology. Given all of the discussions thus far of moving Pleistocene dates around by thousands and tens of thousands of years, the idea that the Clovis people were only around as a distinct material culture for as little as two or three centuries is remarkably discordant with the usual gradualist approach to prehistory. Whereas the ten thousand of years or so which has supposedly elapsed since the end of the Pleistocene implies hundreds of generations of people over time, an average Stone Age childbearing age of 20 would mean that the Clovis people may have spread across virtually the entire continent of North America and even into South America in as little as ten generations.

What happened in North America after that incredibly rapid cultural expansion? Apparently not much of anything for over seven thousand years, at least if the conventional framework of chronology is to be believed. These theoretical seven millennia or so following the end of the Pleistocene seem to represent the single most problematic era of North America’s chronology. Where one might expect to find rapid technological adaptations to an environment changing equally rapidly, and population growth where the environment becomes warmer, the archaeological record instead appears to show a great vacuum of activity by sparse populations, and no meaningful technological development or population growth. The initial explosion of Clovis activity across the continent is immediately followed by unexplained doddering over an incomprehensible span of time. Is this really easier to believe, and more in line with what we know of human nature, than to suppose that the modern dating techniques of geologists and archaeologists are simply in error? Could it be possible that these millennia are only an academic creation, and that the Clovis culture was in fact much closer in time to their numerous and productive Archaic successors? Time will tell.

Other Chronological Problems Involving Clovis

Also mentioned earlier was the theory of a celestial impact in the Northern Hemisphere bringing the Pleistocene to an end. Associated with this event is the “black mat” layer of burned, diamond-rich debris deposited on the surface at the time of the Younger Dryas. One of the many debates surrounding the impact theory is whether or not the Clovis people survived the proposed impact event. Testing this question with excavations seems straightforward enough: If Clovis artifacts and mammoth bones are found above the “black mat” layer, then that would seem to imply that both the Clovis people and their large prey animals survived after the impact for some period of time. If, however, these materials are only found beneath the black mat layer and never above it, then that would indicate that the event which created the black mat also ended both the Clovis people and the ice age megafauna. On its face this seems like an easy matter to resolve by simple observations at archaeological sites. In the resulting debates over this issue, however, certain facts emerged in regards to the physical environment and testing limitations which complicate even this narrowly-framed question.

One recent debate developed between Kennett, Wittke, and a number of other proponents of the impact hypothesis on one side, and John W. Ives and Duane Froese, anthropological and environmental scientists familiar with the Chobot Site in Alberta, Canada, on the other side. The Chobot Site was one of the locations from which samples revealed nano-diamonds and other material indicative of an impact event in the Kinzie et al. study. Ives and Froese argue against the idea that the Clovis culture ended with the Younger Dryas Boundary and the supposed impact it represents, noting that Clovis points from a nearby site at Charlie Lake Cave were associated via radiocarbon dating with time periods after the YDB, though those at the Chobot Site itself could not be dated by radioisotope.

Furthermore, they argued, Clovis artifacts did sometimes appear above the YDB, though arguments over the Chobot Site in particular may be more or less at the margins of the discussion since a meager sample of only three Clovis points had been found at the Chobot Site to begin with. This goes back to a fundamental problem for any study of the Paleoindian period: the rarity of these earliest finds and resulting lack of good sample sizes. The great majority of artifacts recovered from the Chobot Site appear to be from much more recent times. [7] It is also worth noting that both plants and various burrowing animals (as well as human beings) occasionally disturb the integrity of soil strata, somewhat mixing their contents together after they are already under the surface, and such disturbances could take place at any time between the initial deposition of the materials and their later excavation by professionals, a point raised by Kennett and his colleagues.

Ultimately, whether or not the Clovis people occupied North America both before and after an impact event may be a moot point, since the range of both Clovis artifacts and Pleistocene megafauna extended into Mexico and farther south, and could have repopulated North America from there even if the surface to the north was obliterated. It is also possible that the Clovis people arrived after the devastation and deposited artifacts on and even under the topsoil when the black mat layer was still exposed. The most important takeaway from all of this is that the greatest concentration of Clovis point occurs in and around the Younger Dryas Boundary, and that there was some prehistoric relationship between the two, even if it is not yet fully understood.


[1] Robert E. Funk, “Post-Pleistocene Adaptations,” in Northeast (Washington, D.C.: United States Government, 1978), 16.

[2] Stanford and Bradley, Across Atlantic Ice (Electronic edition: University of California Press, 2012), Chapter 1, under the heading “Biface Manufacture.”

[3] Carl Waldman, Atlas of the North American Indian (New York: Facts on File, 1985), 4.

[4] Gerald R. Crabtree, “Our Fragile Intellect, Part I,” Trends in Genetics 29, 1 (January 2013), 1–3.

[5] Michael R. Waters and Thomas W. Stafford Jr., “Redefining the Age of Clovis: Implications for the Peopling of the Americas,” Science 315, 1122 (February 23, 2007).

[6] Stanford and Bradley, Across Atlantic Ice (Electronic edition: University of California Press, 2012), Chapter 2.

[7] John W. Ives and Duane Froese, “The Chobot site (Alberta, Canada) cannot provide evidence of a cosmic impact 12,800 y ago,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110, 41 (October 8, 2013), retrieved from https://www.pnas.org/content/110/41/E3899.

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