Blackwater Draw - 12,000 Years of Hunting in New Mexico

Blackwater Draw, New Mexico, One of the First Recognized Clovis Sites

Blackwater Draw Clovis Site, New Mexico
Blackwater Draw Clovis Site, New Mexico. Sue Ruth

Blackwater Draw is an important archaeological site associated with the Clovis period, people who hunted mammoths and other large mammals in the North American continent between 12,500–12,900 calendar years ago (cal BP).

Key Takeaways: Blackwater Draw

  • Blackwater Draw is a Clovis period archaeological site in New Mexico.
  • It was first occupied about 12,500 years ago, by people hunting and butchering elephants and horse. 
  • It was the first scientifically-accepted evidence that people had been in the Americas before a few thousand years ago. 

When Blackwater Draw was first inhabited, a small spring-fed lake or marsh near what is now Portales, New Mexico was populated with extinct forms of elephant, wolf, bison, and horse, as well as the people who hunted them. Generations of many of the earliest occupants of the New World lived at Blackwater Draw, creating a layer cake of human settlement debris including Clovis (radiocarbon dated between 11,600–11,000 [RCYBP]), Folsom (10,800–10,000 years BP), Portales (9,800–8,000 RCYBP), and Archaic (7,000–5,000 RCYBP) period occupations.

History of Blackwater Draw Excavations

Evidence of the earliest occupation at what was to be known as the Blackwater Draw site was sent to the Smithsonian Institution in 1929, but full-scale excavation didn't happen until 1932 after the New Mexico roads department began quarrying in the neighborhood. American archaeologist Edgar B. Howard of the University of Pennsylvania Museum conducted the first excavations there between 1932–33, but he was hardly the last.

Since then, excavators have included many of the best archaeologists in the New World. Archaeologists John L. Cotter, E. H. Sellards and Glen Evans, A.E. Dittert and Fred Wendorf, Arthur Jelinek, James Hester, and Jerry Harbour, Vance Haynes, William King, Jack Cunningham, and George Agogino all worked at Blackwater Draw, sometimes ahead of the sporadic gravel mining operations, sometimes afterward. Finally, in 1978, the site was bought by Eastern New Mexico University, who operate a small onsite facility and the Blackwater Draw Museum, and to this day conduct archaeological investigations.

The most recent work conducted on the site has been studying the paleontology of the neighborhood, and scanning artifacts to create three-dimensional images.

Visiting Blackwater Draw

Visiting the site is an experience not to be missed. In the intervening millennia since the prehistoric occupations of the site, the climate has dried out, and the remnants of the site now lie 15 feet and more below the modern surface. You enter the site from the east and wander down along a self-guided path into the depths of the former quarry operations. A large windowed shed protects the past and current excavations; and a smaller shed protects a Clovis-period hand-dug well, one of the earliest water control systems in the New World; and one of at least 20 total wells on-site, mostly dated to the American Archaic.

The Blackwater Draw Museum website at Eastern New Mexico University has one of the best public programs describing any archaeological site. Go see their Blackwater Draw website for more information and pictures of one of the most important Paleoindian archaeological sites in the Americas.

Selected Sources