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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Blackwater Draw (ca. 9500–3000 B.C.)

As the Pleistocene, or Ice Age, was ending and the earth was drying out, there was a profound change in the environment across North America. Hunters in North America pursued large animals for food. Skilled at the task, these Americans left evidence of activities throughout much of the continent where many of their living sites and hunt sites are now known. Blackwater Draw in eastern New Mexico, which evidences human activity from about 9500 to 3000 B.C., is one of the most important of the early hunter locations. Large animals were attracted to it for water—water sources being productive places for hunting—and the weapons with which the animals were brought down were principally of stone.

Discovered in the 1930s, Blackwater Draw defined the then newly discovered Clovis culture of North America (ca. 9500 B.C.). The name Clovis is derived from the modern town near Blackwater Draw. Currently documented to be among the earliest inhabitants of the North American continent beginning around 11,500 years ago, the Clovis people probably initially migrated into Alaska from Siberia, crossing the 600-mile-wide corridor along the Bering Strait that was then dry due to water confined in massive glaciers. Their migrations as big-game hunters led the Clovis down from Alaska, through Canada into the North American plains as they followed herds of steppe bison, mammoth, and horse. These animals reached extinction around the same time Clovis hunters were becoming established in North America; whether the animals’ extinction was due to the efficiency and tenacity of Clovis hunters, concurrent climate change, or a combination of both, is debated.

The Clovis people hunted using exquisitely crafted spears made from stone. Elegant as well as useful, these spears are known also by the name Clovis. Found at Blackwater Draw, Clovis points were made by pressure flaking handsomely colored chert, agate, chalcedony, or jasper. These effective hunting tools and weapons are distinctively shaped. Bifacial (that is, flaked on both sides), they have a large central, or “channel,” flake removed from the bottom. This detail has given them the name of fluted points, and they are peculiarly American. The fluted detail of the points would have allowed them to be more easily mounted onto split wooden spear shafts, and also probably increased their streamline and stability as implements that would have been hurled at formidable prey. Following Clovis, the Folsom complex (ca. 8500 B.C.) also produced an elegant fluted point, one with a longer channel flake. It too was used in the hunting of big game, primarily bison.

Clovis-like points have been unearthed across the United States, Canada, and Central America. They are remarkably similar despite the vast geographic territory where they have been found. Typically a singular type of artifact takes on unique regional characteristics. Clovis points do not appear to follow this archaeological convention, and it may have been because they were extremely effective hunting implements as well as items exchanged in long-distance trade networks. The finer raw materials used to fashion Clovis points were also occasionally traded across vast distances.

Clovis people of North and Central America likely lived in small, related bands of nomadic hunters. Most of what is currently known about Clovis culture is derived from spectacular kill-sites where the fractured and butchered bones of large prey, such as the mammoth at Blackwater Draw, have been found with the distinctive Clovis spear points. However, some Clovis camp sites have been discovered and from these more modest locations other varieties of smaller, beautifully crafted tools have been recovered. The variety of tools suggests that Clovis people were engaged in a wide range of activities to survive in Ice Age America. Several locations of Clovis caches have been found. Rare and valuable goods, such as raw materials for making tools and red ocher—possibly used in rituals—have been recovered from these caches. These buried goods were probably left for future recovery by the traveling bands, like a pirate’s buried treasure.