For many years, archaeologists considered the so-called “Clovis” Culture to be the remains of the first humans to enter the Americas. These people were said to come via the Bering Land Bridge, a subcontinental land mass which joins North America to Northeast Asia. Clovis culture was distinguished by a very characteristic type of stone spear point which had a long flake removed from the base on each side, forming a “flute” which considerably thinned the base of the point. Such fluting was a hallmark of Clovis and another, slightly more recent, culture: Folsom.
Clovis was thought to have arrived into the Americas from the present-day Yukon area through an “ice free corridor”. However, for many years, Clovis points and the rest of Clovis culture, were unknown from north of the ice sheets and there was a sustained research agenda to find Clovis, or to find Clovis antecedents, in Yukon, NWT or Alaska. While the occasional fluted point became known from surface finds, those from solid archaeological context did not.
It is therefore interesting to see a site, Serpentine Hot Springs, has come to light on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula (the bit that sticks out closest to Asia – map) which has revealed numerous fluted points. These date to about 12,000 calendar years ago, which is around one thousand years more recent than Clovis itself. At this time, Beringia was still largely dry land and the Seward Peninsula a range of hills in the centre-right of this picture:
So, ironically, it appears that while fluted points are now firmly known from Beringia, they represent a very late “backwash” from south to north through the ice free corridor. I like to think of this as the culmination of the very long route by which parts of North America may have first been peopled: via the south coast of Beringia, along the Northwest Coast, cutting over to the Caribbean perhaps at Panama, then from south Florida or Texas northwards into eastern North America (at which point Clovis Culture develops) and henceforth the technology (if not the people) spreads northwards up the ice free corridor into Alaska – where it may have been adopted by Ancient Alaskans and melded with their characteristic and long-standing microblade technology. Indeed, the Serpentine Hot Springs Site is a mixed microblade-fluted point assemblage. Eventually, fluted points backwashed all the way to Asia, where one was found at the Uptar site in Kamchatka.
The site was excavated by Dr. Ted Goebel of Texas A&M University, who is a leading archaeologist of the early Americas and a specialist in Beringian Technology. There is a very good preliminary write-up on his research here, with a slideshow, courtesy of the Bering Land Bridge National Park Service.
For the more technically-minded reader, from an abstract of a recent conference paper available through INSTAAR (PDF):
A NEW BURIED AND DATABLE FLUTED POINT SITE IN BERINGIA: NEW INFORMATION FROM SERPENTINE HOT SPRING
Keene, Joshua L; Sakamoto, Takako; Goebel, Ted; Waters, Michael R; Gal, Bob
In the summer of 2009, we performed a survey and test-excavation of the Serpentine Hot Springs site (BEN-170) in Bering Land Bridge National Preserve on the Seward Penninsula, Alaska. This site was originally discovered by Chris Young, Sabra Gilbert-Young, and Bob Gal in 2005. They found a fluted point base on the surface, and initial testing produced a channel flake in a buried context tentatively associated with charcoal dated to 10,000 14C years ago (Young and Gilbert- Young 2007). These results encouraged us to perform further investigation in 2009, since fluted points had never previously been found in a clear stratified and dated context in Alaska (Clark 1991). In 2009, our group, which included the authors as well as Kelly Graf, John Blong, Sergei Slobodin, and Aluki Brower, mapped the site, collected surface artifacts from two localities (BEN- 192 and BEN-170), and excavated 15 units from BEN-170. The excavation included a 6-m2 block, four 1-m2 units, and five 50×50 cm test units. Stratigraphically, we found evidence of two buried soils that were clearly separated in some areas and mixed together in others with artifacts occurring in both paleosols. In the 6-m2 block, which was situated around the 2005 test pits where the original point was found, we exposed and mapped a hearth feature in the lower paleosol partially disturbed by burrowing activity and cryoturbation. Associated with the hearth was another channel flake and several microblades, as well as hundreds of small bone fragments, provisionally identified as ungulate. A fluted point base was also recovered, but appears to have originated from the upper paleosol. In addition, we recovered two additional fluted points from the surface and found another on the surface at a nearby lithic scatter. So far, five fluted point fragments have been recovered from the Serpentine Hot Springs area.
Although we have not yet obtained additional 14C dates, those from the 2005 testing provisionally suggest the feature, lower paleosol, and associated artifacts and bones date to approximately 10,000 14C BP. This marks the first known occurrence of fluted point technology in a dated context in Beringia and suggests that fluted points are actually younger in Alaska than in the lower 48 states. Moreover, the tentative association of fluted points with microblades further suggests that fluted point technology was “grafted” onto a pre-existing microblade industry in Alaska. Rather than imply the movement of Paleoindian groups from the Great Plains, this suggests that there was a movement of technology amongst existing populations of North America in the late Pleistocene.
I don’t know if this will stop the search for Clovis antecedents north of the ice sheets: it is only one site and it sounds like there is more work to do. Certainly there are earlier sites than Clovis in Alaska and Yukon, but the technological and cultural relationship between these and Clovis is not established. I therefore lean to the notion that Clovis may have been a southern innovation that spread north, linking up with archaeological cultures with which it shared a common, Beringian or even, Asian, ancestor.