A hunter walking through a field searching for pheasant found something unexpected; rocks that showed clear signs that someone had flaked them to produce bifacially shaped tools. It was 1970 and he found more than 50 of them in one small area of the field. Alan Miller talked to anthropologists around North Dakota, but no one knew exactly what they were or how old they might be.
In 1976, 80 more artifacts were excavated from 8-10 small pits found by Donald Abernethy, the landowner and his friends. Like those found by Miller, each was flaked on both sides but not finished into spear points other artifacts; and each was still a mystery, an interesting curiosity shared with friends and family.
In 2005 a retired engineer who had taken one of Bruce Huckell's anthropology classes at the University of New Mexico went to North Dakota to visit his wife's relatives. Her cousin was Miller, the man who first found the artifacts in that plowed field. Miller showed the engineer what he had found and a light bulb went off. The engineer took photos, sent them to Huckell and convinced him it was worth a trip to North Dakota.
Huckell and a former graduate student, David Kilby, now a Professor of Anthropology at Eastern New Mexico University traveled to Beach, North Dakota in the fall of 2006. They quickly realized this might be a Clovis culture site, something fairly rare. With support from the National Geographic Society, Huckell and his students went back in 2007 and 2008 to systematically record the artifacts and conduct test excavations in the former field; investigations supported by the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology continued in 2009 and again last summer. Huckell has explored Clovis sites in Arizona in the past, and never expected to travel to North Dakota, but this site was different.
Many Clovis sites were temporary camps where the hunters who traveled throughout North and Central America about 13,000 years ago, stopped to kill and butcher large animals such as mammoths and bison, repair and replace stone tools, and conduct other necessary tasks. But there were no bones in Beach and no points; instead there were dozens of "blanks" or partially worked artifacts that could be shaped into points or other bi-facial tools or serve as a source of flakes for short use tools. Miller and Abernethy who had found the original artifacts, described them up in individual pits, about 8 to 10 blanks in a pit about the size of a volleyball and packed in loose dirt. Between them the men collected 135-140 artifacts; 103 of them have survived to be studied.
Huckell explored why the hunters had stashed blanks in this area seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Slowly, as he and his graduate student began to explore the area, they realized the blanks must have been buried on the crest or upper south slope of a little ridge that had eroded over the years.
"It was last summer that we were exploring further in the area, and as luck would have it, wound up finding a tool below the plow zone that was made on a particular kind of flake that gets knocked off of these bi-faces and about 25 centimeters away from it and at the same level, was this little chunk of charcoal," Huckell said. The charcoal made carbon dating feasible and in mid-June Huckell received a carbon-14 date of 13,500 years old, confirming what he already suspected, that the find was from the Clovis era.
Clovis culture existed in the Americas from about 12,900 to about 13,500 years ago. Clovis sites are found all over North and Central America but the first one was named after the town of Clovis, New Mexico, one of the first places where the distinctive spear points of this ancient culture were found in association with bones of mammoth. Anthropologists generally agree Clovis culture was the first widespread evidence of humans in the Americas, although other sites that may be older are now being explored.
Evidence supporting that view shows that while Clovis culture lasted a relatively short time, it seemed to have spread very rapidly throughout the continent, which probably meant there were no other humans disputing the territory. The Clovis culture also existed during a difficult time in geologic history. They hunted the plains of North America at a time when the large mammal species such as the wooly mammoth were going extinct. The bison is the only large mammal that survived that extinction near the end of the Pleistocene period.
Now Huckell and Kilby are thinking about where the Clovis hunters who were traveling through North Dakota had been, and where they were going. "There are on the order of 20 to 25 known Clovis caches," Huckell says, "And the pattern that is emerging is that places where we find caches tend to lie to the north or northeast of the geologic sources of the stone used to make the artifacts. It implies that Clovis folks were moving northward, probably seasonally, to hunt and gather, caching supplies of stone to be used in the future."
Huckell says they can demonstrate some of the blanks were chipped from petrified wood, found in a place about 80 kilometers southeast of the cache. There was also a lot of quartzite, probably from an area that is farther south of that by perhaps 400 kilometers. However, more than half of the cached bi-faces were made from chert derived from a source only 20 kilometers to the south of the site, something unusual for Clovis caches.
Huckell says, "This is only the second time a Clovis cache has been dated, to be actually dated by radiocarbon so we're pretty excited about that." Now he plans to go back to seek funds to more carefully explore the land feature where the caches were buried. There's a lot more he would like to know about those hunters.
Bruce Huckell is senior research coordinator in the Maxwell Museum on the UNM campus and a research associate professor of anthropology. He researches hunter-gatherer paleoecology, lithic technology, geoarchaeology, and specializes in Paleoindian and Archaic periods in the U.S. Southwest and Plains. He's also curious, and is willing to talk to people who have found artifacts and would like to know more about them. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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- Inside UNM