Clovis People: The Original North Americans - Historian Dan Flores Explains

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Dan Flores

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Dan Flores is a writer and historian specializing in the cultural and environmental study of the American West. His most recent book is “Wild New World: The Epic Story of Animals and People in America.”

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What happened with the Folsom story is that there was a flash flood on a river called the Dry Cimarron River in August of 1908. And in the aftermath of that flash flood, this African-American cowboy named Charles McJunkin is out riding fence for one of the local ranchers, seeing what he's going to have to repair. And as he's riding along, his horse suddenly pitches up and his hooves slide in the mud right to the edge of this freshly cut, about 30-foot chasm in the slope that he's riding. And when he leans out of his saddle and looks down into this cut, what he sees are bones of a gigantic size that he's never seen before. I mean, this is a guy who he had been on the buffalo hunting plains back in the 1870s, so he had seen buffalo butchers. He knew what bones from big animals looked like. But these were giant bones. And so this guy, McJunkin, started trying to call attention to this site. He never was able to do so and get any archeologists out or paleontologists out to look at it. He dies in 1922, but about four years after his death, this museum curator from Denver, a guy named Jesse Figgins, comes down and brings a crew down. And what Figgins is interested in, he's sort of an amateur guy himself. He's just interested in some fancy big bones for his museum up in Denver. But his crew starts digging into this site, and they began uncovering these giant bison, what they're finding is a site of bison antiquus, these giant bison that became extinct about 10,000 years ago, the ones that the fulsome people had particularly specialized in hunting. And as they're excavating this site in the first summer, they come across, just sort of lying in the debris, a couple of points like they've never seen before, which are three or four inches long and have these thin flutes on either side at the base. There's one right there. Yeah, there's one right there, the fulsome point. So what Figgins' guys realize is that the hurdle for convincing the world, the scientific hurdle for convincing the world that humans had been present in America, at the time everybody thought Indians had only been in America for maybe a couple of thousand years before Europeans got here. But the hurdle was finding an extinct animal out of the plasticine indicating that it had been killed by human technology while the animal was still alive. And the next summer, I mean, it happened to be a summer when the Smithsonian had just published an article by some fancy archeologist saying, you know, North America has no antiquity in its history. Indians have only been here for at most 2,000 years, probably less than that. And within about two months of that article coming out, this crew finds the scapula of one of these bison they're excavating with one of these clovis points embedded three-quarters of the way into the bone. And at that point, they stop digging. They call on all the famous archeologists in the United States. A guy named Alfred Kitter was the most famous archeologist in America at the time. And he comes, takes a look, and proclaims this one of the greatest discoveries in American history. So they don't have radiocarbon dating yet. And nobody knows how old this is. All they know is that that particular bison species has been extinct for quite a while. Figgins says this site is 400,000 years old. But when we finally do get radiocarbon dating about two decades later, it looks as if a band of fulsome hunters using adadals, using spear throwers, had killed 32 bison antiques in what had once been a box canyon on the southern plains 12,450 years ago. And so suddenly, that discovery in the early 20th century in the 1920s gives America a kind of an antiquity that it had never had before. And within a decade, we discover the clovis site, which is out on the Texas-New Mexico border. And the clovis site is of these elephant hunters who are actually even older than the fulsome people. And this pushes when they're finally radiocarbon dated. That site pushes the dates back to the 13,000-year range. So what these discoveries in the 20s and 30s are finally indicating that, contrary to what most Americans of the 20th century think, America's a brand new place. History dates to the time Europeans got here in the 1600s. Indian people have only been here a couple thousand years. Suddenly we realize America is this really vastly old place. And that sets up the subsequent story that, I mean, I try to, what I try to do, I mean, I was an English major as an undergraduate, so I'm kind of drawn to narrative storytelling, telling a lot of stories. And when you write a book with about 66 million years of history, you obviously have a lot of opportunity to tell stories, because there are a lot of stories in a span of time like that. When you say that the clovis points and the fulsome points with the fluted part of it were so you could attach a stick to it, there's no people in Europe that figured this out? No, this was an American invention. What did they use in Europe? They were just using blade points sometimes with the ears at the bottom. So the ears. Yeah, the ears. So you have a triangular point and it has two ears coming out and you attach, you use the ears as a place to attach the rawhide. And so this was metal? No, not metal. What were they using? Flint. They were using flint as well. So when they were making these points, they were just doing it in a different way. They were doing it in a different way. So they figured out the same sort of technology kind of attaching a stick, but they had different methods that seemed to just be human ingenuity. When did they figure that out? Well, they certainly figured it out by what's called the salutrian culture, which is a sort of a contemporary with clovis. They're