DID CLOVIS CULTURE DIE WITH THE LAST MAMMOTH: Disappearance or Diffusion?
The coincidence of the rapid dispersal and disappearance of so-called Clovis Culture in such a relatively short time span (less than 1,000 years according to most radiocarbon dates), and across an enormous distance of nearly two continents, at the same time as the extinction of the mammoth and many other species of Pleistocene megafauna continues to generate enormous debate in several fields of research. Initial speculation on these post-ice age disappearances tended to concentrate on the human overkill theory. But more recent evidence has tended to shift the debate in favor of a massive extinction due to rapid environmental degradation brought on by a celestial collision somewhere above North America about 12,900 years ago. The abiltiy to maintain the middle ground that some combination of both these theories were equally contributing factors seems ever more difficult to maintain. We have already looked at this problem from the point of view of the mammoth and other species in one of the initial entries in this blog series some months ago (said entry is still being posted on this site) in which the role of late ice age hunters was touched upon as a possible factor in this on-going debate. However, as the evidence for a rapid series of extinctions in North America caused directly by an atmostpheric explosion (not unlike the Tunguska Event, but on a much larger scale) continues to mount with new geologic evidence, the attempts by some, especially outside the field of specialized archaeolgy, to implicate this same comet encounter with the rapid disappearance of Clovis over a wide area seem misguided. As someone who has spent the better part of thirty-five years keeping up with or in some off-hand way involved in the Clovis controversy, the likelihood of Clovis man disappearing along with his primary prey from an extinction level event seems highly unlikey at this time. Let's look at some of the possible scenarios for the 'disappearance' of Clovis Culture.
TECHNOLOGY: WHAT HAPPENED TO THE LARGE, FLUTED CLOVIS POINTS?
Many of those who would see a concurrent disappearance of Clovis as a result of the 12,900 year ago event that now appears likely to at least have massively sped-up the post ice-age large mammal extinctions would point to this timeframe as exactly within the dating cluster for Clovis itself. There is no doubt that the unique Clovis projectile point of bifacially flaked, basal flutes--along with overshot flaking techniques and other type specific characteristics reaches an apparent end in most areas at about this same time. But did the Clovis technology really 'disappear', especially in the eastern U.S., where the effects of a celestial impact event seem to be the greatest? It is also true that the most abundant concentrations of Clovis projectile types seems to be in this region as well. However, this area also exhibits the greatest variety of "near" Clovis types (Cumberland, etc.) which are often regionally specific and show that some adaptation from an original diffusion of the technology was already in the process of occurring when classic Clovis types suddenly disappear. At least some of the Clovis "trademark" or "brand" certainly continued until well after the mammoth and other extinctions. These would include basal grinding of points (Thebes and other types), parallel (chevron) flaking from a center, bifacial ridge (Plano types), and rudimentary fluting (Dalton and Hardaway types) to name a few in the eastern U.S.
Further, it should be noted here that more culturally conservative, functional tool types such as end-scrapers with the tell-tale Clovis burin spur and large combination scraping tools seem to continue past the Clovis point horizon for quite some time in many assemblages. It is also quite clear that in the western states, where environmental change and the possible impacts of a comet explosion might have been less severe, the fluted point tradition not only held-on well past the major extinctions but reached a technology zenith somewhat in the Folsom types of the desert and mountain West. Even there, however, the rapid transition away from fluted forms to many more regional variants still classified as Paleoindian are apparent (Hellgap, Plano, Eden/Scottsbluff to name but a few in that area). In the more culturally diverse eastern U.S. the regional transition to post-Clovis forms is even more pronounced (Plano variants in the Ohio Valley such as Stringtown/McConnell; Dalton/Hardaway complex in the SE.; and even early dovetail and other similar dated types of mixed ancestry or form.)
The point is, however, that while Clovis itself disappears within a relative short span of time over a wide area, the culture itself may have left many descendants and off-shoots behind, quite possibly as more isolated responses to localized necessity, which may have included radical environmental challenges in some areas. It appears that Clovis itself may simply have "morphed" time and again to suit local adaptation needs, with each individual change retaining one or more of the traditional Clovis type characteristics--a small flute here, a nice long well-flaked blade there, or a heavily ground base on another, etc. At no time, at least at this point, does there seem to be a large gap in the archeological record during which NO human activity tied to a gradual post-ice age dispersion of cultures can be seen, however. This fact would seem to work against the Clovis extinction hypothesis, I feel. If we are then most likely looking at some sort of a more traditional set of gradual regional transitions, how can we fit this in to the growing body of evidence that severe environmental impacts did occur across much of North America at the time of the "Clovis Transition", as I would choose to call it?
