PRE-CLOVIS FOOTPRINTS: Is there a visible track to follow?

Since the widespread discussions of the Solutrean Solution proposed by Stanford and others, along with the more general acceptance of  increasing numbers of confirmed pre-Clovis sites from Chile to Virginia, the full range of the first American occupations controversy has recently re-emerged in full force.  Not that this discussion has ever gone away completely, by any  means; but the more recent willingness of high-profile professionals to stake their positions on the more controversial side of this issue has led many others to jump back into the fray with renewed gusto.  As someone who has followed this problem since first diving into the archeological process in the early 1970's at the Clovis/Blackwater Draw locale itself while at Eastern New Mexico Univ. and under the tuteledge then of Cynthia Irwin-Williams, an early proponent herself of a substantial pre-Clovis occupation, this writer has followed this controversy with extreme interest.  When I decided to begin my current book series on the peopling of North America, it was easy, therefore, to start it with this very controversy, trying to add my own spin from the perspective of both a novelist and an archeologist with some experience in the subject to the whole discussion.

The whole idea of pre-Clovis peoples in N. America is not a new one of course.  In the beginning (ironically the very title of an early book on the subject) amateurs such as Louis Brennan and others considered more on the fringe of archaeology at the time, carried the message of a pre-Clovis, non-diagnostic artifact, culture that might have predated Clovis by several thousands of years.  Brennan and others went so far as to push this date back to 40,000 years--or even earlier--and were generally scoffed at, or their writings were pushed to the pseudo-science shelf alongside of Von Daniken, Velikovsky, and others at the time.  Professional archeologists who advanced such sites as Lewisville,TX, Valsequillo, Mex. (Irwin-Williams was directly involved in this one) and other digs with suggestive pre-Clovis dates, even some well beyond the 20,000 year window, generally met with enough professional skepticism, and even ostracism, to tread very carefully.  Working near-by at the time on my own rockshelter site, I can well recall the terrible time that James Adovasio, had with his mere 16,000 year dates at Meadowcroft Rockshelter.  However, having personally visited that site twice during his excavations, it is easy to say that there was never a more meticulous excavator or more thorough record keeper.  Now, of course, that site generates little such controversy in the face of even earlier excavations, such as Monte Verde in Chile, which have more-or-less confirmed dates in that timeframe.

More recently, the excavations by Al Goodyear at the Topper Site here in So. Carolina have again called attention to the possibility of pre-Clovis dates well beyond the 20, or even 30, thousand year horizon.  While these extremely early dates are and will continue to be closely scrutinized and disputed by many (including myself, as one who has visited the site) it must be clear that archeology must at least be prepared for future shocks in the way of additional sites and dates which might push back the first settlement of the New World well beyond current accepted timeframes.  At present, most of the negative and positive arguments seem to be centered on establishing acceptable geological perspectives that either support or deny a particular point of view, and these important questions must always be settled first before anyone is willing to go out on a new limb.  However, as one who has always focused my own research interests primarily in the area of stone technology, it might be asked if there is a way, perhaps, to search for that pre-Clovis footprint consistently, beyond that which is already being done?


This is a paramount question, I think, when dealing with most attempts to establish a pre-Clovis presence across N. America (and beyond) during the late Ice Age environments.  As anyone who has conducted field excavations anywhere in this country knows, the problem of extremely shallow, culture-bearing deposits is always there.  This is why a deeply stratified site, such as Topper on the banks of the Savannah River is so important when located. (Note:  This importance also applied to the much neglected St. Albans site, on the Kanawha River in W. Va., a site this author is somewhat familiar with from spending a great deal of my earlier life in the area.  While this site has gained critical importance for its stratified early Archaic period dates and type artifacts, its well-established Clovis and earlier, perhaps, deposits were never investigated due to a lack of funds and the technology available at the time of the original excavations in the late 1960's.)  As Dennis Stanford and others have pointed out, and based upon their recent researches in Siberia and elsewhere of the likelihood that a pre-Clovis culture was a predominantly micro-blade one in which uniface flakes were inserted into bone points, it would be most difficult to clearly define such a pre-Clovis type for the purposes of comparing multi-component, shallow sites across wide distances.  Of course, as at Meadowcroft, the possibility of deeply stratified cave or rockshelter sites is always a possibility.  However, as someone who excavated extensively in sites similar to Meadowcroft in the Ohio Valley, I believe that this site was the exception rather than the rule.  I believe that Ice Age occupations of such sites so far North must have been extremely rare, as I am unaware of even Clovis occupations clearly proven in other shelter sites.  At 20,000 yrs. plus, it is difficult to imagine any people living in those areas where occupied rockshelters  are most  usually found, and to date no other Meadowcrofts have been found, at least in the eastern U.S.  Therefore, we will probably be forced to continue to rely on the lucky-find open site, where a reliable stratigraphy is rare.


Are there other stone tools in the archeological assemblages already excavated or still in the ground that might point to a pre-Clovis presence?  Some tool types have a near-universal function and form over wide distances and times.  (My own personal favorite is the uniface endscraper, an extremely commonplace and often neglected artifact in many collections.  I have personally collected hundreds of these and examined many more.  Their uniformity is amazing.  I have them from thumbnail sized to large, bison scraping, five inchers!  An 80,000 year old Mousterian endscraper is virtually indistinguishable from a 10,000 year old paleoIndian one.)  The source material and quarry site is frequently the only way to distinguish where or when such an artifact was made.  However, since paleoIndian endscrapers, for example, have been clearly shown to possess certain diagnostic attributes--such as the spur on one end edge--it should be possible to differentiate these from other potentially earlier ones at sites such as Topper and others.  Identifying a fuller range of tool type attributes and even regional or timeframe specific toolkits, from so-called pre-forms to other specialized use stone artifacts (like endscrapers) would seem to be an important step at this point in trying to establish the presence of a pre-Clovis culture.  It could be true that their footprint is not as invisible as some have tried to suggest, and that they left us diagnostic clues in their non-projectile point tools that we have too often ignored.  Obviously, any such culture would have relied heavily on a more generalized hunting, and gathering, strategy than the more dominantly big game oriented chasers who invented the Clovis point.  Such a research strategy, based on universal, functional tools might make it easier to look at collections from the non-stratified sites making up most of what we have to examine, as well as the occasional deeper ones when we luck into them.  To date, however, too much focus seems to be on the more glamorous "type" artifacts, which may never be found.  Brennan and others predicted this scenario forty years ago.  Now, we are coming into the realizations that people came to the New World without the benefit of some magical Ice Free Corridor and at a much earlier, and simpler tecnological stage.  These technologies have been well-defined and classified in Europe and elsewhere, and we need to do more of that here, or so it would seem if we are to continue to challenge and rearrange current models for the peopling of the Americas.

For anyone interested in a closer, more personal look, at the potential technologies of pre-Clovis peoples, as well as the cultural and environmental interaction that might have ended that period, the first two novels in The People of the Stone saga, THE STONE BREAKERS and its sequel VOICES UPON THE WIND, both by this author, are recommended.  It is also an excellent place to begin your journey through the entire picture of the peopling of the Americas from the end of the Ice Age to the coming of the first Europeans, which will be continued in book five of six, THE CORN MAIDEN'S GIFT, due to be available on this website and other book outlets by the end of the summer.

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