Clovis culture
Map showing the extent of the Clovis culture
Geographical rangeNorth America
Dates13,050 to 12,750 BP (11,100-10,800 BC)
Type siteBlackwater Draw, New Mexico
Followed byFolsom tradition (among others)

The Clovis culture is an archaeological culture from the Paleoindian period of North America, spanning around 13,050 to 12,750 years Before Present.[1] The type site is Blackwater Draw locality No. 1 near Clovis, New Mexico, where stone tools were found alongside the remains of Columbian mammoths in 1929.[2] Clovis sites have been found across North America.[1] The most distinctive part of the Clovis culture toolkit are Clovis points,[3] which are projectile points with a fluted, lanceolate shape.[n 1] Clovis points are typically large, sometimes exceeding 10 centimetres (3.9 in) in length. These points were multifunctional, also serving as cutting tools. Other stone tools used by the Clovis culture include knives, scrapers and bifacial tools, with bone tools including beveled rods and shaft wrenches, with possible ivory points also being identified. Hides, wood, and natural fibres may also have been heavily utilized, though no direct evidence of this has been preserved. Clovis artifacts are often found grouped together in caches where they had been stored for later retrieval, and over 20 Clovis caches have been identified.[4]

The Clovis peoples are thought to have been highly mobile groups of hunter-gatherers.[5] It is generally agreed that these groups were reliant on hunting big game (megafauna),[6] and were particularly associated with mammoth, mastodon and bison,[7] but they also consumed smaller animals and plants.[6] The Clovis hunters may have contributed to the Late Pleistocene megafauna extinctions in North America, though this has been subject to controversy.[7] Only one human burial has been directly associated with tools from the Clovis culture, an infant boy buried in Montana,[8][9][10] who has a close genetic relation to some modern Native American populations, including those in Southern North America, Central America, and South America.[10][11][12]

The Clovis culture represents the earliest widely recognised archaeological culture in North America.[13] While historically many scholars held to a "Clovis first" model, where Clovis represented the earliest inhabitants in the Americas, today this is largely rejected, with several generally accepted sites across the Americas like Monte Verde II being dated to at least a thousand years older than the oldest Clovis sites.[14]

The end of the Clovis culture may have been driven by the decline of the megafauna that the Clovis hunted, as well as decreasing mobility resulting in local differentiation of lithic and cultural traditions across North America.[15] Beginning around 12,750-12,600 years Before Present, the Clovis culture was succeeded by more regional cultures,[16] including the Folsom tradition in central North America,[16] the Cumberland point in mid/southern North America,[17] the Suwannee and Simpson points in the southeast,[18] and Gainey points in the northeast-Great Lakes region.[19] The Clovis and Folsom traditions may have overlapped, perhaps for around 80-400 years,[20] which is generally considered to be the result of normal cultural change through time.[15][20]

In South America, the widespread similar related Fishtail or Fell point style was contemporaneous to the usage of Clovis points in North America,[1][21] and possibly developed from Clovis points.[22]


On 29 August 1927, the first in place evidence of Pleistocene humans seen by multiple archaeologists in the Americas was discovered near Folsom, New Mexico. At this site they found the first in situ Folsom point with the bones of the extinct bison species Bison antiquus. This confirmation of a human presence in the Americas during the Pleistocene inspired many people to start looking for evidence of early humans.[23]

In 1929, 19-year-old Ridgely Whiteman, who had been closely following the excavations in nearby Folsom in the newspaper, discovered the Clovis site near the Blackwater Draw in eastern New Mexico. Despite several earlier Paleoindian discoveries, the best documented evidence of the Clovis complex was collected and excavated between 1932 and 1937 near Clovis, New Mexico, by a crew under the direction of Edgar Billings Howard until 1935 and later by John Cotter from the Academy of Natural Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. Howard's crew left their excavation in Burnet Cave, the first truly professionally excavated Clovis site, in August, 1932, and visited Whiteman and his Blackwater Draw site. By November, Howard was back at Blackwater Draw to investigate additional finds from a construction project.[24]

The American Journal of Archaeology, in its January–March 1932 edition, mentions E. B. Howard's work in Burnet Cave, including the discovery of extinct fauna and a "Folsom type" point 4 ft below a Basketmaker burial. This brief mention of the Clovis point found in place predates any work done at the Dent site in Colorado. The reference is made to a slightly earlier article on Burnet Cave in The University Museum Bulletin of November, 1931.[25]

