Cactus Hill (USA)

Does Virginia's Cactus Hill Site Hold Credible Evidence for PreClovis?

Nottoway River, Near Courtland, Virginia
Nottoway River, Near Courtland, Virginia. Kubigula

Cactus Hill (Smithsonian designation 44SX202) is the name of a buried multi-component archaeological site on the coastal plain of the Nottaway River in Sussex County, Virginia. The site has both Archaic and Clovis occupations, but most importantly and once quite controversially, below the Clovis and separated by what appears to be a variably thick (7–20 centimeters or about 3–8 inches) level of sterile sand, is what excavators argue is a Pre-Clovis occupation.

Data from the Site

Excavators report that the Pre-Clovis level has a stone tool assemblage with heavy percentages of quartzite blades, and pentangular (five-sided) projectile points. Data on the artifacts has yet to be published in detailed peer-reviewed contexts, but even skeptics agree the assemblage includes small polyhedral cores, blade-like flakes, and basally thinned bifacial points. 

Numerous projectile points were recovered from the various levels of Cactus Hill, including Middle Archaic Morrow Mountain Points and two classic fluted Clovis points. Two projectile points from what are thought to be Pre-Clovis levels are named Cactus Hill points. Based on the photographs published in Johnson, Cactus Hill points are small point, made from a blade or flake, and pressure flaked. They have slightly concave bases, and parallel to slightly curved side margins.

Radiocarbon dates on wood from the Pre-Clovis level range between 15,070±70 and 18,250±80 RCYBP, calibrated to approximately 18,200–22,000 years ago.

Luminescence dates taken on feldspar and quartzite grains in the various levels of the site agree, with some exceptions, with the radiocarbon assays. The luminescence dates suggest that the site stratigraphy is primarily intact and has been little affected by the movement of artifacts down through the sterile sand.

Seeking the Perfect Pre-Clovis Site

Cactus Hill is still somewhat controversial, in part no doubt because the site was among the earliest to be considered Preclovis in date. The "Pre-Clovis" occupation was not stratigraphically sealed and artifacts were assigned to Pre-Clovis levels based on their relative elevation in an environment of sand, where bioturbation by animals and insects can easily move artifacts up and down in a profile (see Bocek 1992 for a discussion). Further, some of the luminescence dates on the Pre-Clovis level ranged as young as 10,600 to 10,200 years ago. No features were identified: and, it must be said that the site is just not a perfect context.

However, other, completely credible Pre-Clovis sites have been and continue to be identified, and Cactus Hill's shortcomings may today be of less significance. Multiple instances of fairly secure preclovis sites in North and South America, particularly in the Pacific Northwest and along the Pacific coast, have made these issues seem less compelling. Further, the Blueberry Hill site in the Nottoway River valley (see Johnson 2012) also reportedly contains cultural levels stratigraphically below Clovis-period occupations.

Cactus Hill and Politics

Cactus Hill isn't a perfect example of a Pre-Clovis site. While the west coast presence of Pre-Clovis in North America is accepted, the dates are pretty early for an east-coast site. However, the context for the Clovis and Archaic sites also in the sand sheet would be similarly imperfect, except that Clovis and American Archaic occupations are firmly accepted in the region and so no one questions their reality.

The arguments concerning when and how people arrived in the Americas are slowly being revised, but the debate will likely continue for some time to come. Cactus Hill's status as a credible evidence of preclovis occupation in Virginia remains one of those questions yet to be fully resolved.

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