Clovis Culture Rises in New Mexico

The Clovis culture in New Mexico was one of the oldest Paleo-Indian cultures in prehistoric North America.

Summary of Event

The populating of North America began with a migration in which Homo sapiens traveled northward from Africa, Europe, and Asia, finally reaching present-day Siberia about 35,000 years ago. These hunters followed mammoths, musk oxen, and woolly rhinoceroses across Siberia, going farther north and east until they happened on a land bridge leading to the New World. Exactly when humans first crossed this bridge remains a matter of scholarly debate. Estimates range from 18,000 to 11,000 b.c.e.; however, there is convincing evidence that the migration began approximately 15,000 years ago, when this large landmass formed a subcontinent called Beringia, which extended hundreds of miles to the north and south of today’s Bering Strait. Many generations lived in this area, hunting caribou, giant bison, and mammoths until planetary warming caused the glaciers to melt, raising the sea level and causing the land bridge to disappear. The migration southward probably began around 11,000 b.c.e., spreading in all directions across the continent.

All across North America, the descendants of the first people who came south from the Arctic continued a lifestyle of hunting and gathering, with only small but significant changes from one generation to the next. They wandered about, following the animal herds, taking with them only animal skins for clothing and weapons and tools made of stone and bone. Gradually, they modified and improved their tools and weapons, developing new spear points and using them in distinctive ways that defined their cultures.

One of the first cultures to be identified was the Folsom. In 1908, a cowboy named George McJunkin discovered a layer of bison bones and projectile points buried 20 feet (6 meters) deep in the bank of an arroyo near the town of Folsom, New Mexico. Later, the site became the focus of scientific attention, with scholars determining that the bison had been extinct for some ten thousand years. The Folsom points were exquisitely made, varying in length from 1 to 3 inches (2.5 to 7.7 centimeters), with a groove running up either side. Soon, these Folsom points were discovered at other sites ranging over a wide area. One such site, located in eastern New Mexico south of Folsom, revealed not only Folsom points but evidence of a second Paleo-Indian culture as well.

In 1932, along the bed of an ancient river called Blackwater Draw near the small town of Clovis, the New Mexico Highway Department dug a gravel pit, which revealed tons of extinct animal bones and flint points. Below a level of Folsom points, scientists found a main layer of mammoth bones and large lance points that were the hallmark of an older culture—the Clovis culture. These points are about 3 to 6 inches (8 to 15 centimeters) long and almost perfectly symmetrical, tapering from a broad, blunt base to a sharp point. The blade is flaked smooth on both sides to reduce resistance to its thrust, with a central channel, or flute, carved into both sides extending about one-third of the way from the base to the tip. This fluting allowed the spear point to fit snugly into the notched end of the shaft, where it was then secured with sinews. This strengthening of the link between shaft and point was a major advance in hunting technology. Scientists believe it is possible that Clovis hunters also used the atlatl to increase the range of their spears. The atlatl is a piece of wood or bone about 2 feet (0.6 meter) long with a handle at one end and a hooked tip at the other that fits into the notched end of the spear. The hunter, holding the handle end of the atlatl, used it as an extension of his arm to hurl the spear with increased speed, range, and striking power.

While Clovis hunters killed mammoths for food, they also apparently hunted extinct types of horse, camel, and bison for their hides, which were much more desirable for making clothing. Clovis people worked the soft hides from these animals with scrapers and knives made from flint or obsidian.


Although no human fossils from the Clovis culture have yet been discovered, there is abundant evidence of their excellent craft work as Clovis points have been found from coast to coast. This might represent the passing on of a new idea from one hunting group to another or it could mean a migration of the Clovis people themselves. In any case, the spread of people—or perhaps only of tool design—was very rapid, with all the points that can be dated falling within a span of one thousand years.

Based on site distribution and other evidence, scholars have proposed that the Paleo-Indians were not aimless wanderers but rather moved in annual circuits, based on the seasonal availability of game and edible plants and the need for winter shelter. Clovis sites tend to be located on high points with good views all around; near rivers, streams, and springs; and close to sources of good-quality stone. Indeed, evidence suggests that the Clovis people chose the stone that they worked into tools with an eye to their aesthetic qualities as well as their appropriateness for the job at hand.

In all probability, the typical Clovis group consisted of around fifty members of a single extended family. Each group interacted with neighboring bands, hunting, trading, intermarrying, and maintaining a sort of communications network, as evidenced by the distribution of similar spear points across the continent. Artifacts, however, tell little about other aspects of their life, such as their language, family relationships, spirituality, rituals, or medicines. The use of red ochre, which seems to be associated with abstract notions of birth, death, reproduction, and hunting in the Old World, may indicate similar beliefs in the New. The Clovis people also incised decorations on their implements, perhaps purely as decoration or perhaps as some sort of symbolic system.

Further Reading

  • Boldurian, Anthony C., and John L. Cotter. Clovis Revisited: New Perspectives on Paleo-Indian Adaptations from Blackwater Draw, New Mexico. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum, 1999. A detailed analysis of Clovis artifacts. Using both traditional and current theories and their own insights, the authors provide an extended reference to the lifeways of early humans in the Americas. Well illustrated with photos, line drawings, and schematics.
  • Bonnichsen, Robson, and Karen L. Turnmire, eds. Clovis: Origins and Adaptations. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1991. A detailed discussion of the Clovis culture. Bibliography.
  • Frison, G. C. “Paleo-Indian Large Mammal Hunters on the Plains of North America.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 95 (1998): 14,576-14,583. Discusses the evidence of hunting methods among Clovis peoples.
  • Hofman, Jack L. From Clovis to Comanchero: Archeological Overview of the Southern Great Plains. Fayetteville: Arkansas Archeological Survey, 1989. Discusses the artifacts and human settlements of the prehistoric Southwest. Bibliography.
  • Reid, J. Jefferson, and David E. Doyel, eds. Emil W. Haury’s Prehistory of the American Southwest. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1986. Well-illustrated account of the major Paleo-Indian sites. Bibliography.
  • Soffer, O., and N. D. Praslov, eds. From Kostenki to Clovis: Upper Paleo-Indian Adaptations. New York: Plenum Press, 1993. A collection of papers presented at a congress in 1989. Focuses on documenting and comparing the archaeological evidence for Late Paleolithic life in Beringia.
  • Tankersley, Kenneth. In Search of Ice Age Americans. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 2002. Presents the history of the archaeological discoveries of Clovis culture and also discusses the controversies over whether the Clovis people were, in fact, the first humans to reach the Americas.
  • Taylor, R. E., C. V. Haynes, and M. Stuiver. “Clovis and Folsom Age Estimates: Stratigraphic Context and Radiocarbon Dating.” Antiquity 70 (1996): 515-525. Revisits the question of dating the Clovis and Folsom cultures.
  • Waldman, Carl. Atlas of the North American Indian. New York: Facts on File Publications, 1985. Historical and cultural maps of the major Paleo-Indian cultures.