Scientists have unearthed ancient artifacts that are upending the history of mankind 

The Cutting Edge

A closeup of a projectile point.

Photos by Dan Conover

A closeup of a projectile point.

MARTIN, S.C. – At a depth of about four feet, 13,000-year-old artifacts emerge from the floor of a hole known as HS-N207E66 in such dense profusion that they leave the volunteers little room to work.

Like others who've dug here since the 1980s, the crew assigned to HS-N207E66 has reached the Clovis layer at the Topper-Allendale archeological site. Excavations there tell different versions of the same story: Near the end of the last ice age, America's first great artisans came to this hillside to quarry a prized stone tool-making material called chert. The artifacts suggest the intense period of Clovis-era activity begins a few centuries before 11,000 B.C. and fades away roughly 500 years later.

Topper remains one of the most productive Clovis sites in North America, yet Clovis artifacts aren't the reason this place became famous. Just down the hill, below the chert outcropping that attracted the ancients, lies a deeper hole. And in 1988, archaeologists found something impossible there.

At the time, just about every respected archaeologist in the world knew that the mammoth-hunting Clovis people were the first human beings to reach the New World. They knew that the Clovis walked here from Siberia across a land bridge. And they knew there couldn't have been humans here before the Clovis arrived because the Americas were cut off from Europe by oceans before the Ice Age.

But then Dr. Al Goodyear III dug deeper and found simple stone tools buried in sediment far beneath the bottom of Topper's Clovis layer, and this inconvenient evidence pushed him into the midst of an already boisterous scientific revolution. The pre-Clovis rebels eventually prevailed, but for a generation of archaeologists, the price of that victory was paid in friendships, reputations and careers.

So it's only now — after millennia of silence, decades of stereotypes, and years of nasty professional infighting — that we're beginning to re-evaluate these people, the Clovis people. If they weren't the Siberian brutes we thought they were, then who were they?

And perhaps more importantly, was Clovis even "a people," or just the first great American idea?

Made In The South

Clovis culture is the most ancient and famous of the specific "cultural toolkits" archaeologists have identified in the American pre-historical past, and once upon a time, scientists thought they understood the Clovis story pretty well. Yet the more data modern researchers collect, the more mysterious the Clovis people become.

Unlike the more regional prehistoric cultures that followed, Clovis culture literally left its artifacts all over the map. Numerous finds over the past 85 years show that these wildly successful hunter-gatherers ranged widely across North and Central America and probed down into South America, too. But despite leaving so much evidence across so much dangerous wilderness real estate, the Clovis era was surprisingly short. The dates fluctuate as modern techniques for measuring the age of artifacts improve, but good estimates now suggest that Clovis culture probably emerged roughly 13,300 years ago, give or take a century or more, and faded out around the time of a sudden climate change that began about 12,800 years ago.

The late 20th century fight over Clovis-first orthodoxy split American archaeology from the mid-1970s to the late 2000s. The Old Guard, with their careers based on Clovis-first scholarship, challenged every new find down to its tiniest details. The rebels countered with more finds and took beating after beating before finally winning over a majority of their peers around 2008.

Because of that victory, there's an argument to be made today that the first great American invention was the Clovis Point, an oversized, symmetrical, double-edged spear tip with a particularly deft and risky design feature. In light of recent developments, it looks increasingly likely that this distinctive weapon — and the culture it defines — originated here in the Southeastern United States. Which would make the Clovis Point not only the first great American invention, but the South's first cultural export, pre-dating jazz and Elvis by at least 13,200 years.

"The technology is most likely home-grown," says expedition operations manager Tom Pertierra of Greenville, Fla., "because there are lanceolate points in North America that are older than Clovis and they demonstrate similar thinning technology. And the farther west you go in dating Clovis, the younger they are, not older."

In other words, Clovis didn't start in Siberia and migrate to the Carolinas. It started somewhere in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, or Alabama, and after covering the Deep South, it moved west and north.

Connect The Dots

The idea that Clovis originated in the Southeast is only now entering the public discussion mainly because of the limits of human science. Archaeologists most likely didn't recognize the evidence because they were rational human beings who logically assumed they were looking for another answer.

To understand their dilemma, consider that the practice of archaeology is a bit like asking someone who has never driven a car to draw a picture of a 1975 AMC Pacer based on nothing more than a pitted chrome door handle and a lug nut. Whenever the past challenges us to connect its dots, much of what we see tends to resemble much of what we already assume, and so it has gone with the people we call the Clovis.

