The Clovis people were Paleoindians from the late Pleistocene period. They lived in North America and Central America, as evidenced by the remnants of hunting kill camps found in those regions. Because their existence predates written history, may only be predated by a few sites in North America and Central America, and they disappeared after a short stint on the continent, there are a few mysteries regarding the Clovis. Firstly, there is the question of whether they were the first Asian people to migrate to North America. Secondly, there is the question of where they went.
When it comes to prehistoric man, the focus is, or was, generally on the Eastern Hemisphere. However, man made his way to North America at least 13,500 years ago and probably even earlier. The Clovis people are known to have lived in the area from up until 12,900 years ago. They were only on the continent for a few hundred years, judging by archaeological finds. The theory is that they crossed the Beringia land bridge in pursuit of big game and never went back.
The Clovis people were hunters of big game, mammoths being a likely part of their food supply. This is how we know of their existence. They used stone weapons known as Clovis points to make spears. These Clovis points are our best record of them. In some cases, carbon dating could be done on Clovis points, which is how we know how long ago they lived in North and Central America. For several decades, they were widely believed to be the first examples of man in the Western Hemisphere.
While it has never been certain whether the Clovis people were the first to come to North and Central America, there is more doubt than there was when their tools were first discovered. Several camps have been found that do not seem to correlate with the Clovis people and seem older than Clovis camps. This could mean one of two things, either the Clovis were not there first or the Clovis culture was adapted from an earlier culture and/or were still descendants of the same migratory group. This would mean Asians crossed the land bridge roughly 2,000 years before the earliest Clovis discoveries to date. Therefore, either the Clovis culture was the first/descended from the first to reach the Americas or they are the Christopher Columbus’ of prehistoric man.
Archaeologists have not been able to find evidence of the Clovis culture that is more modern than 12,900 years ago. There are multiple theories as to why that is — some viable, some far-fetched. During the time of the Clovis culture’s presence in the Americas, the biggest of the mammals, such as mammoths, were going extinct. Some postulate that this contributed to the “disappearance” of the Clovis people. However, other smaller, but still large by today’s standard, mammals survived the extinction. There would have been food, but the question is whether the Clovis people managed to survive the mass extinction of the late Pleistocene, which mostly affected megafauna.
There is the possibility that the Clovis people were severely impacted by the Younger Dryas temperature drop, which began roughly 100 years before the proposed disappearance. Again, other mammals survived in the Americas, so it seems odd that such an event would wipe out such a widespread people. Evidence of their camps has been found across America and all the way into Mexico. Another theory is based on one of the Younger Dryas cause theories. There is speculation that the Younger Dryas cold was caused by a comet impact or atmospheric explosion in the Great Lakes region. This could have potentially wiped out the Clovis people.
According to archaeologists Vance Holliday and David Meltzer, no such catastrophes are necessary to explain the lack of more modern Clovis camps. It is entirely possible that the culture just evolved. Their tools would have become more sophisticated and suited for changing game opportunities. Given the change in temperature and food availability, this is possible.
Without more archaeological evidence, it is impossible to unravel the mysteries of the Clovis culture. Even ancient cultures have lingering mysteries and they fall within written history. The Clovis people left us nothing but tools. The rest is a matter of unraveling the geological and anthropological history of a vast continent.
Wentworth, Karen, UNM Anthropologist Investigates New Clovis Culture Site in North Dakota, retrieved 12/16/11.
Weise, Elizabeth, Report: Clovis people didn’t disappear because of comet, retrieved 12/16/11.