Guide to the Pre-Clovis Culture

Evidence (and Controversy) for Human Settlement in the Americas Before Clovis

Artifacts from the Pre-Clovis Occupation at Debra L. Friedkin Site
Artifacts from the Pre-Clovis Occupation at Debra L. Friedkin Site. courtesy Michael R. Waters

Pre-Clovis culture is a term used by archaeologists to refer to what is considered by most scholars (see discussion below) the founding populations of the Americas. The reason they are called pre-Clovis, rather than some more specific term, is that the culture remained controversial for some 20 years after their first discovery.

Up until the identification of pre-Clovis, the first absolutely agreed-upon culture in the Americas was a Paleoindian culture called Clovis, after the type site discovered in New Mexico in the 1920s.

Sites identified as Clovis were occupied between ~13,400-12,800 calendar years ago (cal BP), and the sites reflected a fairly uniform living strategy, that of predation on now-extinct megafauna, including mammoths, mastodons, wild horses, and bison, but supported by smaller game and plant foods.

There was always a small contingent of the Americanist scholars who supported claims of archaeological sites of ages dating between 15,000 to as much 100,000 years ago: but these were few, and the evidence was deeply flawed. It is useful to bear in mind that Clovis itself as a Pleistocene culture was widely disparaged when it was first announced in the 1920s.

Changing Minds

However, beginning in the 1970s or so, sites predating Clovis began to be discovered in North America (such as Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Cactus Hill), and South America (Monte Verde). These sites, now classified Pre-Clovis, were a few thousand years older than Clovis, and they seemed to identify a broader-range lifestyle, more approaching Archaic period hunter-gatherers.

Evidence for any pre-Clovis sites remained widely discounted among mainstream archaeologists until about 1999 when a conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico called "Clovis and Beyond" was held presenting some of the emerging evidence.

One fairly recent discovery appears to link the Western Stemmed Tradition, a stemmed point stone tool complex in the Great Basin and Columbia Plateau to pre-Clovis and the Pacific Coast Migration Model.

Excavations at Paisley Cave in Oregon have recovered radiocarbon dates and DNA from human coprolites which predate Clovis.

Pre-Clovis Lifestyles

Archaeological evidence from pre-Clovis sites continues to grow. Much of what these sites contain suggests the pre-Clovis people had a lifestyle that was based on a combination of hunting, gathering, and fishing. Evidence for pre-Clovis use of bone tools, and for the use of nets and fabrics has also been discovered. Rare sites indicate that pre-Clovis people sometimes lived in clusters of huts. Much of the evidence seems to suggest a marine lifestyle, at least along the coastlines; and some sites within the interior show a partial reliance on large-bodied mammals.

Research also focuses on migration pathways into the Americas. Most archaeologists still favor the Bering Strait crossing from northeastern Asia: climatic events of that era restricted entry into Beringia and out of Beringia and into the North American continent. For pre-Clovis, the Mackenzie River Ice-Free Corridor was not open early enough. Scholars have hypothesized instead that the earliest colonists followed the coastlines to enter and explore the Americas, a theory known as the Pacific Coast Migration Model (PCMM)

Continuing Controversy

Although evidence supporting the PCMM and the existence of pre-Clovis has grown since 1999, few coastal Pre-Clovis sites have been found to date. Coastal sites are likely inundated since the sea level has done nothing but rise since the Last Glacial Maximum. In addition, there are some scholars within the academic community who remain skeptical about pre-Clovis. In 2017, a special issue of the journal Quaternary International based on a 2016 symposium at the Society for American Archaeology meetings presented several arguments dismissing pre-Clovis theoretical underpinnings. Not all the papers denied pre-Clovis sites, but several did.

Among the papers, some of the scholars asserted that Clovis was, in fact, the first colonizers of the Americas and that genomic studies of the Anzick burials (which share DNA with modern Native American groups) prove that.

Others suggest that the Ice-Free Corridor would still have been usable if unpleasant entryway for the earliest colonists. Still others argue that the Beringian standstill hypothesis is incorrect and that there simply were no people in the Americas prior to the Last Glacial Maximum. Archaeologist Jesse Tune and colleagues have suggested that all of the so-called pre-Clovis sites are made up of geo-facts, micro-debitage too small to be confidently assigned to human manufacture. 

It is undoubtedly true that pre-Clovis sites are still relatively few in number compared to Clovis. Further, pre-Clovis technology seems extremely varied, especially compared to Clovis which is so strikingly identifiable. Occupation dates on pre-Clovis sites vary between 14,000 cal BP to 20,000 and more. That's an issue that needs to be addressed. 

Who Accepts What?

It is difficult to say today what percentage of archaeologists or other scholars support pre-Clovis as a reality versus Clovis First arguments. In 2012, anthropologist Amber Wheat conducted a systematic survey of 133 scholars about this issue. Most (67 percent) were prepared to accept the validity of at least one of the pre-Clovis sites (Monte Verde). When asked about migratory paths, 86 percent selected the "coastal migration" path and 65 percent the "ice-free corridor." A total of 58 percent said people arrived in the American continents before 15,000 cal BP, which implies by definition pre-Clovis.

In short, Wheat's survey, despite what has been said to the contrary, suggests that in 2012, most scholars in the sample were willing to accept some evidence for pre-Clovis, even if it wasn't an overwhelming majority or whole-hearted support.

Since that time, most of the published scholarship on pre-Clovis has been on the new evidence, rather than disputing their validity.

Surveys are a snapshot of the moment, and the research into coastal sites has not stood still since that time. Science moves slowly, one might even say glacially, but it does move.


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Hirst, K. Kris. "Guide to the Pre-Clovis Culture." ThoughtCo, Apr. 11, 2018, Hirst, K. Kris. (2018, April 11). Guide to the Pre-Clovis Culture. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Guide to the Pre-Clovis Culture." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 27, 2018).