Named after the town in New Mexico where their artifacts were first identified in the 1930s, the Clovis people rose to the unassailed status as the First Americans in less than three decades. Along the way, the story of their pioneering ice-age migration became textbook dogma.

Since mainstream science in the mid-20th century assumed that reaching the New World by boat required nothing less than 15th-century sailing ships, migration across the ice-age land bridge seemed a logical assumption. With that idea in place, it was only reasonable that migration patterns in the Americas had to run from north to south and from west to east.

Other questionable assumptions followed. Because Clovis Points have been found embedded in butchered mammoth bones, writers extrapolated that the Clovis were macho super-hunters with an obsessive taste for big, dangerous animals. They must have been restless and aggressive, a male-dominated, bloodthirsty blitzkrieg that conquered a violent wilderness.

If they had a tragic flaw, it was excess awesomeness. The Clovis were so badass, the textbooks said, that they hounded the great North American megafauna to extinction in just a few gluttonous generations. Finally, with their conquest complete, the mighty Clovis retired, ceding the benefits of their hard-won glories to their less-ambitious descendants.

Most of the facts that shaped those ideas were derived by good science, but in retrospect, our mid-20th century theories about the Clovis people sound a bit too much like some middle-aged white guy at a VFW hall telling his life story to a bunch of ungrateful beatniks in 1966. When we were kids, we had to ambush a mastodon if we wanted breakfast, and sometimes it killed us. And we liked it.

But while that story aged poorly, it remained archaeology's default explanation for the peopling of the Americas until the late 2000s, when the increasing weight of three decades of evidence finally flipped Clovis-first orthodoxy on its collective head.

Today most scientists agree that there were people all over the Americas thousands of years before the Clovis appeared. Since that means at least some of those early arrivals probably got here by boat, our estimation of our Paleolithic ancestors is in the midst of an upgrade.

Yet with so much emphasis on who got here first, the Clovis themselves somehow faded into the background. It's only now, in the context of a more open-ended theory of our deep past, that the Clovis are re-emerging to renewed appreciation as one of the most fascinating, distinct, and innovative groups in American pre-history.

"You can tell by the skill levels back in the Clovis times, they were very skilled artisans in the points that they made," says Bill Lyles, a flint-knapper and retired pharmacist who has become one of the Topper site's top supervisors. "Clovis only lasted a few hundred years, and that skill level, as time passed, you begin to see it drop off. And it wasn't picked back up."

Instead of hyperactive Siberian nomads who over-hunted their way to cultural failure, what we call Clovis now looks more like a highly mobile group that managed to adapt to whatever the American landscape provided, or perhaps a successful idea that spread across existing trade networks. They almost certainly didn't exterminate the mammoths, and today it's considered far more likely that a 1,500-year cold snap called the Younger Dryas somehow led to the extinction of the great mammals and the demise of the Clovis era.

And finally, there's another theory — not mainstream, but promoted by one of the top researchers at the Smithsonian Institute — that contends that the emergence of Clovis in the Southeast offers evidence of a mind-boggling journey.

Even against a complex backdrop that looks more interesting than ever, Clovis culture stands out.

Past That Wasn't

As an academic field, pre-Columbian history marches across multiple culture-war battlefields these days. New evidence and old documents suggest that the Americas probably were far more populated in 1492 than history has properly recorded, with cities in Central and South America exceeding those of the Old World in terms of population, health, and grandeur. Even pre-Columbia North America — long viewed as an unspoiled Eden — looks more like a productively managed garden.

In this new rewrite of the American story, the rapid European settlement of the "New World" between the 15th and 18th centuries succeeded because it caused the most horrific series of plagues ever inflicted upon humanity. Serious scientists have proposed that waves of disease may have reduced the indigenous population by as much as 95 percent between 1492 and 1640.

But as controversial as the debates over those ideas have been, they're practically etiquette lessons compared to the hostility faced by the archaeologists who first asserted evidence of older-than-Clovis inhabitations here. Archaeologists used to speak in terms of a "Clovis Horizon," the idea that once a professional reached the bottom of the Clovis layer, there was no reason to dig deeper. Those who crossed that boundary were not only viewed as fools, but as heretics.

