Clovis people may have hunted elephant-like prey, not just mammoths

Traces of ancient American culture also discovered farther south than expected

POINTING SOUTH  New finds, including this crystal quartz spear point, indicate that North America’s Clovis people hunted in what’s now northwestern Mexico around 13,390 years ago.

INAH Sonora

Ancient North America’s Clovis people, known as mammoth and mastodon hunters of the Great Plains, may have started out as gomphothere hunters of northwestern Mexico.

New finds indicate for the first time that Clovis people killed these now-extinct elephant-like creatures. What’s more, Clovis people did so from the culture’s early days in a region well south of the best-known Clovis sites. Clovis culture peaked between 13,000 and 12,600 years ago and its members may have been ancestors of today’s Native Americans (SN: 3/22/14, p. 6).

“The southern Plains and northern Mexico may be where Clovis culture rapidly evolved out of the flexible culture of North America’s first explorers,” says anthropologist Gary Haynes of the University of Nevada, Reno, who was not involved with the research.

Excavations at a site called El Fin del Mundo, or the End of the World, in Mexico’s Sonoran Desert indicate that Clovis folks camped there around 13,390 years ago, making them some of the earliest representatives of that culture, say anthropologist Guadalupe Sanchez of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Hermosillo and her colleagues.

To the investigators’ surprise, the site contained four

JAW DROPPER After excavating a large mammal’s jaw at a Clovis site in the Sonoran Desert, researchers transported it to a lab and determined that it came not from a mammoth but from a now-extinct, elephant-like creature called a gomphothere. V.T. Holliday
spearpoints considered the signature of Clovis culture strewn among bones of two gomphotheres, elephant-like creatures smaller than the mammoths and mastodons that Clovis people are known to have hunted. Gomphotheres inhabited Central and South America around Clovis times. El Fin del Mundo contains the only evidence of gomphothere hunting by Clovis people, the researchers report July 14 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences .

The new discoveries support a view that Clovis culture originated in the southwestern United States or northwestern Mexico. Only one previously excavated Clovis site, Aubrey in north Texas, is estimated to be as old as the Sonoran site.

If Clovis culture developed in the Great Plains as traditionally thought, that must have occurred much earlier than scientists previously estimated — well before gomphothere hunters inhabited El Fin del Mundo, says anthropologist and study coauthor Vance Holliday of the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Our new data compel Paleoindian researchers to think more broadly about the age and origins of Clovis technology.”

Although evidence of gomphothere hunting at El Fin del Mundo is exciting, it’s unclear when Clovis culture originated, says archaeologist Michael Waters of Texas A&M University in College Station. Estimated ages for El Fin del Mundo and Aubrey each rest on one radiocarbon date. Additional radiocarbon dates for both sites are needed, Waters says.

Sanchez came across the Mexican site in the late 1990s while looking for Clovis and mammoth sites in Sonora. She met a rancher who had noticed an isolated, dry creek bed where large bones poked out of eroding soil. Excavations at the remote site, located a bumpy three-hour drive from the nearest paved road, ran from 2007 to 2012.

About 800 meters up a slope from the gomphothere bones and Clovis points, the researchers discovered remnants of an ancient camp. Stone tools and tool-making debris, including 13 complete and partial Clovis points, lay scattered across the ground. Clovis hunters regularly returned to the camp, the researchers suspect.

Sanchez and her colleagues at first assumed that they had found mammoths killed by Clovis hunters. Clovis mammoth kills dating to around 13,000 years ago had previously been excavated in southeastern Arizona. But a close analysis of teeth from one of the Mexican animals revealed that it was a gomphothere. 

Finding gomphothere prey, Haynes says, cements the Clovis people’s reputation as opportunistic hunters of whatever large mammals they encountered.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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