The Paleo-Indians

During the 100,000 years of the most recent Ice Age, while much of the Earth's water was locked up in the ice caps, the level of the oceans at times dropped by as much as 300 feet. At these times the Bering Strait became dry land, and animals migrated across a wide territory known as Beringia. Species that had evolved in the Old World were able to migrate east; these included mammoths, bison and early humans. Horses and camels, which had developed on the American continent, migrated west to Asia and survived there even after they became extinct in the Americas.

Prehistoric horse

Primitive horse and hyena-like dog predator

Of course, all these movements did not occur suddenly but over immense stretches of time during glacial fluctuations. Mammoths were in the Americas about 1.5 million years ago, while humans were latecomers, probably arriving in various waves of migration between 30,000 and 11,500 years ago. One of the early cultures has been named "Clovis" after a type of spear point found at Clovis, New Mexico.

Although the "Clovis hunters" have for many years been considered to be the earliest known culture in the New World, recent research has modified the traditional idea of the Clovis being the "First Americans." In a recent issue of Science magazine, authors Michael R. Waters and Thomas W. Stafford, Jr. present a series of new radiocarbon dates on several Clovis sites. Using modern radiocarbon dating techniques, the authors advance the view that the Clovis culture dated from about 13,100 to 12,900 years ago and may have persisted for as little as a few hundred years. If this is correct, this way of life was probably contemporary with other New World cultures such as Folsom and Goshen. [Waters, Michael R. and Thomas W. Stafford Jr. "Redefining the Age of Clovis: Implications for the Peopling of the Americas" in Science 23, February 2007, Vol. 315. no. 5815, p. 1049.]

Clovis Spear Points
Some of the early hunter-gatherers in the American Southwest used very distinctive razor-sharp stone spear points to hunt large mammals including bison, horse, deer, elk, mastodon, and mammoth. Scientists named these spear points "Clovis" after Clovis, New Mexico. The people who used them probably hunted other species of smaller game as well and very likely supplemented their diet with native nuts, roots, berries, and seeds.

No skeletal evidence of these ancient people has yet been found, and our information about their domestic and social life is minimal. As nomadic hunters their belongings would have been few and easily portable from one camp to the next. Small bands of twenty-five to thirty people would likely have ranged over a territory that might extend several thousand square miles, regulating their movements by the season, the amount of game, and the availability of native plant foods.

These hunters seem to have been fairly widespread across North America, but some of the most interesting sites are found bordering the San Pedro River in southeast Arizona, near the Mexican border. At these sites mammoth bones and the bones of other extinct mega-fauna are found in association with fire hearths, Clovis points, and tools.

Imperial Mammoth

The fact that some of the earliest Clovis sites contained mammoth bones sparked a popular idea that these hunters lived primarily on mammoth meat. Closer examination makes this appear unlikely. The primary factor would be the enormous size of the Columbian mammoth, which was considerably larger than the Woolly Mammoths discovered in Siberia. A healthy, full-grown male Columbian Mammoth was about 13 feet high at the shoulder and weighed in at some ten tons. His powerful trunk and tusks up to ten feet long were impressive defenses.

To kill such an animal would be a formidable task, especially for humans unequipped with the claws or teeth of such proficient predators as the saber-tooth cats. However, it would have been much less difficult for humans to "finish off" calves or young individuals who were venturing away from the protection of the herd for the first time, especially if they were in some sort of environmental distress (such as a drought), injured, or immobilized in a pit trap. The archaeological evidence supports this thesis since the sites contain almost exclusively the bones of young mammoths near watering places.

Mammoth Sites in Cochise County
At several sites in Cochise County, Arizona, the distinctive Clovis spear points have been found in association with bones of bison, camel, tapir, bear, and horse in addition to mammoth.

Naco Mammoth Site
In August 1951, summer rains brought heavy flooding to the Greenbush Creek a mile northwest of Naco, Arizona, a border town south of Bisbee. Erosion in the arroyo exposed part of a skull with teeth and the tusk of a large animal. Further excavation revealed ribs, vertebrae, and scapula along with eight Clovis spear points of various sizes.

Lehner Mammoth-Kill Site
About ten miles away, the following spring Ed Lehner was inspecting a washout. He found what he judged to be the bones of an extinct animal in an arroyo two miles south of the ghost town of Hereford, Arizona, on the west side of the San Pedro River. He removed a few fragments and took them to the Arizona State Museum where some of them were identified as tooth plates of a mammoth.

