The scientific tourist #299 — getting to the point

In this case, to a Clovis point (on display at the Burke Museum in Seattle, Washington):

Clovis Point

Clovis points are a distinctive North American technology dating to about 10,000 – 13,500 years ago.  For flaked stone tools, they’re also remarkably prone to controversy.

Clovis points were first found in 1932 at a site near Clovis, New Mexico (and named accordingly), but have since been found over all of North America and as far south as Venezuela.  Their discovery was a huge upset to then-current theories of the settling of the western hemisphere — a process once thought to have started some 3,000 years ago was pushed back by at least 10,000 years.  But the meaning of the technology, and the significance of its beginning and end continue to cause dispute.

  • The points are somewhat similar to those produced by the Solutrean culture in Europe’s Iberian peninsula — so are they really a local (to North America) development, or were they introduced by hunters who crossed the Atlantic ice shelf and became some of the earliest settlers of the western hemisphere?
  • Once Clovis points show up in the archaeological record, they show up nearly universally across the North American continent.  Is this symptomatic of a huge  (and very fast) wave of settlement, or of very rapid technological diffusion among already-existing native communities, or both?
  • The appearance of Clovis points is well-correlated to a catastrophic loss of megafauna in the western hemisphere.  Did the new weaponry help spur the loss of species, or are they both symptoms of a more-subtle underlying cause?
  • Clovis points were eventually replaced by Folsom points — lighter, in a sense more beautiful, but far more fragile.  Was the new technology’s lightness sufficient to cause its replacement of the older style, or were cultural issues a bigger factor?
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