Clovis points are quite possibly the most coveted point of Native American artifact collectors. Clovis points are the unmistakably-fluted (a leaf like groove emanating from the central base) projectile points associated with the New World Clovis culture of the Early Paleoindian period―which lasted for nearly 1,000 years, from 11,500 to 10,500 years ago. This period is marked by the first human entry into the New World, presumably from Asia via the Bering Land Bridge, and the end of the last Ice Age, 13,500 to 12,800 years ago.
Clovis Gets Its Name
Clovis points are named after the city of Clovis, New Mexico, where the first documented examples were found in 1929 by James Ridgely Whiteman.
One day in February, 1929, Whiteman, a 19-year old amateur archeologists, was sifting through the embankment of Blackwater Draw, where he discovered fluted points interspersed with mammoth bones. Despite his numerous attempts to engage the Smithsonian to investigate the site, they ignored his overtures.
Several years later, in 1932, the New Mexico Highway Department began digging gravel from the site, and uncovered piles of huge mammoth bones. This time, archeologists pounced on the site and found a treasure trove of stone tools, spearheads, hearths, and other remnants associated with continuous human occupation dating back 13,000 years.
The origination of the Clovis is shrouded in mystery and the subject of great disagreement within the archeological community. The majority of archaeologists believe the first human inhabitants of the Americas originated from northeast Asia and developed the Clovis independently.
Others point to the fact that lithic (stone tools) antecedents of Clovis points have not been discovered in northeast Asia. This has emboldened some archaeologists to draw a parallel between the Clovis point and the relatively advanced flint tool-making style of the Solutrean culture in the Iberian peninsula of Europe around 22,000 to 17,000 years ago.
These similarities have lead archeologists to the controversial Solutrean Hypothesis; that the technology was introduced by hunters traversing the Atlantic ice-shelf, meaning some of the first American people were European.
A typical Clovis point is a medium to large lanceolate point―a narrow oval shape, tapering to a point at each end. The sides of the point are parallel to the convex, and display careful pressure flaking along the blade’s edge. With lengths ranging from 4 to 20 centimeters (1.6 to 7.9 in) and widths from 2.5 to 5 centimeters (0.98 to 1.97 in), the broadest area is near the midsection or toward the base.
The base is distinctly curved in with a characteristic flute or channel flake removed from one or, more commonly, both surfaces of the blade. The lower edges of the blade and base are ground smooth to dull edges for hafting.
In terms of material, most specimens are made from chert, while other known examples are made of flint, jasper, chalcedony, and other stone of conchoidal fracture.
Design & Technology
So why the flute feature? That’s a question archaeologists have debated for years. Did fluting provide these early inhabitants any adaptive benefit? It’s logical to think that a thin groove at the base of a point would make it thin, brittle, and susceptible to breaking upon impact with a solid object, like bone.
In a study published in the Volume 81, May 2017 Journal of Archaeological Science, Kent State University’s Metin Eren, Ph.D, and his co-authors, tested the strength and durability of the Clovis point.
After several types of testing, the researchers found evidence that the fluted-point base acted as a shock absorber―making it better able to withstand and absorb the shock of colliding with a hard object, such as the bone of a mammoth.
The researchers also examined the process in which the Clovis was made. “It was risky and couldn’t have been easy to learn how to do this effectively,” Eren explained. “Archaeological evidence suggests that up to one out of five points break when you try to chip this fluted base, and it takes at least 30 minutes to produce a finished specimen. So, though it was a time-consuming process and risky technique, successfully fluted Clovis points would have been extremely reliable, especially while traveling great distances into unknown regions on a new continent. They needed points that would hold up and be used over and over again.“
As Clovis technology expanded and improved, its effectiveness may have been a possible contributor to the extinction of the megafauna, such as the mastodon.
While the first documented Clovis points were discovered near Clovis, New Mexico, many have since been found across North America, and as far south as Venezuela.
Caches of Clovis points have most notably been found at the Anzick site in Montana; the Blackwater Draw site in New Mexico; the Colby site in Wyoming; the Gault site in Texas; the Simon site in Idaho; the East Wenatchee site in Washington; the Mahaffey Cache site in Boulder, Colorado; and the Fenn cache, which was discovered in a private collection in 1989, and whose precise provenance is regrettably unknown.