Early Clovis Settlements

Friday, September 7, 2012

Paleoindians: Ice Age Hunters in Arkansas and the Mid-South 11,500-8500 B.C.

by George Sabo III



Archeologists use the term Paleoindian to refer to the earliest American Indians descended from Asiatic migrants. Paleoindians were present in North America by the end of the last Ice Age. They quickly spread into Central and South America. The best known and earliest Paleoindian culture is called Clovis, named after a town in New Mexico where, in 1932, Clovis artifacts were discovered in Pleistocene sediments. The most diagnostic artifact is the Clovis point, a well-made, lanceolate (or willow leaf shaped) spear point with flutes for “hafting” or securing the point onto a bone or wood shaft. Flutes are shallow channels on one or both faces of the point, produced by removing long, thin flakes that extend from the base part way up the blade. Clovis points were components of a sophisticated weapon complex consisting of a multi-piece dart assembly. A throwing stick or “atlatl” was used to increase the force with which the dart could be hurled.

Clovis points are found in Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Many Clovis sites also contain the remains of large Ice Age mammals, including mammoths and mastodons. Clovis sites are radiocarbon dated between 11,500 and 10,500 B.C.

Locations of initial Paleoindian staging areas in the Mid-South, by Jane Kellett (Arkansas Archeological Survey).

J. Christopher Gillam studied the distribution of Clovis artifacts in Arkansas. Most Clovis material occurs in the eastern part of the state, indicating that the first groups migrated down the Mississippi River from the northern plains. Radiocarbon-dated sites in Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee place the Clovis arrival in the Mid-South around 10,500 B.C. Clovis points are not evenly distributed; rather, they occur in regional clusters that archeologists interpret as “staging areas.” Staging areas are the localities where Paleoindian migrations halted and groups began to settle down and make adaptations—that is, changes in their routines—in relation to regional environments.

Paleoindians expansion from initial staging areas into adjacent regions, by Jane Kellett (Arkansas Archeological Survey).

Archeologist Juliet Morrow studies the regional variants of Clovis points that developed in and around mid-South staging areas. She believes the appearance of these variants represents the emergence of regionally distinctive Paleoindian groups. These groups maintained their mobile way of life, but instead of migrating across a wide, uninhabited terrain, they now moved within specific territories they considered their home. Groups periodically branched out to occupy new territories in adjacent region

Clovis people lived in scattered groups consisting of perhaps two dozen or so members. There may have been only one hundred to one-hundred-fifty people in all of what is now Arkansas. They did not build permanent houses, nor did they make heavy implements. Much more efficient for their needs were temporary dwellings, such as lean tos or simple wood frame structures covered with bark, grass, or hides. Warm, well-made animal skin clothing provided adequate protection in cold environments. Other equipment was light enough to be personally carried or towed by dogs.

Ancient peoples’ views of the world can sometimes be inferred by studying their artworks. Unfortunately, very few Paleoindian artworks have been found. A few pieces of bone, ivory, and stone found at several Paleoindian sites across North America are inscribed with geometric designs that are difficult if not impossible to interpret. A zigzag “lightning bolt” drawn with red ochre (a form of iron oxide) on the skull of a bison killed by late Paleoindian hunters in Oklahoma is interpreted by archeologist Lee Bement as evidence of hunting ritual. These tantalizing examples don’t shed a great deal of light on specific Paleoindian beliefs, but they demonstrate a capacity for symbolic communication that later Indian groups used extensively.

When Clovis people reached the Mid-South, upland areas in what is now Arkansas were covered by patches of tundra, grassland, and boreal forest. Bottomlands supported mixed deciduous forests. There were few edible plant foods, but large Ice Age mammals including mammoths and mastodons roamed grasslands and open woodlands and caribou grazed scattered tundra zones. This mixture of closely-spaced tundra, boreal forest, hardwood forest, and grassland habitats no longer exists anywhere in the world. Another unique feature of Ice Age environments is that there were no marked seasonal changes – it was mostly cold and wet the year-round. The Mississippi River flowed in multiple, braided channels within a vast expanse of gravel bars. Water from melting glaciers was too cold and turbulent to support fish or shellfish.

Mammoths and mastodons had regular patterns of movement keyed to their needs for food, water, and minerals such as salt. As these animals moved about their range, they left well-trodden paths, damaged vegetation, and identifiable dung. Clovis people tracked their whereabouts with considerable efficiency and planned encounters where the animals could be taken. The meat, hides, bone, and ivory all were used.

Many Ice Age species, including mammoths and mastodons, suffered extinction before 8000 B.C. Archeologists and paleontologists debate whether these extinctions were caused by climate change, human hunting, disease, or some combination of factors. Recent studies of the impacts of climate changes on vegetation suggest that the grassland and open woodland habitats favored by mammoths and mastodons shrank dramatically towards the end of the last Ice Age. As dwindling herds became increasingly confined to shrinking habitats, Clovis hunting could have been a significant tipping point on the path to extinction.

The elimination of mammoths and mastodons forced Clovis people to alter their hunting strategies. Deer, elk, and bison—already present when Paleoindians entered the Southeast—became the primary game animals. Deer and elk are solitary wanderers adapted to forest edge habitats so their pursuit required different tracking strategies and hunting techniques. As the Clovis people adapted, a new way of life emerged that archeologists call the Dalton Culture.

Further Reading:
Anderson, David G. and Kenneth E. Sassaman (editors) 1996 The Paleoindian and Early Archaic Southeast. Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press. Bement, Leland C.1999 Bison Hunting at the Cooper Site: Where Lightening Bolts Drew Thundering Herds. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press. Gillam, J. Chrisopher 1999 Paleoindian settlement in Northeastern Arkansas. In Arkansas Archeology: Essays in Honor of Dan and Phyllis Morse, edited by Robert C. Mainfort, Jr. and Marvin D. Jeter, pp. 99-119. Fayetteville, University of Arkansas Press. Haynes, Gary
2002 The Early Settlement of North America: The Clovis Era. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. Morrow, Juliet E. 2005 The Myth of Clovis, Part II: The Evolution of Paleoindian Projectile Point Styles. Central States Archaeological Journal52(2):79-82. 2006 Paleoindian Period. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.

Encyclopedia of Arkansas Link:



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