Al Goodyear, an associate research professor at the S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of South Carolina and the Topper site's primary investigator, crossed the boundary reluctantly. His Clovis finds at Topper had positioned the stout, affable Goodyear in the comfortable mainstream of Clovis-first American archaeology.

But that began to change in 1988 when — just to make sure — Goodyear decided to dig a test trench below Topper's 13,500-year-old Clovis Horizon. He says he didn't expect to find anything, and today speaks of the decision almost wistfully. "There were people who told me, 'If you ever find something beneath your Clovis layer, cover it back up and never speak of it again,'" he says. Then he shrugs.

What Goodyear found in that trench enlisted him in the uncomfortably small ranks of credentialed American archaeologists investigating older-than-Clovis evidence. When read from the bottom up, the layers suggest that unknown bands of ancient people who relied on simple micro-blade tools had quarried chert at Topper for thousands of years before disappearing around 16,000 years ago. The site's artifact record falls silent after that, perhaps for as long as 3,000 years, before revealing a burst of activity during the Clovis era. The area has been inhabited more-or-less continuously ever since.

Despite such then-controversial finds, the site attracted little public attention until 2004, when a rare chance to carbon-date Topper's very earliest artifacts determined they were older than carbon could reliably measure, making them anywhere from 40,000 to 70,000 years old. Suddenly Goodyear had the oldest archaeological site in North America, and his face was all over the cable news channels. He'd never been more famous, or looked more professionally vulnerable.

Yet the drumbeat of new finds and old dates continued, and as the months passed, Goodyear's radiocarbon date — though still ridiculously old — started looking less impossible. Clovis-first orthodoxy began to lose its unquestioned dominance at academic conferences and among the editors of peer-reviewed journals, and when the major figures in the debate arrived in Austin, Texas, for a 2008 Paleoamerican workshop organized by Tom Pertierra, the status quo finally shifted.

"Were there fistfights? No," Pertierra says. "Was there spirited discussion? Yes. But you know what we came out of there with? About an 80-20 turn [in favor of the older-than-Clovis evidence]."

Less than five years later, the idea of a Clovis Horizon looks quaint. New evidence for older-than-Clovis occupations has cropped up from Virginia to Texas, in caves in Oregon, and in mud dredged off the ocean floor near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. New data generated by scholars in related fields ranging from genetics to linguistics point to not one but multiple waves of pre-Columbian settlement, with several starting points and much earlier origins.

But it wasn't until 2012 that an archaeologist crossed the last boundary of mainstream acceptance. Eight years ago, Goodyear confided that he would never advise a graduate student to risk his or her career on a doctoral thesis about a pre-Clovis topic. Today, Eastern New Mexico University Ph.D-candidate Doug Sain — an eight-year supervisor at Topper who met his wife at the site — is writing his dissertation on the site's older-than-Clovis evidence.

Doug and Kristina Sain are part of the first generation of young archaeologists to enter professional life in the wake of the pre-Clovis revolution, and the new crop is well represented in the evening chow line at base camp. Joe Gingerich is a visiting researcher from the Smithsonian Institute. Chris Moore has been doing advanced geoarchaeology all over the Carolinas. Multiple graduate students come and go.

But the most easily recognizable of the young academics around camp is 32-year-old Derek T. Anderson, an archaeologist at the Cobb Institute of Archaeology and a lecturer at Mississippi State. A Topper supervisor since 2008, Anderson has carved out a reputation around camp as the quietly competent, understated authority the crew seeks out whenever tricky questions arise.

"I think that we have a better idea of what Clovis technology represents than people 25 years ago did," Anderson says when asked about the new multidisciplinary insights in American prehistory. "But there is still a lot that we don't know, particularly in the Southeast."

Though Goodyear retains the title of primary investigator, he functions more as a high-level supervisor during the annual spring dig and has worked in Columbia during much of the 2012 expedition. Pertierra runs the expedition's daily operations now, while Anderson, Sain, and the other young academics handle routine scientific duties.

Goodyear's generation broke through the Clovis Horizon, but as he and his colleagues near retirement, it's up to the next generation to make sense of what's been found there. 

Coming and Going

One of the long-standing complaints about Goodyear's older-than-Clovis chert artifacts is that many of them just don't look particularly convincing. Though he's recovered pre-Clovis objects that are undeniably tools, skeptics continue to challenge many of the potential artifacts collected at the site as "geofacts," objects shaped by natural processes. Goodyear believes that his simple "micro-blade" artifacts represent a local older-than-Clovis toolkit, though he acknowledges that they don't look like much.

