When people think about America’s early settlers, chances are that their minds turn to the Mayflower landing at Plymouth Rock. But human history on the continent goes back way further than the 1700s. Yes, humanity and North America have been friends for thousands of years longer than you might think.
Indeed, while Christopher Columbus famously visited the Americas in 1492, he most definitely wasn’t the first human to set foot there. That honor goes to the Clovis people, who existed in North America around 13,000 years ago. How do we know this? Well, the archaeological record of the continent has provided evidence aplenty of their existence.
In fact, so abundant are artifacts from the Clovis era that archaeologists have noticed a signature style in the weaponry that they’ve discovered. Amidst the usual tools and detritus left by the inhabitants of an area, distinctive spear points were found during a number of excavations. These prehistoric blades have a delicately shaped, fluted design and were most likely used for hunting animals.
Perhaps surprisingly, the existence of the Clovis people was discovered less than a century ago. First dug up near Clovis in New Mexico during the 1920s and 1930s, the finds in question pointed to a hunter-gatherer society whose members must have been skilled in the use of weapons. That’s because the bones of mammoths were sometimes found alongside the speartips.
And subsequent finds of these recognizable speartips in the eastern half of North America appear to confirm that the Clovis were widespread. This abundance of evidence, coupled with an accepted origin date of around 13,000 years ago, meant that the Clovis came to be regarded as America’s first-ever settlers.
So, how did the Clovis people arrive in North America? The generally accepted answer has been: on foot, in pursuit of food. During the final days of the last Ice Age, a frost-free path opened up from modern-day Alaska into Canada and on to the continental U.S. And the theory goes that as mammoths and other large animals moved south, so did the Clovis.
In 1997, however, something happened that challenged the accepted view of early humans in the Americas. At the site known as Monte Verde in Chile, archaeologists found evidence of human habitation from 14,800 years ago. Preceding the Clovis by some 1,000 years in terms of its age, this discovery blew the “Clovis First” theory out of the water.
How people came to the Americas is, then, a topic in which various archaeologists are deeply interested, and for years teams have been scouring the continent in the hope of finding more relics and new information. In fact, one such archaeological dig just outside of Austin, Texas, has been ongoing for more than a decade. The excavations at the site have unearthed a multitude of artifacts, too, going all the way back to the Clovis era. And then in 2016 the team – including experts from Texas A&M University – found something incredible.
The site itself – known locally as Buttermilk Creek – is, as its name suggests, situated near a body of water. And thanks to this steady flow of freshwater, the territory around the creek has been heavily peopled over the millennia. Indeed, speaking to Science magazine in 2018, A&M archaeologist Michael Waters described the area as “an ideal place to be.” That seems to be a widely held view, too, as successive iterations of humanity have each left their mark in the soil at the site.
And it was at Buttermilk Creek that the team made their incredible discovery. Down below the expected Clovis artifacts, Waters and his colleagues came across something unusual: speartips that they didn’t recognize. The weapons didn’t have the usual Clovis fluting and generally appeared less sophisticated – if no less deadly. What’s more, the artifacts were six inches beneath the earliest Clovis items at the site. Had the A&M experts found clues to a pre-Clovis culture, then?
Due to the nature of the soil around the creek, carbon dating wouldn’t work for these objects. So instead, the team used a hi-tech method of finding out just how old those weapons are. Known as “optically stimulated luminescence,” the technique allows experts to tell when crystals in the ground most recently encountered sunlight. And the results from the team’s tests were astonishing.
Far from even being in the ballpark of the Clovis era, the speartips actually appear to be around 13,500 to 15,500 years old. So, if that is confirmed, these finds will be the oldest to be unearthed not just in the U.S. but also in the whole of North America.
So, if the Monte Verde find had blown the “Clovis First” theory out of the water, Buttermilk Creek blew it to smithereens. The discovery places humans – possibly hunter-gatherers – in the continental U.S. around 2,000 years before the Clovis were around. This, however, is a controversial notion within the archaeological community. Why? Because it’s believed the frost-free pathway through North America was unlikely to have existed at that point in time.
This, of course, presents archaeologists with an interesting dilemma. Before the pathway appeared, the continent was basically a massive glacier. With an environment so incredibly cold and so little in the way of food, it would’ve been nigh-on impossible for people to have survived the journey. So, how did this unknown community make it down to Texas? No one is quite sure of the answer yet, but the most popular theory might surprise you.
You see, current thinking appears to favor what is known as Pacific Coast migration. This theory states that, rather than coming directly through the continent, early settlers made their way down the western coast. And from there, it’s possible that communities moved inland – culminating in the Clovis finds in what today are the central and eastern states of the U.S.
Moreover, Buttermilk Creek isn’t the only site to hold such buried treasures. Digs in Oregon, Florida, South Carolina and Virginia have all yielded finds that are thought to be of a similar age, in fact. But as Waters told the Texas A&M website in October 2018, “The [Buttermilk Creek] discovery is significant because almost all pre-Clovis sites have stone tools, but spearpoints have yet to be found.”
“The dream has always been to find projectile points that can be recognized as older than Clovis,” Waters continued. “And this is what we have at the [Buttermilk] site.” In total, the team found 11 of the objects, now named “western stemmed points.” And even some 15,000 years later, the stone weapons still look pretty deadly.
Of course, it’s unlikely that one single group of settlers filled the entire continent. “The peopling of the Americas during the end of the last Ice Age was a complex process,” Waters told Science. “Now we are starting to see this complexity mirrored in the archaeological record.”
But at least one other archaeologist has urged caution. Loren Davis from Oregon State University told Science magazine that testing of pre-Clovis artifacts from different sites was needed before celebrations could begin. Due to a large error margin with luminescence dating, extra results would be required to “nail [that date] down.”
For others, though, the Buttermilk Creek find represents a new tool for tracing the movements of settlers on the continent. “This is the kind of research that’s going to push the peopling of the New World story forward,” archaeologist Todd Braje told Science. And even Davis conceded that the discovery was “very, very compelling.” America’s complicated history, it seems, just gets more and more interesting…