Another summer of heavy rains in 1955 exposed more bones, and excavation was begun. Shortly two Clovis projectile points were found among ribs of what was adjudged to be a young mammoth. Although the condition of the bones was poor, elements of eight mammoths were counted as well as bones of numerous bison. Thirteen projectile points, eight cutting and scraping tools, and a chopper were also found. The bones were found in a mixture of sand and gravel. The area was probably a shallow pool which attracted animals as a watering place. Some of the animals found there may have died of natural causes, especially if there had been a drought.

Bison latifrons was hunted by prehistoric man

Along with the bones of a varied selection of game including one horse, one tapir, several bison, a camel, a bear, several rabbits and a garter snake, the site contained the first definable fire hearth associated with the Clovis people. The Lehner site also offers a tantalizing mystery: although mandibles (lower jaws) of eight mammoths were recovered in fair condition, not a single skull was found intact. Several masses of crushed bone were found which might have been parts of skulls but these still would not be sufficient to account for all the crania one would have expected to find. The site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1967 and in 1988 was donated by Mr. and Mrs. Lehner to the Bureau of Land Management for the benefit and education of the public. For more information about the Lehner Site, contact the Bureau of Land Management Sierra Vista Office, (520) 458-3559.

Murray Springs Clovis Site
Excavations at the Murray Springs Site, just east of Sierra Vista, were conducted from 1966-71 and revealed a wealth of material about the Clovis hunters. In addition to the bones of a mammoth, North American horse, camel, lion, and dire wolf were found. Bison appears to have been a favorite with the Clovis hunters since the bones of eleven young bison were found. Of course, the animals were most likely killed one by one, perhaps over a period of years, as the nomadic hunters traveled back and forth over their range to check their favorite hunting grounds. It is likely that the young mammoth and bison were ambushed as they came to the water. The site also contained sixteen Clovis spear points and a wrench-type tool fashioned from a mammoth leg bone.Tourist at Murray Springs

The Murray Springs site is readily accessible by the public since it is located on one of the trails of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. (Removal of any material from the site is, of course, prohibited.) Further information and maps are available for downloading over the Internet at the BLM web site or call the Sierra Vista Office at (520) 458-3559.

Double Adobe
At this site twelve miles northwest of Douglas in the Whitewater Draw area, bones of mammoth, horse, bison, antelope, coyote and dire wolf were found associated with artifacts in re-deposited stream sediments. Artifacts included fire-cracked rock, projectile points, and small grinding stones. Although there are hunting tools at the site, the 316 milling stones are the most prominent evidence. The presence of grinding stones has been interpreted to mean that humans were beginning to adapt to the changing environment that followed the end of the Ice Age and the extinction of many of the large mammals. The coming of the Holocene Era (10,000 Before Present Era) brought warmer and drier conditions to the southwest, and people either moved on to other areas or modified their lifestyles to suit local resources.

As a result, by 11,000-10,500 B.P.E. the Clovis culture was beginning to give way to more regional variants, which are generally called Archaic cultures.

Go to Archaic cultures page.

This article is available for download as a free e-book

Drawings are from Sovak, Jan. Prehistoric Mammals, listed below

Recommended reading:

de Castaneda, Pedro et al., translated and edited by George Parker Winship with an introduction and additional notes by Frederick Webb Hodge. The Journey of Coronado. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications. 1990.

Dillehay, Thomas D. The Settlement of the Americas: A New Prehistory. New York: Basic Books, 2000. (A revisionist theory)

Fagan, Brian M. The Great Journey: The Peopling of Ancient America. London: Thames & Hudson, 1987. (The classic interpretation)

Hart, Donna and Robert W. Sussman. Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators, and Human Evolution. Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2005. "This provocative view of human evolution suggests that the countless adaptations, from larger brains to speech, that have allowed our species to survive stem from a considerably more vulnerable position on the food chain than we might like to imagine. The myth of early humans as fearless hunters dominating the earth obscures our origins as just one of many species that had to be cautious, had to depend on other group members, had to communicate danger, and had to come to terms with being merely one cog in the complex cycle of life." (dust jacket copy)

Haury, Emil. Prehistory of the American Southwest. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1986.

LeBlanc, Steven A. and Katherine E. Register. Constant Battles. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2003. Presents the view that primitive societies fought constantly and brutally, mainly for the possession of scarce natural resources.

Lister, Adrian and Paul Bahn. Mammoths. New York: Macmillan, 1994.

Sovak, Jan. Prehistoric Mammals. Dover Pictorial Archive Series. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1991.

Waters, Michael R. and Thomas W. Stafford Jr. "Redefining the Age of Clovis: Implications for the Peopling of the Americas" in Science 23, February 2007, Vol. 315. no. 5815, p. 1049.

Wilson, Eva. North American Indian Designs for Artists and Craftspeople. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1984.