Daily Archives: October 17, 2009

Speaking of Clovis

Michael Collins' Licence Plate - Just needs a "pre" fix.

Michael Collins' Licence Plate - Just needs a "pre" fix.

The Gault Site in Texas is a classic Clovis site, though one which awaits full and complete recording.  The site was purchased by old-school Clovis archaeologist Michael Collins to protect it – the previous owners would rent out digging time to pothunters.  Collins  then donated it to an archaeological trust – a stunning example of putting your money close to your mouth!  It has always been on my radar as a big site down in Texas with tons of Clovis stuff but frankly I had never looked into it that closely – other than indirectly through Collins’ excellent studies of Clovis blade technology, and an awareness that it had produced some of the earliest art known in the Americas (2, 3).  Any Clovis site is of interest, not just because Clovis is an unusual archaeological phenomenon, but also because the history of the discipline will see “Clovis First” archaeology as a classic example of a paradigm that got shifted, reluctantly.  And anyone working on the early periods in BC Archaeology is profoundly influenced by Clovis — whether that be the northeastern Ice Free Corridor sites, or on the coast where Clovis ages of 11,000 radiocarbon years ago are a benchmark for first peopling.

So I was interested to learn that there is 400 years of Clovis occupation here — pretty much the whole span of the Clovis Culture as now understood.  That’s not very overkill-and-move-on-ish.  Then I find out the dominant resources at Gault include frogs, small mammals, and turtles — not very big-gam-hunterish.  Now I read the Collins is reporting pre-Clovis deposits at the Gault Site — certainly not very Clovis-Firsty.  As  this article from a local newspaper in Waco states:

The latest evidence to debunk this theory may come from the Gault site. In the dig site now covered by the big white tent, archaeologists took a core sample in 2007 and found something startling: what appear to be manmade stone artifacts that differ from Clovis technology. That could mean Gault was inhabited some 14,500 years ago, Gault School officials said.

“That would be the nail in the coffin of Clovis First,” said Collins, the University of Texas archaeologist who has been the site’s chief excavator.

Collins, 68, said that when he started in archaeology in 1960, almost nobody questioned the Clovis First theory. Collins grew to doubt it, based on new discoveries in Chile and elsewhere, but it took a long time for alternative theories to gain traction in the world of archaeology.

“What I despised most among my colleagues was that they would simply dismiss your argument when they didn’t know anything about it,” he said. “Or they would ignore it.”

Today, the question of the first Americans is a wide-open debate, with scientists such as Collins suggesting Asian and even European colonization by boat between 15,000 and 24,000 years ago.

“When I first started doubting Clovis First a long time ago, maybe 2 percent of professional archaeologists considered the possibility of an earlier date, Collins said. “Now, that number is probably 95 percent.”

Maybe I haven’t been paying attention but, wow.  Gault Site has pre-Clovis and Michael Collins slams the “Clovis Police.  It’s a good day.

Clovis Exceptionalism Craters

An impactor (top) may have produced magnetic spherules (lower right), but similar spherules (lower left) continually fall from space.

An impactor (top) may have produced magnetic spherules (lower right), but similar spherules (lower left) continually fall from space.

John Hawks has a good writeup about the latest news on the theory put forward a couple of years ago that a comet impacted the Laurentide ice Sheets, overkilling Clovis culture, megafauna, and instigating the Younger Dryas Event to boot.  The new paper by Todd Surovell et al. completely fails to replicate a key bit of support for the theory, namely that magnetic iron spherules, said to be the comet’s smoking gun, were associated with terminal Clovis stratigraphy across the Americas.   Other studies have chipped away at the theory as well. I’m not an expert and it’s hard to judge the state of debate — though as Hawks notes, the paper is unusually unequivocal in its conclusions of ‘no evidence”.

I have to say, I don’t mind seeing more theories of Clovis exceptionalism shot down — it is an unusual archaeological phenomenon to be sure, but it hardly takes white-hot fallout across the Americas to bring it down.  Let’s start looking at Clovis on a more human scale! Enough with the megafaunal overkill models, when the most ubiquitous fauna associated with Clovis are turtles and tortoises.  Enough with the ignoring of plant remains — the Clovis Policemen’s longstanding refusal to accept Monte Verde tells us everything we need to know about their knowledge of ethnobotany.  Enough with the phallocentric failure to look beyond the Clovis Point to see that the rest of lithic Clovis  is pretty much a standard Upper Palaeolithic toolkit.

Smoked mammoth.

Smoked mammoth.

Thinking about that the other day,  I realized that Clovis is (ironically, counter-intuitively) ripe for a post-processualist analysis. Not a critique – an analysis.  Why?  What makes Clovis different is style – widespread projectile point style as a sort of hyperkinetic effort to maintain social cohesion through semiotics, if you like.  When something is so unusual we have to posit its arrival in a river of blood through the parting of a white sea, and then see it off with a rain of fire from heaven, surely it is time to turn it over to the school of archaeology that deals with histories, not generalities.

Surovell TA, Holliday VT, Gingerich JAM, Ketron C, Haynes CV, Jr, Hilman I, Wagner DP, Johnson E, Claeys P. 2009. An independent evaluation of the Younger Dryas extraterrestrial impact hypothesis. Proc Nat Acad Sci USA (early) doi:10.1073/pnas.0907857106 (subscription required)