Clovis – and Earlier

Of the archeological sites which are considered to have signs of pre-Clovis human activity there are four that I want to focus on today, for a reason, which I’ll get to in a minute.

When and how people first came to the New World has long been an archeological mystery.   Whenever the first Europeans arrived here (either in 1492, and thereafter, or earlier, if you prefer, with Leif Ericsson), they found people already living here.  But where had they come from?  And how?  And when?

Beginning in the 1920’s and thereafter, archeologists (and others) began finding large uniquely shaped stone spear points, and thought, “Aha! Here is evidence of the first people to inhabit the Americas.”  The points were unique in that they had a distinctive fluting, which permitted the point to be hafted onto a shaft.  (See the illustrations.)  The first of these archaic points was found near the town of Clovis, New Mexico, and the culture that had created these beautiful tools became known as the Clovis culture. crain-clovis-hh1Clovis Point

The scientists knew these points were old, because, for example, they found some wedged in mammoth bones.  And as dating techniques became more refined, the points were dated to roughly thirteen thousand years ago. [1] At the time of the discovery of the Clovis points, and for a long time after that, that there was no evidence of any human occupation before that time, roughly 13,000 years BP (Before Present).  

So, based on the discovery of these old stone tools, and the absence of evidence of an earlier human presence, the predominant theory developed.  The theory is often called the Clovis First theory.  That theory was fairly straightforward:  During the last glacial maximum, between sixteen thousand and twelve thousand years ago, the sea level was so low that Siberia and Alaska were connected by a vast land bridge called Beringia; and the people who made those Clovis points, the first humans to come into the Americas, had walked across that land; had come here from Siberia, down through Canada, and into the Americas.  And the theory was plausible, because at that time, not only were the seas low enough to permit travel from Siberia to Alaska on foot, across the vast land today known as Beringia, but also, because at that time there was an ice-free corridor which would have let the wanderers pass down from Alaska between the glaciers, and so into Canada, and the rest of the Americas. And, at that time there was no evidence to suggest that people had been here earlier.

Thus, the Clovis First theory says that those people, who came across Beringia between sixteen thousand and twelve thousand years ago, were the first people to enter North America.  And it was thought, that by 13,000 years ago, they and their culture had diffused as far south as Clovis, New Mexico.

It was a very neat theory.  And, for that matter, it’s a theory that may well reflect (a part of) what really happened.  That is to say, it is likely that some people did, in fact, come into the Americas via Beringia, during that time.

But – it may be that that was not the only way that people got here; and it also may be that people got here earlier than previously thought.

Cue four sites of human settlement in the Americas:

Meadowcroft, Pennsylvania

Saltville, Virginia

Cactus Hill, Virginia

Topper, South Carolina

Why?  Why these four sites?

Two reasons:

First, each has evidence of human activity earlier than 13,000 years ago; evidence of the human presence before the Clovis First theory  permits.

One of the interesting things about archeology is that it isn’t like going to a museum.  The discoveries are not complete little villages, all laid out in a neat diorama.  There are no complete sets of bows and arrows, just lying around.  The materials discovered are often fragmentary, contradictory, and require detailed analysis, and some level of conjecture, before inferences may be drawn, and tentative conclusions reached.

To a greater or lesser extent each of these sites is controversial, insofar as each purports to show evidence of human activity before 13,000 years BP, in large part because the evidence is so equivocal.  I’ll review the sites in greater detail later, but for now, it’s sufficient to state that each shows (or claims to show) evidence of human activity much earlier than the commonly accepted dates of Clovis culture.

How much earlier?    A million years?

Five hundred thousand years?

One hundred thousand years?

Nope.  Three thousand years, four maybe, maybe five thousand years, maybe a little more.

I’ve oversimplified a little.  As noted above, these sites are dated using radiocarbon analysis and that method generates different dates than calendar dates.  There are formulas, however, which allow radiocarbon dates to be translated, roughly, into calendar dates, and using that conversion factor, we can derive evidence of human activity at these sites that goes back as far as 20,000 years BP.