WAS THERE A POSSIBLE "PITCAIRN" EFFECT AT THE CLOVIS TRANSITION POINT?
Physical anthropologists have long noted the so-called Pitcairn Effect (also known as the Founder Effect) as a means of explaining rapid genetic drift, especially for physical characteristics in an isolated area. (Note: For those readers not familiar with this term and no time or inclination to Google it up, the name comes from the isolated Pacific island where the mutineers of the famous HMS Bounty episode took their Tahitian 'brides' and founded a colony, which has remained virtually isolated to this day. There, certain physical characteristics--widespread red hair, for example--quickly came to be genetically dominant in a short time, due to isolation from the outside and to in-breeding.) Perhaps, it might be useful to look at the possibility of a widespread environmental disaster of "biblical proportions" 12,900 years ago having the impact of, if not wiping out large numbers of Clovis hunters along with their prey animals, at least creating several temporarily isolated 'pockets' of survivors, who then would have adapted their current technology to the best of their ability, based upon more limited source materials, individual or group technological skills, or even loss of culture memory. This might go a long way towards dealing with the apparent simultaneous emergence of many variants and other post-Clovis forms that seem to exist contemporaneously in many parts of the U.S., especially in the eastern areas. As time went on and peoples adjusted to the new environmental realities, whatever those were, the usual cross-cultural contacts and diffusions that are apparent by very early Archaic times might be easier to explain.
As more and more evidence continues to mount about the widespread impacts and severity of this possible comet interaction at 12,900 years ago, it seems less and less likely that widespread human disasters would also not have occurred. Our ancestors in North America may have fared much better than the ice age megafauna they hunted, but not in every case, perhaps. That some groups may have disappeared entirely can no longer be discounted out-of-hand. But it appears just as certain that Clovis itself may have been (much as the later and equally famous Hopewell culture) an "Idea" as much as an actual culture or specific people or group of peoples, and that some unknown numbers of long-standing residents of prehistoric North America continued to thrive and adapt in their own, regional ways once the clear hunting advantage for large animals that the Clovis point provided had disappeared with their accustomed prey. We can, possibly, even trace the very beginnings of our continent's later amazing cultural diversity to this signature event. It will certainly be interesting as time goes by to follow the growing body of work relating to all the different aspects of this newly discovered comet interaction.
COPING WITH SUDDEN NATURAL DISASTERS AS A PREHISTORIC CULTURAL INFLUENCE
I have long been fascinated with how prehistoric peoples with only a supernatural view of the universe and generally lacking in scientific cause and effect knowledge managed to cope with and even survive some of the fantastic natural disasters modern science tells us they must have dealt with, particularly at the end of the last ice age. Now we learn that, additionally, they apparently faced at least this one major, life-altering comet explosion over some part of North America 12,900 years ago. Much of the knowledge of the widespread impact was not yet generally known when I published the second book in The People of the Stone Saga, VOICES UPON THE WIND. Set at the height of the Clovis diffusion among the pre-existing peoples of the mid-Ohio Valley, it is the story of two small bands who have each set out in different ways to cope with a new environment, which included massive flash floods from broken ice dams far to the north (real, documented events) widespread earthquakes ( the good old New Madrid faultline, it appeared) the disappearance of many large animal species, and other disasters that would have been completely outside their realm of awareness and ability to cope with in any logical fashion beyond their own rudimentary spiritual systems. It is also the story of two different young men, both "seekers" of a sort, who take on the mantle of searching out a new and safe land for each of their bands to relocate to and of how they come together to impact each other--sort of a prehistoric "coming of age" story. It is mainly a tale of hardship and hope, set against an environment we can only barely imagine.
But more than that it is a look at how prehistoric man must have tried to deal with the unknown, such as a massive earthquake, or an all-destroying flood, and then to find a way to explain it all in such a fashion as to go forward and begin anew. This was even if it meant giving-up a dependable old way of life and taking on new 'partners' in the search for survival, which surely must have occurred countless times in our long and adventurous past as an ever-resourceful and forward-looking species. I hope you, the reader, will give this unique story a thought to trying out when next you wonder about how your ancestors coped with their changing environment. After all, our own equally fragile planetary existence is in the process of undergoing its own dramatic change before our very eyes, and we, as always, can learn from what those who came before us experienced and overcame in the face of a constantly changing ecology, with constant new challenges..
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