hunting big animals. They're hunting mammoths and rhinos and things like that in Europe. So that's in the 16,000, 17,000 year range. Right. Yeah. So this fluted idea is a distinctive North American invention. Is there any difference in the quality of the type of the stone that was accessible to people in North America versus Europe? Well, I mean, both places had outcrops of flint and flint and obsidian were the two types of stone you went for. But North America had some really great flint and obsidian outcrops. And one of the things that's really pretty fascinating about these Clovis people, about Clovisia the Beautiful, and it's and they were all over America. By the way, there are more of their points discovered in the southeast and in New England than there are in many places in the West. So this is not just a Western phenomenon. This just happens to be where we discovered them first. But they were all over America. But they went for they seem to be making pilgrimages to four or five locations that had the absolute best sharpest hardest flint in America. And they would go back to those spots again and again and again, kind of had a in their minds a mental geography of where these locations were. Wow. Yeah. So they one of the great things about the whole Clovis period, to a little lesser extent fulsome is that there are these spectacular blades that they did. And sometimes they would do blades that were like eight or nine or 10 inches long. And there are some of them caches of some of these blades of that size that indicate they were never used. They basically were kind of ceremonial objects. I mean, I kind of argue in the book. I mean, it's pretty much speculation because we don't really know a huge amount about these people. But one of the things I I argue is that they unlike in Western Europe, they didn't leave us grand cave art of these animals that they were hiding. It's almost as if their tools were their art. And it was their tools kind of represented this ultimate technology, the sublime technology that they would actually create in some form in blades that they never really used to hunt just to have as ceremonial objects. Wow. I mean, it's a really fascinating story. I mean, we've known about the Clovis people, obviously, for a long time. We've been trying to figure out, of course, other explanations for what happened to the animals of the Pleistocene because we lost a lot of them during the Pleistocene. And people have proposed all sorts of other theories. But one of the strange things about this story, I mean, I tried to do a book that's based on all the latest science I could find and all the best people who were doing archaeology and paleontology and genomic science. I mean, that's one of the possibilities these days is we have genomic science that's able to tell us things now that we've never known, even over the last 15 or 20 years. And one of the fascinating things about it is that it's almost like climate change. We've tried to come up with every other possible explanation to let ourselves off the hook for climate change. But it almost looks like this is an old attribute of human self-interest and human nature. We tend to not want to blame ourselves for very much at all. We tend to look for other excuses for things. And none of the other suggestions about what might have happened, other than humans probably entered a continent with animals that were completely naïve about us. And in the time that it took them to smarten up and confront us, we were able to scatter them enough that what we kind of think now is that we may have gotten, like, populations of mammoths so separated from one another that they couldn't exchange their genes. And they may have succumbed to, I don't know if you've probably heard of what happened to the mammoths on Wrangel Island. There was a group of mammoths out on an island in the sea off the coast of Alaska that were caught by rising waters in the Bering Sea and were isolated and survived down to about 4,000 years ago. But even though humans never found them, even though the climate changed, the animals were fine until they finally reached a point where they had a small enough genetic diversity that as they interbred with one another over and over again, mistakes began to build into their genome to the point where they finally became unable to reproduce. And 4,000 years ago, without any other effect being present, they died out. Do we have biological remains or skeletal remains of Clovis people and people from that time period? Yeah, we do. There's actually a Clovis burial site in Montana of two infants, a young child and an infant. And they were buried with ceremonial Clovis points, several inches long, covered in sacred what we think was sacred red ochre. And that particular site in 2014, the local native people in Montana, it's near Bozeman, and the local native people and archaeologists went out to the Shields River, the nearby Shields River. And after studying these young skeletons, they reburied them in the Shields River. So they returned them to the earth in 2014. So they reburied them in the same site where they found them? Near the same site. Yeah, they were found on the banks of the Shields River. That's interesting that they chose to do that. Because I can understand why they would think to respect the bodies and bury them, but I could also understand like for science, like what an incredible discovery. Yeah, well they did do science on them. But was there genetic material? There was not genetic material. Was there no physical tissue? No marrow or anything? Not that I'm aware, and I could be wrong about that, but I don't think so. Do they have an understanding of where these people might have come from originally? They seem to have come, and again, because we do have some sites, I mean the closest people ended up all the way down into South America. And we do have genomic evidence from some of the sites that have preserved enough DNA to make educated guesses about this that their origin was probably the Lake Baikal region in Siberia, and that they probably, when the ice sheets opened, they probably came down in two different migrations.