Ancient Clovis people may have taken tool cues from earlier Americans

Newly discovered Texas spearpoints could shed light on the first inhabitants of North America

ancient spearpoint

POINTING BACK  Discoveries at a Texas site, including this roughly 15,000-year-old stemmed spearpoint, suggest that descendants of some of the earliest American settlers were the makers of Clovis artifacts, researchers say.

Center for the Study of the First Americans/Texas A&M Univ.

Stone spearpoints from roughly 15,000 years ago suggest that descendants of some of the earliest American settlers went on to create the Clovis culture.

Excavations at a site in Central Texas yielded about 100,000 stone artifacts, including 12 spearpoints, that date to between 15,500 and 13,500 years ago. The shapes of those spearpoints show a progression from stemmed points to a short triangular blade, meaning that the artifacts may have been precursors to long, triangular Clovis points, researchers report October 24 in Science Advances.

By about 13,500 years ago, Clovis people had settled various sites across North America. For years, scientists thought that these people were the first inhabitants of the continent. But researchers have found a growing number of pre-Clovis human sites in the Americas (SN: 8/4/18, p. 7).

In 2011, initial pre-Clovis finds were unearthed at the Buttermilk Creek Complex, part of the larger Debra L. Friedkin archaeological site and the same place where the newly discovered artifacts come from. But none of those finds could be linked to later Clovis points also from the site.

In the new study, the researchers show that 11 of the 12 new spearpoints had been chipped into leaf shapes that taper into slightly narrower stems. The exception is a short, triangular spearpoint with a flat base that dates to between 14,000 and 13,500 years ago.

CLOVIS OUTCOME People who reached North America by 15,500 years ago made spearpoints that appear to be precursors of later Clovis points, such as those shown here. Bill Whittaker/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

“We have discovered two previously unknown spearpoint styles that predate Clovis,” says study coauthor and archaeologist Michael Waters of Texas A&M University in College Station. Finding these artifacts in sediment showing a clear progression from stemmed points to a triangular point to Clovis points over a roughly 2,000-year period raises the likelihood that one spearpoint style led to the next, Waters holds.

Similar stemmed spearpoints dating to as early as around 14,000 years ago have been found in parts of the western United States (SN: 8/11/12, p. 15). Several spearpoints found at the Gault site in Central Texas, dating to 16,700 years ago or more, also look similar to the stemmed spearpoints from Buttermilk Creek, Waters says.

Early American settlers crafted stemmed spearpoints and probably traveled down the Pacific coast starting around 16,000 years ago, the researchers contend. An inland passageway through the North American Arctic contained too little food to support humans until around 12,600 years ago (SN Online: 8/8/18), Waters’ group argues.

Some ancient Pacific coast migrants moved inland at various points, leaving stemmed spearpoints at North and South American sites dating to at least 13,000 years ago, Waters’ team suggests. In one possible scenario, makers of stemmed spearpoints at Buttermilk Creek developed short, triangular spearpoints. Or, the scientists say, other groups of migrants moving inland from the Pacific coast or via an ice-free corridor brought triangular spearpoints to Buttermilk Creek. In either case, the researchers regard the Buttermilk Creek triangular blade as a Clovis precursor.   

Geoarchaeologist Jessi Halligan of Florida State University in Tallahassee agrees. She served as field director of Friedkin site excavations in 2008, 2009 and 2011 but did not participate in the new research. Halligan also led a project indicating that pre-Clovis people inhabited Florida about 14,550 years ago (SN: 6/11/16, p. 8).

“At least in Central Texas,” Halligan says, “people arrived well before Clovis, discovered a source of excellent stone for tools and passed their knowledge on to their descendants who eventually started making Clovis artifacts.”

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