Now that is not hundreds of thousands of years, not even tens of thousands of years, but it is thousands of years.  Thousands (plural) of years.   That’s a long time.  Christianity is only two thousand years old; the pyramids were built five thousand years ago.  And we’re back way before that, and, for that matter, way before the Clovis dates.  Thousands of years earlier.

As I say, each site is somewhat controversial.  But let us assume, for now, that they accurately show evidence of human activity thousands of years before Clovis culture developed.

That leads to the second reason to consider these four sites:

Look where they are.  They’re all on the east coast.

They are thousands of miles away from Clovis, New Mexico; thousands of miles away from the ice-free corridor which led down through Alaska and Canada into North America.  These sites are way over in the east.

Somebody did some traveling.

Somebody traveled far enough to be way over in Virginia, thousands of years before the Clovis culture began.  Who?  Where’d they come from? How’d they get here?

These sites therefore, are significant for a number of reasons:

First, they show evidence that there were people here thousands of years earlier than the Clovis First theory posits.

Second, they show that those people, (whoever they were, however they got here, whenever they got here), were widely spread out across North America.

Third, the locations suggest that people must have entered North America much earlier than the dates posited under the Clovis First theory, in order to give them enough time have travelled so far.

But look at this cool map here.[2]

Bering Strait1

See how it shows routes of travel?  The first Americans could go anywhere they wanted (subject to the location of the ice sheets during the various ice ages).  Don’t makethe mistake of thinking that just because Clovis points were first found in New Mexico that that was where the Clovis culture began.  It’s not as though the first people came over the land bridge, directly down to Clovis, New Mexico, devised this new stone technique and then spread out from there.  In fact, Clovis points have been found all over America, and there is no single answer to where it began.  

Still, it is interesting that once was once considered the first record of the peopling of the Americas is now being superseded by evidence of human inhabitation of the Americas much earlier than originally thought, from sites that are very widely diffused.

I’ll bet you’d like the answer, huh?  Who were these people? When did they get here?  How?

Stick around.





[1]Dates are commonly obtained by radiocarbon dating, and the dates are given as RCYBP, which stands for RadioCarbon Years Before Present.  Radiocarbon years do not exactly equal calendar years. Under that measure Clovis culture is thought to have begun about 11,500 RCYBP.  This translates, however (roughly) to 13000 – 135000 years ago. The whole radiocarbon dating/time scale conversion issue is well beyond the scope of this blog, or this blog entry at least.  So for now, let’s just agree that Clovis culture began sometime around about thirteen thousand years ago.


[2] I found this map in the article “Prehistoric Migration of American Indians,” by (I think) Katherine Bolman, BS, MFA, MEd, MSW, EdD., at  The map itself is attributed to Jose Arredondo.  The link to the website is



The Clovis Mission: Ch. 1: Summers

It’s funny, the things you remember.  I remember how hot it was. Valley floor, at the base of a shale cliff, digging for fossils in the Green River formation in Wyoming.  Bright, bright sunshine, and baking in the heat.  Really scorching.

Three of us were digging – two graduate assistants and me, and it was late morning, and we’d found nothing, and it was hot.

I shouldn’t say we’d found nothing.  ‘Nothing that morning’ would be more accurate.  A couple days earlier we’d found some bones which I thought were – improbably – helmeted muskox bones. Bootherium bombifrons.  If I was right, and I was pretty sure I was, that’d be a fairly exciting discovery.  The helmeted muskox, now extinct, like so many of the other Pleistocene megafauna, were muskox – real muskox – but unlike the muskox which survive today, they were bigger; had shorter hair; and most remarkably, lived down here – scattered throughout the United States, not relegated to the artic north.  But their remains were rare, and not previously found in Wyoming.  So, yeah, that was kinda cool.

Figuratively speaking, of course, because we were baking in that sun.

I remember, too, that I was thinking about those fossils, and about what I did, and, really, how frustrating it was.  Don’t get me wrong – I love being a paleo-ecologist, love studying the past, especially the relatively recent past – 50,000 years ago to about 10,000 years ago, when it all changed.  Because between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago, two things happened:

First, people – human beings – came to this Continent for the first time.  Those people are associated with big stone spear points first found near Clovis New Mexico, and for that reason are often called the Clovis people.