The first report of professional work at the Blackwater Draw Clovis site was published in the 25 November issue of Science News (V22 #601) in 1932.[26] The publications on Burnet Cave and Blackwater Draw directly contradict statements by several authors (for example see Haynes 2002:56 The Early Settlement of North America[27]) that Dent, Colorado was the first excavated Clovis site. The Dent site, in Weld County, Colorado, was simply a fossil mammoth excavation in 1932. The first Dent Clovis point was found on 5 November 1932, and the in situ point was found 7 July 1933.[28] The in situ Clovis point from Burnet Cave was excavated in late August, 1931 (and was reported in early 1932).[29]

Material culture

A feature considered to be distinctive of the Clovis tradition is overshot flaking, overshot flakes are those which "during the manufacture of a biface are struck from prepared edges of a piece and travel from one edge across the face", with limited removal of the opposite edge. Whether or not the overshot flaking was intentional on the part of the stoneknapper has been contested,[30] with other authors suggesting that overface flaking (where flakes that travel past the midline, but terminate before reaching the opposite end are removed) was the primary goal.[6] Other elements considered distinctive of the Clovis culture tool complex include "raw material selectivity; distinctive patterns of flake and blade platform preparation, thinning and flaking; characteristic biface size and morphology, including the presence of end-thinning; and the size, curvature and reduction strategies of blades".[31] It has long been recognised that the definition of the Clovis culture is to a degree ambiguous, the term being "used in a number of ways, referring to an era, to a culture, and most specifically, to a distinctive projectile point type" with disagreement between scholars about distinguishing between Clovis and various other Paleoindian archaeological cultures.[32]


Clovis point

Example of a Clovis point

A hallmark of the toolkit associated with the Clovis culture is the distinctively shaped lithic point known as the Clovis point. Clovis points are bifacial (having flakes removed from both faces) and typically fluted (having an elongate flake removed from the base of the point[6]) on both sides, with the fluting typically running up a third[33] or a half of the length of the point, distinct from many later Paleoindian traditions where the flute runs up the entire point length.[6] Clovis points are typically parallel-sided to slightly convex, with the base of the point being concave.[33] Although no direct evidence of what was attached to Clovis points has been found,[34] Clovis points are commonly thought to have served as tips for spears/darts likely used as handheld thrusting spears or as throwing weapons, possibly in combination with a spear thrower, for hunting and possibly self-defense.[35][36] Wear on Clovis points indicates that they were multifunctional objects that also served as cutting and slicing tools, with some authors suggesting that some Clovis point types were primarily used as knives.[37] Clovis points were at least sometimes resharpened, though the idea that they were continually resharpened "long-life" tools has been questioned.[38] The shape and size of Clovis points varies signficantly over space and time.[13] The largest points exceed 10 centimetres (3.9 in) in length.[4] The points required considerable effort to make, and often broke during knapping,[13] particularly during fluting. The fluting may have served to make the finished points more durable during use via acting as a "shock absorber" to redistribute stress during impact, though others have suggested that it may have been purely stylistic or used to strengthen the hafting to the spear handle.[39][40] The points were generally produced from nodules or siliceous cryptocrystalline rocks.[13] Clovis points were thinned using end-thinning ("the removal of blade-like flakes parallel to the long-axis").[6] They were initially prepared using percussion flaking, with the point being finished using pressure flaking.[13]


Clovis blades are part of the global Upper Paleolithic blade tradition, and are long flakes removed from specially prepared conical or wedge-shaped cores.[41] Clovis blades are twice as long as they are wide, and were used and modified to create a wide variety of tools, including endscrapers (used to scrape hides), serrated tools and gravers.[6] Unlike bifaces, Clovis blade cores do not appear to have regularly transported long distances, with only the blades typically carried in the mobile toolkit.[42]


Bifaces served a variety of roles for Clovis hunter-gatherers, serving as cutting tools, preforms for formal tools such as points, and as portable sources of large flakes useful as preforms or tools.[43]

Other tools

Other tools associated with the Clovis culture are adzes (likely used for woodworking),[6] bone "shaft wrenches" (suggested to have been used to straighten wooden shafts),[44] as well as "beveled rods", made of bone[45] and ivory, which may have served as shafts. Clovis people are also known to have used ivory and bone to create projectile points.[6]