But there was no mistaking the ancient bi-facial projectile point discovered in Pennsylvania's Meadowcroft rock shelter in the mid-1970s, or the fact that it was buried deep beneath the Clovis Horizon. Archaeologists dubbed the new find the Miller Point.

The total number of confirmed Miller Points has yet to reach double digits, but the significance of "Miller-like points" is profound. The older tools at Topper don't resemble anything that followed them, but a Miller Point looks like someone working out a rough prototype for the Clovis Point. Suddenly everybody wants one, and there are rumors of archaeologists finding Miller-like points at digs across the South.

So when Pertierra welcomes the volunteer crew on the Monday morning that begins the Week 2 session, he lays it out. If anyone digs up a Miller Point in full archaeological context (or in scientific jargon, "in situ"), he'll make it worth their while.

Like how? someone asks.

"I don't know," Pertierra replies, grinning. "Something good. Maybe I'll buy you a car."

That "Find-a-Miller/Win-A-Car" promise becomes the running gag of the week, with much speculation about make and model.

Maybe that's because Pertierra is the rare avocational archaeologist with the bankroll to honor that promise. He discovered a passion for archaeology in the sinkholes of Florida as a teenaged scuba diver, but pursued a career in business instead. When his entrepreneurial success provided him the freedom to return to archaeology 20 years later, Pertierra devoted himself to rethinking expedition logistics and improving the relationships between professionals and amateurs.

The result was a private company called SEPAS DLS: Southeastern Paleoamerican Survey Direct Logistical Support. When you set foot on the Topper site, the land belongs to the Clariant Corporation and any artifacts belong to the state. But every tool belongs to SEPAS, and SEPAS is Tom Pertierra. The only cost to the archaeologists for Pertierra's SEPAS support is cooperation with the volunteers, the people who not only provide the free labor at Topper, but who donate $488 a week to sleep in tents and work in claustrophobic holes. 

The unpaid staff among the 60 or so people who pass through base camp during Week 2 comprise a profile that roughly reflects Pertierra's personal journey: plenty of young interns, lots of active retirees, but only a few working-age adults. The retirees call it summer camp for grown-ups, and most not only pay to work multiple week-long sessions but return each spring. "It's just like coming back to a family reunion every year," says flint-knapper Bill Lyles.

Scientists believe the Clovis people probably came here too. Mobile hunter-gatherers would have returned regularly, not only to quarry stone for future tool making, but also to manufacture tools on-site during seasonal encampments. Digs here reveal lots of tool-making debris and miss-hit failures, but even these are valuable. Archaeologists who study concentrations of flakes and broken tools have determined not only where an individual toolmaker liked to sit, but also whether the person was left- or right-handed. That's what precisely documented artifacts preserved in context offer science; evidence in context tells a story, but an artifact alone is silent. Which is why people suspect Pertierra would gladly trade a car for a Miller Point found in situ.

Still, the big driver behind Miller-mania in 2012 are the underwater dredge team's discoveries on nearby Smith Lake Creek. Almost every evening the divers return to camp with spectacular Clovis artifacts and tantalizing Miller-like finds.

But the biggest moment for the two-week dredging expedition comes on its final day of operations, when S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology marine archaeologist Ashley Deming instinctively plucks a small, green-tinted object out of the dark stream of sediment pouring from the dredge hose.

Normally, the divers just push the floating screens of dredge mud to the riverbank, where Lyles runs the crews that hose off the muck and sort any artifacts. But Deming delivers this item to Lyles personally. When she slips it into the palm of his left hand, his jaw drops involuntarily and his right hand starts patting his chest, as if to make sure that his heart doesn't stop.

It's as close to a likely Miller Point as there exists in the world — and more evidence that the direct precursors to Clovis once passed through Allendale County. But because it's been found in a jumbled stream bed, it can tell us no more.

Close, but no car.

Other evidence for Clovis origins comes from farther afield. Dennis Stanford's Solutrean Hypothesis argues that the techniques required to make flat, double-edged blades and projectile points originated with the Solutrean culture in Europe and crossed the North Atlantic during the last ice age. Tools from the period that have been found in Siberia demonstrate no knowledge of such techniques, and they closely resemble the older-than-Clovis micro-blades found at Topper.

