The Clovis First / Pre-Clovis Problem

by Tony Baker
November 5, 1997

To read my 2004 Opinions, Click here

The Clovis First / Pre-Clovis subject is controversial and because of that I have delayed writing my opinions on the subject. However, the creation of the WEB page "Art and the Folsom Point" caused me to go public on the subject. I could have easily omitted one paragraph in that page and then I could have delayed this page, again. However, I chose not to because I did not embark on creating WEB pages with the intention of "walking on eggs" when it comes to difficult subjects.

The ideas presented herein have been changing over the years and will probably continue to change. They are founded on logic and not the several purported pre-Clovis sites around the continent. They are the result of handling material from around the World and many conversations with Dr. Bruce Bradley. Which concepts are his, which are mine, which we concocted together or with which ones he does not agree, I can no longer determine. I just know the ideas presented here would have been different without the discussions with Bruce. (Since I first wrote this, Bruce has offered his comments on the subject (12/17/97) and I have included links to them. Click here for Bruce's 1st Comment.)

I have divided the WEB page into two sections. In the first I will develop the necessary background by discussing various aspects of blades, Clovis point manufacture, the Middle and Upper Paleolithic, and the Solutrean tradition found in Western Europe. In the second section I will propose my theory and discuss the necessary implications.


Background

A blade is generally defined as a flake that is twice as long as it is wide. In my opinion, this definition leads to confusion among archaeologists. There is a difference between a flake removed from a ridge of an amorphous core that results in a flake as described above, and a flake removed from a core prepared in such a manner as to produce many similar flakes with the above geometry. The difference is the intent of the knapper and this intent defines the two basic lithic technologies used by modern man. These are the blade and the flake (or non-blade) technologies. I define a BLADE as a flake made by a BLADE technology and not by its geometry. (To eliminate future confusion, I will use the word blade to mean a single flake that is twice as long as it is wide but not necessarily from a blade technology. I will use the word BLADE, written in capitals, to mean a BLADE from a BLADE technology.)

The archaeologist can recognize the difference between a BLADE technology and a flake technology by viewing the entire assemblage. An assemblage from a BLADE technology will consist of mostly (maybe 70% or higher) BLADES or tools made on BLADES, plus BLADE cores and exhausted BLADE cores. An assemblage from a flake technology will consist of few or no blades and the complete absence of BLADE cores. Therefore, by my definition, an occasional flake that is twice as long as it is wide found in an assemblage does not make that assemblage the result of a BLADE technology.

The Upper Paleolithic in Europe and Asia was a BLADE technology. The bright line distinction between the Middle and Upper Paleolithic was the change from a flake to a BLADE technology. At 11,500 B.P., the time Clovis appeared in the New World, the people in the Old World were of the later Upper Paleolithic and employed a BLADE technology. Their scrapers, burins and other tools were build on BLADES. Their projectiles were compound points made of antler and inset with BLADE segments. Bruce's 2nd Comment.

The lithic technology of the Clovis tradition was a flake technology. Clovis rarely created blades. Yes, I am aware of the occasional blades that have been found in some of the Clovis sites across the country. But, these few flakes that are twice as long as they are wide are not BLADES and Clovis was not a BLADE technology. Bruce's 3rd Comment.

In my opinion the closest lithic technology, in the Old World, to the Clovis tradition is the Middle Paleolithic (pre-30,000 BP) which was based on a flake technology. The subsequent Upper Paleolithic traditions which represent a BLADE technology are far more different. IF THE READER JUST MISSED THIS, this is a very important inconsistency in the archaeological data. At the time Clovis appears in the New World, there are no antecedent to its lithic technology in the Old World.

So how do I explain the flake technology of Clovis? I can find only two possible models (explanations). One is there were pre-Clovis people in the New World who had their roots in the Middle Paleolithic and the Clovis tradition developed from them. The other is the first inhabitants in the New World were Clovis from the Upper Paleolithic with a BLADE technology and they reverted back to a flake technology upon their arrival.

The choice between the above two models is a dilemma. Both models require the Clovis point to be developed in the New World. Additionally, the pre-Clovis model requires an extremely early entry into the New World. The Clovis first model does not require an early entry, but it does require the abandonment of the compound projectile point and the reversion from a BLADE technology back to the a flake technology. Since I am lithic oriented, the pre-Clovis model is more probable to me because it requires fewer cultural changes to occur prior to the appearance of the Clovis tradition. Bruce's 4th Comment.

As I stated above, both models require the development of the Clovis point in the New World. I believe this is the general accepted theory and current available data suggest the same. There have been no Clovis points found in the the Old World or Alaska. In fact, the oldest Clovis dates now seem to be coming from the southeast United States which is the middle of the New World. So where are the predecessors, the transitional or developmental projectiles, to the Clovis point in the New World? One would expect there would have been some if the pre-Clovis model is correct? Bruce's 5th Comment.