A distinctive feature of the Clovis culture generally not found in subsequent cultures is "caching", where a collection of artifacts (typically stone tools, such as Clovis points or bifaces) were deliberately left at a location, presumably with the intention to return to collect them later, though some authors have interpreted cache deposits as ritual behavior. Over 20 such "caches" have been identified across North America.[4]

Art and ritual practices

A few Clovis culture artifacts are suspected to reflect creative expression such as rock art, the use of red ochre, and engraved stones. The best known examples of Clovis art were found at the Gault site in Texas, and consist of limestone nodules incised with expressive geometric patterns, some of which mimic leaf patterns.[46] Clovis peoples, like other Paleoindian cultures, used red ochre for a variety of artistic and ritual purposes, including burials,[47] and to cover objects in caches.[48] Clovis peoples are known to have transported ochre 100 kilometres (62 mi) from the original outcrop.[47] Clovis peoples are also suggested to have produced beads out of animal bones.[49]


Clovis hunter-gatherers are characterized as "high-technology foragers" who utilized sophisticated technology to maintain access to resources under conditions of high mobility.[50] In many Clovis localities, the stone tools found at the site were hundreds of kilometers away from the source stone outcrop, in one case over 900 kilometres (560 mi) away.[51] The people who produced the Clovis culture probably had a low population density, but had geographically extensive cultural networks.[13] The Clovis culture is suggested to have heavily utilized hide, wood and natural fibres, though no direct evidence of this has been preserved.[4] Clovis culture artifacts have often been found associated with big game, including proboscideans (Columbian mammoth, mastodon,[7] and the gomphothere Cuvieronius[52]) bison[7] equines of the genus Equus[53] and the extinct camel Camelops,[54] as well as caribou/reindeer and peccaries (Platygonus, Mylohyus).[55] A handful of sites possibly suggest the hunting of ground sloths (Paramylodon), glyptodonts, tapirs and the llama Hemiauchenia.[7][55] Proboscideans (especially mammoths) are the most common recorded species found in Clovis sites, followed by bison. However, the Clovis culture is not exclusively associated with large animals, with several sites showing the exploitation of small game like tortoises and jackrabbits.[7] It is generally agreed that the people who produced the Clovis culture were reliant on big game for a significant portion of their diet (though also consuming smaller animals and plants),[6] though to what degree they were reliant on megafauna is disputed, with some authors arguing for a generalist hunter gatherer lifestyle that also involved the occasional targeting of megafauna.[7][56] The effectiveness of Clovis tools for hunting proboscideans has been contested by some authors, though other authors have asserted that Clovis points were likely capable of killing proboscideans, noting that replica Clovis points have been able to penetrate elephant hide in experimental tests, and that groups of hunter-gatherers in Africa have been observed killing elephants using spears.[57]

In the Southern Plains, Clovis people created campsites of considerable size, which are often on the periphery of the region near sources of workable stone, from which they are suggested to have seasonally migrated into the plains to hunt megafauna. In the southeast, Clovis peoples created large camps that may have served as "staging areas", which may have been seasonally occupied, where a number of bands may have gathered for social occasions.[6] At Jake Bluff in northern Oklahoma, Clovis points are associated with numerous butchered Bison antiquus bones, which represented a bison herd of at least 22 individuals. At the time of deposition, the site was a steep-sided arroyo (dry watercourse) that formed a dead-end, suggesting that Clovis hunters trapped the bison herd within the arroyo before killing them.[58]

Megafauna extinction

Beginning in the 1950s, Paul S. Martin proposed the "overkill hypothesis", suggesting that the Late Pleistocene megafauna extinctions in North America were driven by human hunting, including by Clovis peoples, with the hunting and extinction of large herbivores having a knock-on effect causing the extinction of large carnivores. This suggestion has been the subject of controversy.[59] The timing of megafauna extinction in North America also co-incides with major climatic changes, making it difficult to disentangle the effects of various factors in the megafauna extinctions.[60] In a 2012 survey of archaeologists in The SAA Archaeological Record, 63% of respondents said that megafauna extinctions were likely the result of a "combination of factors".[61]


