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Coming Into America

Clovis: A Primer  
Photo of  a Clovis Spear point

Clovis points such as this one -- bifacial and flaked on both sides -- help explain why the Clovis people were so effective in hunting big game like mammoths, horses and bison.

In 1929 the Smithsonian Institution sent an expedition to Clovis, New Mexico. Along with ancient mammoth remains, archeologists uncovered a new kind of stone point they called Clovis. Clovis points were subsequently found at many sites, always with nothing deeper. So archeologists came to believe that the makers of the points--Clovis people--were the first on the land.

Today, the Smithsonian's Dennis Stanford shows Alan how to make a Clovis point and explains why it was effective in hunting big game like mammoths, horses and bison. Flaked on both sides, Clovis points have a characteristic flake used to thin the base, allowing the point to be hafted onto a wooden spear shaft. After striking an animal, the shaft could be detached, leaving the point embedded. Hunters would then reload with another point for their next shot. It was a lethal system, effective against large animals like mammoths, horses and bison.

Photo of Alan and Dennis Stafford

Alan and Dennis Stanford read a letter from Ridgeley Whiteman, an arrowhead collector, who alerted the Smithsonian to a find that would ultimately lead to the discovery of the Clovis culture.

Alan visits archeologist Michael Collins for an up-to-date view of the Clovis people. Collins has exhaustively excavated a site called Gault near Austin, Texas.

Some 700,000 bits and pieces collected at the site provide a comprehensive picture of Clovis life there. It's clear that the people who lived at Gault 13,000 years ago were far from fast-moving big game hunters. Rather, as Mike Collins explains to Alan, they were hunter-gatherers who exploited all the resources around them-from a valley floor filled with nuts, berries and small game, even turtles in the creek, to the nearby plateau with its cactus fruit, mesquite beans and turkeys. Collins' group has identified specialized tools-for cutting and scraping meat, bone and wood, punching holes in hides and slicing many things, including grass.

Clovis sites appeared across North America within the space of a few hundred years, but how could people have learned about so many different environments as intimately as they understood Gault, in such a short time? Perhaps, Collins suggests, it was Clovis ideas spreading among people who were already there.

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