What is the Clovis Culture? - Significance, Timeline & Extinction

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

The Clovis people may have had the single most influential culture in the history of North America. In this lesson, we'll explore their contributions to the continent, and debate their origins and disappearance.

The Clovis Culture

In 1932, archaeologist Edgar Howard excavated a long stone tool from a bed of mammoth bones in New Mexico. This was a big deal. For several years, there was evidence suggesting an ancient culture in North America that long predated the assumed range of human occupation in the continent. The problem was that none of the characteristically long projectile points (a.k.a. spear heads) could be accurately dated. However, when Howard saw the stone tool situated firmly within the ribcage of a mammoth, with bones he could scientifically date, he knew he'd found it: undeniable proof of an ancient, Paleoindian culture.

Howard named these people the Clovis culture, after the nearby town of Clovis, New Mexico. To this day, the Clovis people are the oldest recognized culture in the Western Hemisphere. Evidence of the Clovis culture can be found across nearly all of North America from 12,000-11,000 years BP (before present). That's roughly 10,000-9,000 BCE, although most archaeologists agree that the Clovis culture was really dominant for only 400-600 years during that time frame. Seemingly out of nowhere, the Clovis culture emerged, flourished, and disappeared. Who were they, and where did they come from? These questions would take years to answer.

Origins of the Clovis People

The most enduring mystery of the Clovis people is their origin. Genetic and linguistic tests of modern Amerindian peoples suggests an ancestral connection to Siberia and Mongolia. For the most part, that's the assumed origin of the Clovis people as well. This was reaffirmed recently after a human skeleton was found, the only Clovis person ever uncovered, whose bones were preserved well enough for genetic testing. This 1-year old Clovis boy from Anzick, Montana turned out to be an ancestor of Amerindian nations of North America and seems to be descendant from Siberian peoples.

The next question is how could these people have gotten here? The Clovis people lived a millennium before ocean-worthy boats were developed. The dominant theory points to a period of increased glaciation just before the emergence of Clovis culture. At this moment, sea levels dropped low enough to reveal a land bridge, called the Bering Land Bridge, connecting Siberia and Alaska. The theory is that ancient people followed game across the land bridge (or the coast of the land bridge) then worked their way down the glacial coast of Canada and entered into what is now the United States.

Accepted model for the peopling of the Americas, with dates in years BP
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That's the main theory, but to be honest it's largely conjectural. There isn't a lot of archaeological evidence to support it, since the land bridge was later covered by rising seas, destroying any evidence of ancient human activity. Other researchers have proposed a Polynesian or European origin for the Clovis people, but the Beringia theory is the most widely supported by far.

The Clovis People in the Americas

The origins of the Clovis culture is one mystery, but its success is another. Again, the Clovis culture only appears in the archaeological record for roughly 400-600 years. In that time, however, they spread across the entirety of the continent. How could a newly arrived society, adapting to the unique challenges of North America, become so successful?

It may have something to do with their technology. We know very little about the Clovis people, except that they developed a unique projectile point. It was long, with a characteristic flute (presumably to help with hafting to a spear). Archaeologists have searched for similar stone tools in Siberia and Mongolia; none have been found. The Clovis point, as it's called, seems to have been a completely unique invention of the Clovis people in North America. Some archaeologists even call it the first American invention.

The Clovis point
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Clovis points are found all across North America. The ubiquitous appearance of Clovis points suggests that they were useful and efficient tools, helping these people spread quickly and successfully. Of course, there is one other theory to explain this. Many archaeologists now believe in a pre-Clovis culture that existed before the arrival of the Clovis people. If this is true, it could explain how the Clovis point spread so quickly. Once invented, it spread throughout the societies already here.

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