A new glimpse at the earliest Americans

Texas site was occupied 15,000 years ago

Everything’s bigger in Texas, even the piles of debris and tools left alongside a stream some 15,000 years ago by some of the earliest known inhabitants of North America.

TOOL TIME Before blades known as Clovis points (left) appeared about 13,000 years ago, early Americans could stab, hunt and shape wood using implements like these 15,500-year-old blades and tools recently unearthed in Texas (right). Left: Courtesy of Michael R. Waters; Right: Courtesy of the Center for the Study of the First Americans, Texas A&M Univ.

The newly discovered trove of 56 stone tools and thousands of flaky rock bits at an archeological site north of Austin is the largest and oldest artifact assemblage of its vintage discovered to date, says Michael Waters of Texas A&M University in College Station. Waters and a large team of colleagues describe the collection of artifacts, dubbed the Buttermilk Creek Complex, in the March 25 Science.

All across North America, a distinctive type of two-faced fluted blade shows up in layers of dirt dating to between 13,100 and 12,800 years ago. This “Clovis point” has been called the first great American invention, a technology that spread quickly among people living on the continent. Scientists used to think that the inventors and users of this particular point, which was probably fastened to wooden spears, were the first inhabitants of North America, arriving via an ancient land bridge with Siberia.

But a number of sites in North America and one in southern Chile known as Monte Verde established that people were making a living in the Americas earlier than 13,000 years ago, and in the last decade the “Clovis First” hypothesis has gone the way of the woolly mammoth. The Buttermilk creek complex, which dates to between 13,200 and 15,500 years ago, adds to this scant but growing roster of pre-Clovis sites.

“So from Oregon to Pennsylvania to Florida to Texas, 15,000 years ago we’ve got people all over North America that were doing a lot of things,” Waters says.

This isn’t news to most of his colleagues, who have convinced themselves over the last decade that Clovis-point–carrying hunters were not the first people to reach the Americas, and that in fact the technology may have been invented in the New World. “What’s the big fuss?” says archaeologist Tom Dillehay of Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “The Clovis First thing has been dead for a good 10 years. This is just another site that confirms what’s been known about other areas of the new world.”

Still, the site does open a window into a poorly known period of American prehistory. In addition to 12 bifacial blades that may have been used as spear points, the archaeological team also found five blade fragments, 14 bladelets and some clunkier adzelike tools that might have been used for carving or shaping wood. It isn’t clear how many people were camping at the Texas site, known as the Debra L. Friedkin site, or for how long they lingered. No hearths or other areas indicative of day-to-day living have been found.

Further excavation may reveal such details, Waters says, perhaps shedding light on how these early Americans lived.

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