The only known Clovis burial is that of Anzick-1, an infant boy who was found near Wilsall, Montana in 1968. The body was associated with over 100 stone and bone artifacts, all of which were stained with red ochre. The individual dates to approximately 12,990–12,840 years Before Present.[62] Sequencing of his genome demonstrates that he belonged to a population that is ancestral to many contemporary Indigenous peoples of the Americas,[12] particularly those from Central and South America, and less related to those from contemporary North America, including Northern Mexico,[12][63] though there is considerable variability in the genetic closeness of Central and South American indigenous peoples to Anzick-1, with older ancient South American remains generally more closely related to Anzick, suggesting that the Native American population had already diverged into multiple genetically distinct groups by the time of the Clovis culture, followed by subsequent migration of these populations later in the Holocene.[64] Like other Native Americans Anzick is closely related to Siberian peoples, confirming the Asian origin of the Clovis culture.[12] He belongs to Y chromosome Haplogroup Q-L54, which is common among contemporary Native Americans, and to mitochondrial haplogroup D4h3a, which is rare among contemporary native Americans (occurring in 1.4% of contemporary Native Americans, primarily along the Pacific coast), but is more common in the very earliest Indigenous Americans.[12]

Distribution and chronology

Some authors have suggested that the Clovis culture lasted for a relatively short period of a few centuries, with a 2020 study suggesting a temporal range based on 10 securely radiocarbon dated Clovis sites of 13,050 to 12,750 years calibrated years Before Present (BP), ending subsequent to the onset of the Younger Dryas,[1] consistent with the results obtained in a 2007 study by the same authors.[65] Other authors have argued that some sites extend the range of the Clovis culture back to 13,500 years Before Present, though the dating for these earlier sites is not secure.[60] Some scholars have supported a long chronology for Clovis of around 1,500 years.[13]

Historically, many authors argued for a "Clovis first" paradigm, where Clovis, which represents the earliest recognisable archaeological culture in North America,[13] were suggested to represent the earliest inhabitants of the Americas south of the Laurentide Ice Sheet. However, since the beginning of the 21st century, this hypothesis has been abandoned by most researchers,[61] as several widely accepted sites, notably Monte Verde II in Chile (c. 14,500 years BP)[66] as well as Paisley Caves in Oregon (c. 14,200 years BP)[67] and Cooper's Ferry in Idaho (c. 15,800 years Before Present)[68] are suggested to be considerably older than the oldest Clovis sites. Historically, it was suggested that the ancestors of the people who produced the Clovis culture migrated into North America along the "ice free corridor", but many later scholars have suggested that a migration along the Pacific coast is more likely.[69]

The Clovis culture is known from localities across North America, from southern Canada[54] to northern Mexico and across the east and west of the continent.[1] The area of origin of the Clovis culture remains unclear, though the development of fluted Clovis points appears to have occurred in North America south of the Laurentide Ice Sheet, and not in Beringia. The Clovis culture may have originated from the Dyuktai lithic style widespread in Beringia. While some authors have suggested that the Clovis culture resulted from diffusion of traditions through an already pre-existing Paleoindian population, others have asserted that the culture likely originated from the expansion of a single population.[3] In Western North America, the Clovis culture was contemporaneous with and perhaps preceded by the Western Stemmed Tradition, which produced unfluted projectile points.[67]

The end of the Clovis culture may have been driven by the decline of the megafauna that the Clovis hunted, as well as decreasing mobility resulting in local differentiation of lithic and cultural traditions across North America.[15] There is no evidence that the disappearance of the Clovis culture was the result of the onset of the Younger Dryas, or that there was a population decline of Paleoindians following the end of the Clovis culture.[70]

The Clovis culture was succeeded by various regional point styles, such as the Folsom tradition in central North America,[16] the Cumberland point in mid/southern North America,[17] the Suwannee and Simpson points in the southeast,[18] and Gainey points in the northeast-Great Lakes region.[19] The Clovis and Folsom traditions may have overlapped, perhaps for around 80-400 years,[20] which is generally considered to be the result of normal cultural change through time.[15][20]

A number of authors have suggested that the Clovis culture is ancestral to other fluted point producing cultures in Central and South America, like the widespread Fishtail or Fell point style.[22]


  1. ^ Fluted: Having a flake removed from the base, either on one or both sides.
    Lanceolate: Tapering to a point at one end, like the head of a lance.


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Further reading