Ancient America: The Mammoth Hunters

As the ice fields that had covered the northern portion of North America began to retreat, new environments were created. North America looked very different 16,000 years ago: there were now lakes, bogs, and marshes in areas that had been covered with ice. Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin were covered with park-like spruce and poplar forests. The grasslands of the northern Great Plains supported herds of pronghorns, bison (not the bison of today, but a much larger species with horns more like those of longhorn cattle), moose (about 10 feet in height), elk, and other large animals. With regard to carnivores, there were American lions, saber-toothed cats, giant short-faced bears, and wolves (both gray and dire).

Mammoth S

Among the largest of the mega-fauna that inhabited North America during the end of the ice ages was the Columbian Mammoth: a kind of elephant that stood more than 11 feet high and whose weight was measured in tons. It is estimated that it could run 25-35 miles per hour. By 12,000 years ago, archaeological evidence shows that American Indians were hunting these mammoths. Archaeologists call these ancient Indian people Clovis because the first evidence of these early big game hunters was found at an archaeological site near Clovis, New Mexico. Here archaeologists found an atlatl point embedded in a mammoth bone, clear evidence that Indian people were hunting these giant creatures thousands of years ago. Archaeologists generally feel the Clovis first emerged about 11,200 years ago.

Mammoth 2

The signature artifact of the Clovis people is a spear point. The Clovis point is a finely made stone projective point with a characteristic flute which helps in attaching the point to an atlatl dart. Clovis points have lateral indentations (or flutes) which allow them to be efficiently tied to a shaft. The shafts were thrown with the aid of a throwing stick or atlatl.

clovis point

The atlatl is a wooden shaft with a hook at one end and a handle at the other. The butt of the spear is engaged by the hook. Grasping the handle and steadying the spear shaft with the fingers, the spear can be hurled with great force. With this arrangement, the spear can be thrown with greater force and for longer distances than if done by arm and hand alone. It is estimated that the atlatl dart has an impact over 150 times as intense as that of a hand-thrown spear.

The atlatl is effective and accurate at ranges up to 150 meters. One of the secrets to the distance and accuracy of the atlatl is found in the use of a light, flexible spear shaft. During the throw, the spear shaft acts like a spring in that it bends and stores energy. The shaft then straightens out as it pushes away from the atlatl, getting more energy in a spring-like effect.

Another important advantage of the atlatl is that it is a one-handed weapon. Many people have noted that it can be effectively used from a canoe or kayak and thus have suggested that its origins may be associated with sea-coast hunters who were hunting sea mammals, such as whales.

Atlatl darts may have had a foreshaft. At a number of Clovis sites archaeologists have found rods which are beveled on both ends at different angles, and the flat bevels are deeply incised with cross-hatching. The rods may have been attached to another object with a glue of pine pitch, as the archaeologists have found the residue of the pine pitch on the rods. Some archaeologists feel that these rods may have been foreshafts with a Clovis point attached at one end and the other end attached to a spear.

The projectile points and stone tools which the archaeologists find at Clovis kill sites are often made from materials quarried several hundred miles away. For example, Clovis hunters in Colorado used Alibates dolomite from the panhandle of Texas, 350 miles away. It was not uncommon for the Clovis people to travel hundreds of miles to get the best stone. Then they would carry it for hundreds of miles before they finished flaking it into usable tools.  

Not all of the stone points made by Clovis people were intended to be used. The Clovis toolmakers were some of the finest flintknappers in the world. Some of the bifacial blades they produced were so thin that they would shatter on impact, indicating to archaeologists that they were not intended for utilitarian activities. These may have been ceremonial and/or simply aesthetic.

Geographically, Clovis points are found in the west from British Columbia to northern Mexico. In the east they are found from Nova Scotia to Florida. The densest concentration of Clovis artifacts is found in the Ohio, Tennessee, and Cumberland River valleys. This suggests that the Clovis point and associated artifacts may have originated in the southeastern United States and then spread out.

The broad geographic dispersion of Clovis does not mean Clovis was a single tribe or culture. Rather, it is an indication that Indian people borrowed artifacts and ideas from each other. Clovis is best viewed as a tool tradition, not a culture.

