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The Clovis Culture: People, Lifestyle & Artifacts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

The Clovis people hold a unique place in the history of North America, but what was their life really like? In this lesson, we'll check out their culture and see what it can tell us about life in the late Ice Age.

The Clovis

Imagine that you are an ancient hunter. Your job is to go out into a wilderness where very few (if any) humans have lived before and to kill a six-ton creature with eight-foot tusks. The tool you will use to do this is a stick. Ready?

Many mammoth hunts probably ended up this way.
mammoth chasing hunters

This sort of challenge may sound absurd, but it may also have been reality for ancient people. In North America, megafauna like the woolly mammoths were once eaten by an ancient people called the Clovis culture. The Clovis culture was relatively brief, existing for only 400 to 600 years between the 11th and 10th millennia BCE, but in that time they managed to spread across all of North America.

It is the oldest verified culture in the Western Hemisphere, and even if we accept the existence of pre-Clovis people, the Clovis were the first to leave behind evidence of a strong and uniform culture. Ancient life must have been tough, but the Clovis people were apparently up to the challenge.

The Clovis Toolkit

The Clovis people lived millennia ago, and little of their culture has survived. In fact, we've only ever found a single skeleton of a Clovis person. The truth is that we don't know if the people who lived across North America at this time spoke the same language, practiced the same customs, or even thought of themselves as sharing a culture.

What we do know is that they all used the same stone tools, collectively referred to as the Clovis toolkit. It's worth noting that this is the only time that all of North America relied on a shared set of tools. The continent became incredibly diverse after the disappearance of the Clovis culture.

So, what was in a Clovis toolkit? The Clovis people worked with reliable stones like jasper, flint, chert, and obsidian. When struck with another rock or bone, these stones would flake in predictable ways, letting ancient toolmakers exercise optimal control over this labor-intensive process. We can only imagine how frustrating it would be to work on a stone tool for hours, only to have the tip chip off.

The Clovis toolkit included a wide range of tools, adapted to various tasks. Some were scrapers, presumably for working animal hides. Other tools may have been used for sewing, fishing, cutting plants, and even straightening wood into usable spear shafts.

The most definitive Clovis tool, however, was a unique projectile point (a spear head), called the Clovis point. A Clovis point is generally four to six inches long, sharpened on both ends, and identifiable by the presence of a very long flute, a groove at the base of the tool.

This feature may have been used to help fasten the point to a spear. It also may have helped transfer more stress to the spear shaft, thus reducing breakage or chipping in the point itself. After all, making a new spear would have been much easier than making a new projectile point. The flute may also have helped drain blood from a stabbed animal, increasing the rate at which it bled to death.

A Clovis point
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Over 10,000 Clovis points have been found from 1,500 sites across North America. This makes one thing abundantly clear to us: the Clovis point worked. It was clearly an effective tool, and in fact some archaeologists have proposed that this is what let the Clovis people spread across an entire continent in only a few centuries.

Clovis Life

So, what exactly were Clovis people doing with their Clovis points? We generally assume that these nomadic people spent their time hunting. We know from numerous archaeological sites that the Clovis people ate mammoth and mastodon, as well as a cousin of these species called the gomphothere. So, many researchers assumed that the Clovis people actively hunted Ice Age megafauna. In fact, most of these massive creatures went extinct soon after the appearance of the Clovis people, which is traditionally attributed to overhunting with these super-great stone tools.

Would hunting these necessarily be a wise survival strategy?
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