In his 2012 book Across Atlantic Ice: The Origin of America's Clovis Culture, Stanford also cites subtle supporting evidence from a genetic marker known as Haplogroup X. If he's right, then a small percentage of the ancient genetic heritage of modern Native Americans is shared with the Basque people of Spain and France — considered the last linguistic and ethnic descendants of ice-age Europeans. None of this can be proven beyond a doubt with existing evidence, but geneticists now agree that Native American DNA comes from more than one source, although most consider those sources to be uniformly Asian.

Regardless of whether the Haplogroup X people reached the Americas directly from Europe or migrated across Asia and the Bering Strait, their genes make up only a fraction of modern Native Americans' DNA. But Stanford, who has collected stone tools from the Delaware area that match the distinctive laurel-leaf shape of the classic Solutrean blade, believes evidence of their ice-age journey is hiding in plain sight.

Add a fluted base to a double-edged Solutrean blade, and the result would look like a Clovis Point. 

Respect The Flute

It's the flute that makes a Clovis Point a Clovis Point, and to understand why that feels so significant to some people, here's a little thought experiment.

You're a pre-historic hunter and you need a new spearhead to replace one you just broke. Your parents taught you how to make spearheads as a child, and because you've mastered the skill, knapping a new one takes only 30 to 45 minutes. The unfinished weapon in your hand is already functional and deadly and could be lashed to a wooden shaft as-is.

So here's the last step: To flute your new spearhead, you now have to smack a big flake off of each side, creating a slightly thinner flat surface where you can attach it to the wood. Mess up this final step — which modern knappers say is easy, if not likely — and there's nothing to do with your ruined spearhead but throw it in the bushes.

Question: So why would you do that?

Yes, fluting makes a spearhead lighter and easier to attach, but people have been tying un-fluted points to sticks for tens of thousands of years. A fluted point looks really cool, but from a risk-reward perspective, it's a final step that makes little practical sense. In other words, to modern sensibilities this Clovis insistence on fluting looks quite a bit like they were showing off.

"I think (the Clovis Point) is a cultural signature," Pertierra says. "It's their way of saying 'This is who we are. This is what we can do.'"

You hear lots of variations on that theme among the volunteers. On a continent where interchangeable micro-blade practicality seems to have been the norm, a band of newcomers who show up wielding kick-ass spears tipped with enormous Clovis Points would have looked like rock stars.

Some even ponder the question in economic terms: What if the Clovis Point was the original American status symbol, a semi-durable good that conferred an abstract meaning as well as a tangible value? What if hunters from multiple mingling cultures prized them for their lethal beauty and balance, offering them as gifts during chance encounters or trading them within loose nomadic networks?

What if, as Anderson puts it, Clovis represents the first example of an idea "going viral?"

The scenario suggested by Anderson and others describes the Americas around the end of the last ice age in terms that would have sounded outrageously radical just a decade ago. Though sparsely populated, enough people have lived here over a long enough period of time to create connections between groups. Rivers and shorelines, once considered obstacles by 20th century archaeologists, serve as their highways. Instead of isolated savages, the new idea imagines these early Americans as modern, problem-solving people who developed social structures capable of transmitting information across the limits of tribes and bands.

And, sometime about 13,500 years ago, someone from the Deep South came up with the most beautiful and deadly hunting spearhead ever created. Not only does everybody want their own, but everybody wants to learn how to make more. As more humans arrive from Asia, the conversion accelerates. Within a few short centuries the Clovis way of making tools covers North America and extends into South America.

"It shows up essentially out of nowhere across the continent," Anderson says. "And I think it's just much more realistic to envision it spreading across existing social networks than to figure out how people moving away from each other across a relatively empty landscape would be able to keep in touch."

It's all based on good science, like the story that came before it. But listening to the new generation cautiously describe this emerging network-based hypothesis, it's hard not to remember that old "What you see is what you bring" adage about archaeology. The mid-20th century men who looked at the Clovis in a time of global conflict saw tough hunters who subdued a hostile world and survived. Today, in a world shaped by the internet, we look at the same artifacts and see social networks, ideas, and communication.

What will the next generation see when it peers into these masterfully shaped stones?

Whatever the answers — and we may never know them — Tom Pertierra seems happy to hear archaeologists finally asking better questions.

"It used to be, 'Were (the Clovis) the first?'" he says. "Now it's who were they, where did they come from, and where did they go? Now they're real people."

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