Second, right around that same time, many, many species of animals, especially large animals, became extinct.  Mammoths, mastodons, the American lion, the enormous short-faced bear.  Animals which had lived here, thrived here, for hundreds of thousands of years.  Gone.  Extinct.  And suddenly, too, within a few thousand years, at most.

And no one knew – no one knows – why.

So I have devoted myself, my career, to trying to figure out why.

But what I was thinking there, that morning, was how frustrating it all was.  Say I was right – say those were the bones of a helmeted musk ox.  So what?  Oh, we’d be able to reassemble as much of the skeleton as possible, determine its age, and gender, and conclude that it had lived around here, back then.  But that would, really, be about it.  We’d never be able to look at it, see how it moved, or browsed, or ran.  Never see how it interacted with its environment.  And that was frustrating.  Really frustrating.  I knew so little, and wanted to know so much.

Maybe it was just because it was so damn hot.

Anyway, we were just about to retreat to the work tent, for some shade, and water, when the chopper came.

Big, and dark green, and noisy as hell, and stirring up dust clouds like you wouldn’t believe.  And pissing me off.  Who the hell would come flying into an archeological site – my archeological site – and blow dust around everywhere, and maybe mess up our specimens?  Right away, I was angry, and despite the heat, set off up the swale to where the tent was, and where the chopper was just setting down.

“Hey!” I yelled.  “What are you doing?  Get that thing out of here!”

Well, no.

They didn’t move the chopper.  It stopped and the rotors gradually slowed down, as I stood there, sweating and glaring.

Two guys stepped out.

Dr. Kramer, and Dr. White, as I learned later.

Kramer was short, stocky.  Short blond crew-cut, black-rimmed glasses, short-sleeved white shirt, black tie.  Looked like a stereotypical scientist from the nineteen fifties.  White was tall, thin, beaky nose, longish brown and gray hair, swept back over his ears.  Tweed sport coat.  The politician of the bunch, if I had to guess.

White told me that they were from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, not the Park Service.

“Professor Summers, you know of Dr. Leonard Carver, of course.”  White spoke. “His interests and research are quite similar to yours, I think.”

What?  Of course I knew Lennie, and as a paleo-ecologist, I was, of course, familiar with his work.  Like me he was interested in the megafauna extinctions possibly associated with the Clovis culture.  We were not friends, although I had met him a couple of times at various symposia.  I thought his work was meticulous, and that he certainly deserved his reputation as one of the foremost archeologists working in the peopling of the Americas.  I knew he was one of the very few scientists awarded the grant and opportunity to travel back in time to conduct research, and had gone back in time from the station at Arizona State University.  I was eagerly awaiting his report.

Then Dr. Kramer took it up. “You’re aware that he’s been selected to go back in time, to study the extinctions associated with the Clovis culture, some 12,000 years ago? We’d like to talk to you about that, if you can give us some time.”

“Sure,” I said. “What’s going on?”

We all walked in under the shade of the work tent and sat uncomfortably in the directors chairs we used when we’re sitting around the specimen table.  I sent the two kids – my graduate assistants – home for the day.

“Basically,” White explained, “Carver has disappeared.  He hasn’t sent any of the time beacons back to us, for the last three days, our time.  And then, yesterday afternoon, the ASU station stopped.”

“Wait a minute.  I didn’t think he’d gone back yet – isn’t that set for later this summer?”

“Yes, that’s correct.  Only he inserted a couple days ago, just for a brief scouting expedition.”

“So what do you mean he’s disappeared?”

“He’s been out of touch – no time beacons for three days now.  That shouldn’t happen.  He’s supposed to light off a beacon every day, so we can track his place in time and space, but he hasn’t.  He’s gone.  Missing.”

Kramer chimed in.  “And now the station itself, the one in Arizona has gone down.  It isn’t working.  We can’t send anyone back to see where he is, or what’s going on.”