Clovis hunting was both systematic and opportunistic. Systematic hunting involved a careful strategy for hunting a specific species. In other words, systematic hunting means that the hunters have to have a good understanding of the animals they are hunting and therefore they are able to predict where the animals will be and when they will be there. Clovis hunters, in order to bring down mammoths with any regularity, had to be knowledgeable about mammoth behavior.

On the other hand, opportunistic hunting involves taking animals which are encountered. Thus, a hunting party which is systematically hunting for mammoth may also take camel or bison if they are encountered.

Clovis hunters understood that large mammals, such as the mammoth, had to have water: thus, they could be found at watering holes and ponds. Furthermore, they understood that the soft ground near the watering holes could slow the animals down and would sometimes entrap the large mammals. At a Clovis mammoth kill site in Wyoming, archaeologists feel that the evidence shows that the hunters ambushed the animals and then drove the panic-stricken animals into the muck. At Murray Springs, near present day Tombstone, Arizona, Clovis hunters ambushed bison around a small pond. Then the hunters set up a camp on a nearby high spot where the animals were butchered.

At the Colby site, near Worland, Wyoming, Clovis hunters 12,000 years ago killed several mammoths in a shallow arroyo. The hunt probably took place in the late fall or early winter. The hunters partly butchered the animals, then stacked the carcasses into piles to be frozen. The hunters then moved on, returning to open the cache when they needed meat.  In other words, Clovis hunters understood the basic principles of freezing and used frozen meat caches.

Like other hunting and gathering people, Clovis people were nomadic and regularly moved their camps in search of new food sources. The nomadic patterns of Clovis people were not random. One of the common misconceptions that many people have about hunting people such as Clovis is that they simply wander the land looking for game. But they had to be able to predict what resources-animal, plant, stone-would be available at which locations and at what time of year.

Clovis people knew the ecology of their areas. The migration patterns were often seasonal. As the herd animals – mammoths, horses, bison – depleted the plant sources in one area, they would migrate to another area. After the plants had recovered, the herds would return. Understanding both the needs of the herds and the nature of plants, Clovis people were able to anticipate the seasonal movements of the herds and to re-use kill sites.

Moving a camp site meant walking and this in turn meant carrying important tools. The tools were made from stone (which can be quite heavy), bone, wood, and leather. Since Clovis people knew that they would be returning to the area again, they made caches where they would store stone tools and other items. By doing this, they did not have to carry as much from camp to camp.

Most of the time, Clovis hunting camps were not close to the quarries which were the source of the stone for the Clovis tools. As tools became dull or were broken, they were carefully re-sharpened. As the tools became too small to be used as atlatl points or as knives, they were recycled into other tools, such as scrapers and wedges.

The distance from the quarries could create problems when stone supplies were exhausted. As with the tools themselves, the Clovis people also cached the stone for making the tools. By doing this, they did not have to return to the quarry every time they needed new stone. They could simply return to a closer cache and have the materials they needed for making more tools.

Clovis people also ate many smaller animals. In some areas, one of the other animals eaten by Clovis people was the turtle. Pleistocene turtles contained a lot of meat – they measured 37 inches in length, 30 inches in width, and had a shell height of 23 inches. The turtles were roasted in the shell and Clovis people often constructed special roasting pits to accommodate several turtles stacked on top of each other.

While Clovis people were skilled hunters with a great deal of knowledge about animal behavior, like other Indian people, they were also skilled botanists who knew a great deal about plants which could be used for both food and for tools. They gathered a wide variety of different food plants, including berries (such as hackberry and blackberry), seeds, and tubers. To process some of these plant foods, they manufactured grinding tools.

With regard to social organization, since the people using the Clovis technology had a subsistence pattern based on hunting and gathering, they would have lived in small, family-oriented bands, perhaps 20 to 50 people. These types of groups are generally egalitarian. While there would have been some differences based on age, gender, and personal qualities, all band members were essentially equal.

At different times of the year, two or more of these bands might come together for a communal hunt and socialization. It was at these times that the people would share stories, histories, and new ideas. The coming together of the bands also gave the younger people an opportunity to select spouses from other bands.

We know nothing about Clovis spirituality. Many of the Clovis points and other stone tools were carefully buried in tool caches and often the stone tools were painted with red ochre. Since ochre has been commonly used in a ceremonial context by Indian people in North America over the past several centuries, many assume that Clovis people also used red ochre in this fashion.    

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