The First People in America
Rethinking Clovis: When Humans Made it to America

Who were the first people in the Americas? When did they arrive? The answer to these questions, as with so much of archeology, depends on who you ask.

For years, school children have been taught that Native Americans are descended from hunters who left northeast Asia to follow game across a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska. This land bridge was thought to have existed at the end of the Ice Age, around 12,000 years ago. Eventually, these hunters from Mongolia, China, and Siberia migrated through North and South America, peopling the previously uninhabited continent.

This theory originated in a small town on the eastern plains of New Mexico in 1929. While uncovering the bones of wooly mammoth and ice age bison, archeologists made a shocking discovery. Scattered alongside the bones were distinctive, well-crafted, bifacial spear points. These became known as “Clovis points,” named for the town near the discovery.  It was previously believed that the mammoth and other very large game had died out before humans appeared on the prairies. Yet these spear points suggested otherwise. Scholars flocked to the Black Water Draw dig site, just outside this small town, to study these tips.

Spurred on by this new discovery, archeologists began finding “Clovis sites” throughout the prairies of North and South America. These distinctive spear points, now showing up all over the plains, were subjected to radiocarbon dating in the 1950s. Scientists estimate these arrow points to be between 11,400 and 13,500 years old. The earliest Clovis site dates line up perfectly with the appearance of the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, making it possible for these early hunters to migrate through the Americas, settling among the temperate prairies as they followed their prey south.

This time frame also places ancient humans in the same period as mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, saber-toothed tigers, dire wolves weighing more than 150 pounds, eight-foot beavers, and short-face bears who weighed 1,800 pounds and stood over six feet tall on all fours. The Clovis spear points were well-made, strong and appropriate for hunting these types of large animals.

Clovis points continue to dominate the archeological record until these large animals disappeared. It is believed that these hunters pursued their prey, hunting them to extinction during the final cold snap of the ice age.

 

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