Well, shit.  This didn’t sound good, at all.

“So, wait.  How big was Carver’s group?”

“There was no group.  It was just him.”

“Are you kidding me?  That’s crazy.  I mean, I have the highest respect for him, but that’s nuts.”

“Look, it was just supposed to be a quick look around.  Only four days, in preparation for his work this summer.  He wanted to walk the ground, do some preliminary reconnaissance of where to begin his studies.”

“You’re serious?  He went back alone?  Who let that happen?”

I was pissed.  I mean, I was no mountain man, not even a park ranger, but I knew how stupid that was.  Carver was probably sixty, sixty-one, twenty-five years older than me.  No way should he have been wandering around out there by himself.

“Well,” White began, and then trailed off.

“Look, Professor,” Kramer said, “We have never had a problem with any of the technology, with any prior trips sending or retrieving.  And we had no reason to think that there’d be any problem this time.”

“Who runs this?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” White said.

“I mean, who makes the decisions to go and who gets to go, and when and for how long.  Who’s in charge of this?”

“Why, we are,” White said.  “I mean, DARPA has been given authority over administration of the time travel program.  We have a budget, and there is a grants program that we administer, and from the list of applicants, we select who gets to go, and work out the details of the trips.  We answer to the Secretary of the Interior.  Is that what you meant?”

Well, no, not really.  What I guess I meant was how was anyone stupid enough to let someone go back twelve thousand years alone.  But whatever had happened was already done.  No point in stirring it up.

“Yeah, I guess so,” I said.  “I thought it might have been under the supervision of the Army or the CIA or something.”

“Oh, no,” Kramer said.  “That’s all been worked out.  If they, or anyone else wants to use one of our facilities, they have to come through us, just like everyone else.”

“So what you’re telling me is that Carver is gone, or lost – out of touch anyway, twelve thousand years in the past, and you don’t have any way to get back there and rescue him.”

“Well, not exactly,” White said.

“No,” Kramer said.  “Not exactly.  That’s why we’re here.  We want to talk to you about going back there to find him.”



“But you just said that the station was down or dead or something.”

“Yeah, it is.  But only the station at ASU.  The one in St. Louis is still running.”


“Yes.  So the team would insert at St. Louis, and then go the Arizona and find him.”

“Wait,” I said. “Look, I don’t know the first thing about time travel or how it works or anything, but instead of schlepping from St. Louis to Arizona, why don’t you just put in a new gate or station or whatever you call it right there in Arizona?”

Sounded like a pretty good idea to me.

“Can’t,” Kramer said.  “Time and money.  The cost is too prohibitive.  Unbelievably prohibitive.”

“Hundreds of millions of dollars,” White added.

“Budget won’t permit it,” Kramer finished.

“Are you kidding me?” I asked.

They assured me that they were not.

“Time, too,” White added.  “We’d have to assemble the new tesseract inside the existing one at ASU, before we could send it back, and that would take eighteen months at a minimum.”

“More like two years,” Kramer said.

“And we can’t wait.”  This time, it was White who finished.

“Well, okay, then, I guess.  But why me?  Why not just send a chopper back in St. Louis, fly out, pick him up and bring him back?”

“Too big,” Kramer said, just as White said, “too far.”

“No infrastructure,” Kramer added.


“We can’t,” White said.  “A chopper big enough to fly out there and return – that’s about three thousand miles all told – is to big and heavy to fit inside the St. Louis tesseract.  We can’t send it back.”

“And even it we could, it doesn’t have the range.  Can’t fly that far without refueling, even with extra tanks.  And there’s no infrastructure back then – no place for it to land, to refuel, no GPS to let it navigate.”

“Same problem with a truck,” Kramer added.

Well.  Not good.

“So, how would I – ?” I began.  “I mean, how can I help?”

“That’s where you come in,” Kramer said. “We are planning to send a team – a small team – back to find Dr. Carver, and see if we can figure out what happened.  We’d like you to join that team.”

