Regarded as one of the most influential cultures in the history of North America, the Clovis people are the oldest recognised culture in the Western hemisphere.
Remarkably, the Clovis culture disappeared just as quickly and suddenly as it appeared, being dominant for some 400-600 years during its active period. Their disappearance long baffled archaeologists.
So, who were the Clovis people, where did they come from and why did they vanish?
1. The culture is named after a place in New Mexico
The Clovis culture is named after a find of distinctive stone tools in Clovis, the county seat of Curry County, New Mexico, in the United States. The name was reaffirmed after many more finds were found in the same area in the 1920s and ’30s.
2. A 19-year-old discovered a crucial Clovis site
In February 1929, 19-year-old amateur archaeologist James Ridgely Whiteman from Clovis, New Mexico, discovered ‘fluted points in association with mammoth bones’, a collection of both mammoth bones and small, stone weapons.
Whiteman’s find is now considered to be one of the most significant archaeological sites in human history.
3. Archaeologists didn’t take notice until 1932
Whiteman immediately contacted the Smithsonian, who ignored his letter plus two subsequent ones within the next few years. However, in 1932, the New Mexico highway department were digging gravel near the site, and uncovered piles of enormous bones.
Archaeologists excavated the site further and found, as Whiteman had said to the Smithsonian, ancient spearheads, stone tools, hearths and evidence of almost continuous occupation at the site that dated back an extraordinary 13,000 years.
4. They were once thought of as the ‘First Americans’
Archaeologists think that the Clovis people arrived via the Bering land bridge that once linked Asia and Alaska, before rapidly spreading southward. This may have been the first people to cross a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska at the end of the last Ice Age.
Though researchers initially thought that the Clovis people were the first to arrive in America, there is evidence of ancient cultures residing in the Americas some 20,000 years ago – roughly 7,000 years before the Clovis people arrived.
5. They were big game hunters
In New Mexico, the Clovis people thrived on grasslands populated with giant bison, mammoths, camels, dire wolves, huge turtles, sabre-toothed tigers and giant ground sloths. Undoubtedly big game hunters, there is also evidence that they hunted smaller animals such as deer, rabbits, birds and coyotes, fished, and foraged for nuts, roots, plants and small mammals.
6. Clovis spear points are the most famous discovery from the culture
The majority of finds from Clovis people sites are scrapers, drills, blades and distinctive leaf-shaped spear points known as ‘Clovis points’.
At around 4 inches long and made from flint, chert and obsidian, over 10,000 Clovis points have now been found in North America, Canada and Central America. The oldest discovered are from northern Mexico and are dated at around 13,900 years old.
7. They built the first-known water control system in North America
Carbon dating in Clovis has shown that the Clovis people lived in the area for about 600 years, hunting animals that drank at a spring-fed marsh and lake. However, there is evidence that they also dug a well, which is the first known water control system in North America.
8. Little is known about their lifestyle
Unlike stone tools, organic remains like clothes, sandals and blankets are rarely preserved. Therefore, little is known about the Clovis people’s lives and customs. However, it is known that they were certainly nomadic people who roamed from place to place in pursuit of food, and lived in crude tents, shelters or shallow caves.
Only one burial has been found that is associated with the Clovis people, which is an infant buried with stone tools and bone tool fragments dating to 12,600 years ago.
9. The Clovis lifestyle changed when megafauna reduced
The Clovis age ended around 12,900 years ago, likely when there was a decline in the availability of megafauna and a less mobile population. This led to a more differentiated people across the Americas who adapted differently and invented new technologies to survive.
10. They are the direct ancestors of most Indigenous American populations
Genetic data shows that the Clovis people are the direct ancestors of about 80% of all living Indigenous American populations in both North and South America. The 12,600-year-old discovered Clovis burial confirms this connection, and also shows a connection to the ancestral peoples of northeast Asia, which confirms a theory that the people migrated across a land bridge from Siberia to North America.