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Site Raises New Questions Over Theories of Clovis Culture Origins

A discovery in Northwestern Mexico, at an archaeological site dubbed El Fin Del Mundo has raised new questions regarding the origins of Clovis culture

A new discovery in Northwestern Mexico, at an archaeological site dubbed El Fin Del Mundo (The End of the World) has raised new questions regarding the origins of an early group of Paleoindians (Ancient Indians) known as the Clovis culture. The site, located south of Pitiquito, Mexico, in a remote part of the Sonora Desert about 150 miles south of the Arizona border, found ancient stone Clovis spear points alongside the remains of an extinct species of the elephant family, the gomphothere. Charcoal found at the site was radiocarbon dated to be approximately 13,390 years old, making El Fin Del Mundo, along with the Clovis site at Aubrey, Texas, the oldest currently accepted archaeological site in North America.

The results of excavations, led by Mexican archaeologist Guadalupe Sanchez, of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, and anthropologist Vance T. Holliday, of the University of Arizona, were published in the July 14 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The article, “Human (Clovis)–Gomphothere (Cuvieronius sp.) Association ∼13,390 Calibrated yBP in Sonora, Mexico,” reported that two gomphothere skeletons had been excavated, both apparently killed and butchered by the Clovis hunters. The gomphothere, about the size of a modern elephant, has four tusks. Although Paleoindians were known to feast on the gomophotheres’ larger relatives, mammoths and mastodons, the discovery came as a surprise, as it had been assumed that gomphotheres had become extinct in North America over 30,000 years ago.

As noted by Sanchez, “This is an unprecedented finding in Mexico since it is the first time that projectile heads are found associated to a bone bed of this kind of proboscides. There is no other Clovis archaeological site where gomphotheres have been found, not even in the United States, where most important Clovis Culture findings have been registered.” In Central and South America, gomphotheres are known to have survived until about 10,000 years ago, and the Paleoindians of those regions hunted them, but they did not use the distinctive Clovis spears, and so are considered a different culture.

The archaeologists uncovered more than 100 Clovis artifacts, including various tools in addition to hunting weapons. Among the projectiles uncovered was an exquisite quartz crystal spear point, attesting to the remarkable skill of the Clovis craftsmanship.

The fact that one of the oldest Clovis sites is in Northern Mexico, and not for example, in Canada, has also raised questions about the origin and spread of the Clovis culture. For most of the 20th century, and up until recently, the Clovis people were believed to be the oldest in the Americas and the original migrants across the Bering Strait land bridge (Beringia) approximately 13,500 years ago. As Sanchez and Holliday note in their report, the Clovis culture was “stereotypically characterized as hunters of Pleistocene megamammals (mostly mammoth) who entered the continent via Beringia and an ice-free corridor in Canada.” But that view is now falling out of favor because the “origins of Clovis technology are unclear, however, with no obvious evidence of a predecessor to the north.”

Sanchez and Holliday now argue that the Clovis culture did not migrate over the Bering Strait, as it had long been assumed but that to the contrary their report expands “the age and geographic range for Clovis, establishing El Fin del Mundo as one of the oldest and southernmost in situ Clovis sites, supporting the hypothesis that Clovis had its origins well south of the gateways into the continent.” As Thomas Jennings of the University of West Georgia in Carrollton noted in National Geographic Magazine, which helped to fund the excavation, “Finding the oldest Clovis sites that far south really does suggest to me that Clovis probably originated somewhere in southern North America, and that has a lot of implications for the peopling of the Americas.” The oldest currently accepted archaeological site in the Americas is the Monte Verde site in Chile, dated at 14,800 years old.

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The work at the Fin del Mundo site represents renewed cooperation between American and Mexican archaeologists, a cooperation that had broken down in previous decades over heated debates over the antiquity of certain ancient Mexican sites. The most famous of these controversies is the Hueyatlaco archaeological site near the city of Puebla, Mexico. Excavated in the 1960s by Cynthia Irwin-Williams, a pioneering archaeologist at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, she found stone tools associated with extinct animals that when radiocarbon dated gave dates of over 35,000 years old. These extreme (according to the consensus of the day) findings led to bitter recriminations between archaeologists from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia and the American teams. To make matters worse, geologists from the U.S. Geological Survey, using new dating techniques, dated the strata of some of the tool deposits at between 200,000 to 300,000 years old. The escalating controversies made the site a source of scientific ridicule and led Mexican officials to shut down excavations.

The Fin Del Mundo site was discovered by archaeologists in 2007 through a tip by a local rancher. But for generations, local people in the region had been digging fossils and even had a small museum in Pitiquito that featured a mammoth skeleton. In ancient times the location was a large swamp, which made the preservation of the animal remains and charcoal possible. The region also featured various lithic outcroppings, which were used by the Paleoindians as quarries for spear points. The site is quite extensive, featuring more than 25 separate camps, and future excavations can be expected to yield more interesting discoveries.