I kept thinking about what they were offering me.  A chance to go back for myself and see the world I’d spent my whole life studying?  Fantastic.  Amazing.  Look, I’m in.  If its safe, if I can go back in time, and then come back home safely, I’m in.

Only – how in heck do we get there?

“Horseback,” White said.

“You and the team travel on horseback to Arizona, to find Dr. Carver,” he continued, like it was the most obvious, sanest thing in the world.


“Yes,” he said. “You and the team insert at St. Louis – Washington University – and ride cross country to find him and bring him home.”

I think I just stared at him.  My mind was racing.  On the one hand it would be fantastic to go back in time to see the mammoths, and cave lions, and horses, and everything that went extinct.  A paleo-ecologist’s dream.  But on the other hand, I didn’t really know anything about the science (or witchcraft, or voodoo) of time travel, and I wondered what had gone wrong with Dr. Carver.  That was a little scary.

“So, who would go?”  I asked.

“We think it’s best if it’s just a small party – three of you.”

“Three?  That’s all?  Why?”

“Distance, and weight, mostly,” White replied.  “You have a lot of ground to cover, and everything you take has to fit on the horses.  We have weight limits, as we’ve discussed.”

I thought about that for a moment.  At first, it seemed crazy, foolhardy.  That was a big, wide dangerous world back there.  But by the same token, this may have been a case where size didn’t matter.  First, this was before (or, strictly speaking, just around the time that) humans were first coming into the Americas, so essentially there wouldn’t be any people– no dangerous criminals, or marauding armies  – to worry about.  Then too, without resources, what good would a larger party be?  How could a surgeon, say, operate, without an operatory, without anesthesia?   Didn’t lessen the risk any – you got sick, you died, is what it boiled down to, but that fact alone didn’t mean you’d be any better off with a larger group.

But still, only three of us?

“We think you’d be a good fit,” White said.  You know more about the ecology and terrain of the North American Pleistocene than almost anybody, and you’re young, fit, like to camp – We think you’d be a real asset to this trip.”

Kramer jumped in, playing the bad cop.  “Don’t get us wrong, Professor,” he said.” We’re not saying that this trip will be easy.  Far from it.  Because ASU is down, we’re going to have to insert in St. Louis.  You’ll have to travel from there to New Mexico, by horseback, just like the pioneers.  The trip will take four months at a minimum – maybe much longer.  You’ll be out in all kinds of weather, and most of all, you’ll be involved in a mystery , because we can’t tell you what the hell went wrong.”  He sat back, belligerently, if that makes any sense.

“Well?” White said.  “Will you help us?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I have classes.  I mean the semester doesn’t start for  a couple months, but I’m teaching a heavy course load . . .I’d have to check with the Dean.”

“Of course,”  White said.  “He’s sitting out there in that cool air-conditioned helicopter. Let’s go see him, shall we?”

What?  Are you kidding me?

So the three of us trekked back out to the chopper, climbed up into that blessed coolness, and there, by God, was Nate Mendelsohn, same as ever.  Cool, imperturbable, patrician.  Chewing on that goddamn pipe of his – unlit.  No smoking aboard the aircraft, apparently.

“Oh, I don’t think that would be a problem,” Nate said. “I’m sure we could get coverage for your classes.”  Thanks a lot, Chief, I thought.

“When do you need to know?”  I asked. “I’d like to think it over for –“

“Now,” Kramer interrupted .  “We’re sorry to be so abrupt, but we’re treating this as an emergency, and we need to know now.”

“Your help is important to us,” Dr. White said.  “To DARPA, and the program, and to Dr. Carver.”

“I think it would be a feather in the University’s cap, if you’d go,” Nate said, “but of course, I don’t want you to worry about that at all.”  Thanks again, Chief.

Great.  A trip lasting four months, at least, twelve thousand years ago, and they need an answer right this minute.

Well, let’s see.  I’m single.  The past has always been my passion.  Nate and the University will apparently cover for me.  Why not?  Oh, yeah –that’s why not.

“I have a dog,” I said.

That’s how Jack came to be with us on the expedition.