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Clovis Points: Definition & Explanation

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the prehistoric stone tool called the Clovis Point and test your learning about its use by ancient humans and discovery by modern archaeologists.

Definition of Clovis Points

In 1933, archaeologists began scurrying to some of the hottest and most remote parts of New Mexico to stare at a patch of dirt. Really, they were more interested in what was in the dirt. In the middle of an era when scientists hotly debated the origins of Native Americans, archaeologist Edgar Howard had discovered prehistoric stone tools mixed with fossilized mammoth bones.

Clovis, New Mexico
Map of Clovis, NM

Clovis Points are a type of prehistoric tool made by native peoples of North America roughly 13,500-10,000 years ago. They resemble a large spearhead, although the technical term used by archaeologists is projectile point, because it may have been thrown as a projectile for hunting. Clovis Points are the oldest proven tools in the Americas. The Clovis Point started a technology race of new tools in North America, and were later replaced by more efficient stone tools called Folsom Points.

Discovery

In the early twentieth century, archaeologists were constantly arguing about the history of people in the Americas. Did they cross the ice from Europe? Did they come from Russia or Asia? Were the first people here 50,000 years ago, or only 5,000 years ago? The only evidence left behind by the prehistoric people tended to be stone tools, which are difficult to accurately date.

In 1932, a new stone tool was discovered near Dent, Colorado. This new tool was larger than other projectile points archaeologists had found, but they were unable to agree on how old it was. A year later, in 1933, archaeologist Edgar B. Howard and his student, John L. Cotter, began excavating a gravel pit along Blackwater Draw near the small town of Clovis, New Mexico. In one layer of bison bones from the Ice Age were stone tools called Folsom Points. Below that was a layer of mammoth bones with the large stone tools found in Dent. Because they were below the Folsom Points, archaeologists knew that these tools must be older, and named them Clovis Points.

Identifying Clovis Points

Clovis Points are made from specific rocks that, when hit with a harder object, break in predictable ways to make a smooth, sharp edge. Commonly, Clovis Points are made from chert, jasper, quartzite, chalcedony, or obsidian. These materials leave small waves in the stone where they're hit, resembling a ripple in a pond, making the edge of the Clovis Point sharp. Apart from being easy stones to work with, these are often beautiful materials with a variety of colors. Clovis Points can range from 2-9 inches long and are 1-2 inches wide. The most distinguishing feature of a Clovis Point, however, is the flute, a small groove roughly an inch long at the base of the tool. The purpose of the flute may have been to tie the point onto a shaft so it could be held without cutting the user.

Clovis Point
Clovis Point

How Clovis Points were Used

The Clovis Point was created by a prehistoric culture called the Clovis People. As of yet, we still do not know very much about the Clovis People beyond the stone tools they left behind. Although officially called a projectile point, the Clovis Point was probably not usually used as a spear. More likely, it was a multi-purpose tool, sort of the Swiss Army Knife of its day. It could be used on a spear to stab at prey, then removed and used as a knife to cut the meat, scrape the hide, cut firewood, and perform other daily tasks. They were so effective as tools and weapons that many archaeologists believe the extinction of Ice Age animals like mammoths may be a result of new hunting technologies like the Clovis Point.

Clovis Points required a lot of technical skill and effort to create. The creator had to be very careful not to hit the rock in the wrong place, or the vibrations could break the entire tool in half and make it useless. The fact that it took so much time and effort is one reason many archaeologists believe they were not tied to spears and thrown, which could easily chip them. It also suggests that certain people of the group may have specialized in making Clovis Points full-time, while others did the hunting and gathering. If this is true, it is evidence of some of the first specialized labor in the Americas, one sign of a civilized culture.

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