I now want to establish a link between the Solutrean of the Upper Paleolithic in the Old World and Clovis tradition of the New World. This link is apparent in the early stages of Clovis point manufacture which were accomplished by removing large, flat percussion flakes from a biface. These flakes left scars that extended past the middle of the face of the biface and created a platelike biface which is different than a biface with a medial ridge. Occasionally, these flakes would travel all the way across the biface and remove a portion of the edge on the far side. In France these flakes that run all the way across the biface are known as outre passé flakes. Flake scars #1 and #2 in the image are examples of outre passé flakes scars. (Artifacts in the figure are plastic casts.)

The outrepassé flake is generally associated with the Solutrean tradition (17,500 to 19,500 BP) of the Upper Paleolithic. The later Solutrean (18,000 BP) is even more famous for its exquisitely thin bifaces (artifact on the left in the image) that were created with the same soft hammer percussion technique that the Clovis people used. Similar to Clovis, the Solutrean tradition also seems to appear from nowhere and interrupts the gradually evolving tool kit of the Upper Paleolithic. Even though it was and remained a BLADE tradition, it represents sudden changes in that kit that suggests the Solutrean had some connection back to the Middle Paleolithic. For example, there were sudden increases in bifaces and end scrapers, a decrease in retouched BLADES, and the appearance of the leaf-shaped flint point with one plane face and the other retouched. (Bordes 1968:158). Bruce's 6th Comment.


The Theory

I propose that the first people to enter the New World did so before 20,000 BP and probably closer to 30,000 BP. They crossed the Bering Strait and gradually, very sparsely, populated both the North and South American continents. They were Homo sapiens and not Neanderthals. They did not make BLADES, spear points or arrowheads, but had a flake technology that was derived from the Middle Paleolithic. Sometime between 17,500 and 11,500 BP a few individuals from Europe, not a reproducible population, found their way into the New World. They did not bring a gene pool, but they brought the Solutrean lithic technology from which the indigenous population adopted the soft hammer percussion technique and the exquisitely made biface. The Clovis point was then invented almost overnight and it spread across the in place population in a very short time.

I am sure the reader is now asking, where in the New World are these Middle Paleolithic sites? Why have they not been found, yet?

I propose the answer to the first question is the sites are everywhere across the two continents of the New World. I propose these people had very similar life styles to the Paleoindians. They were hunter and gatherers. They traveled in very small bands most of the time, lived in open air sites, and stayed only a few days at a site. As a result, their sites are small lithic scatters patterned on the landscape much as the Paleoindians sites are. Their sites are not in caves. Bruce's 7th Comment.

The answer to the second question of "why have not any of their sites being found" is, that they HAVE been found. To explain, I must suggest that the assemblage from a Middle Paleolithic site without the Levallois point looks very similar to an early Archaic assemblage without arrowheads. Additionally, most of the documented and excavated Paleoindian sites in the New World have been found by people looking for arrowheads. (Since there are and have been many more arrowhead hunters than archaeologists looking at the ground, this is the obvious outcome.) So imagine what an arrowhead hunter does when they find a lithic scatter that contains no arrowheads. They walk away and forget it. The site never has a chance to get reported to a knowledgeable archaeologist. In fact, most archaeologists would do exactly the same thing because this scenario does not fit their paradigm for a pre-Clovis site.

As a tangential comment to the above paragraph, I suggest that the lithic artifacts of these pre-Clovis people will be easy to recognize. There is no ambiguity in the tools from the Middle Paleolithic in the Old World and I propose there will be none here in the New World from the pre-Clovis sites. Any time a proposed pre-Clovis site in the New World produces ambiguous lithic artifacts I really have doubts about its credibility. Humans have been making recognizable artifacts for hundreds of thousands of years. Why would they stop doing so when they entered the New World?

Another question that the reader might ask, is how did the Solutrean people get across the Atlantic? I do not know, however I believe it is possible when one considers the first peoples to Australia crossed a 100 miles of open water at least 60,000 years ago. Plus, they must have done it several times because they brought over a reproducible population (> 125 people). In my theory, I only have to have one Solutrean person make it to the New World. They were only carrying ideas.

I will close this page by reporting several observations I made in Italy during one of the field trips of the XIII Congress of the U.I.S.P.P. There are an abundance of open air and cave sites in Italy that represent the last 30,000 years. The deposits in these sites that represent this time frame are many meters thick. The volume of lithic and fauna debris within these deposits is staggering. As a result, in Italy, the archaeologists can truly have a question to be answered when they begin to excavate. This is in contrast to the New World where the archaeologists are asking where can we excavate? The Middle and Upper Paleolithic population per square mile in Europe must have been enormous compared to those in the New World.

This abundance of archaeological data in Europe from the last 30,000 years is the chink in my proposed theory. Although I have attempted to down play this fact by suggesting open air sites and minimum populations it still nags at me. This is the reason I reserve the right to change my opinions in the future. Bruce's Final Comment.


Bibliography

Bordes, Francois.

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