Following Up on the South Bank

The South Bank of the Clovis site refers to an area at the southern end of the prehistoric pond around which lie a group of cultural sites spanning a time from the end of the last ice age until recent historic times.  This watering hole provided a marshy habitat for plants and animals and was the focus of human activity for the last 14,000 years.


The South Bank area of the Clovis site. View to the southwest.

Professional research on the South Bank of the Clovis site has been going on since the mid-1930s.  In fact, this is the area of the Clovis site where it was discovered for the first time, beyond any legitimate doubt, that humans were hunting mammoths in North America.  Other than the spear points we now know as Clovis, major discoveries in the South Bank area include bone spear points embedded in mammoth, spokeshaves, gravers, Levallois blades, turtle shells, bone flakers, bone foreshafts, and a variety of knives and other cutting tools.

Although more work has been done in the South Bank area than any other portion of the site, only a tiny fraction of all the work in this area has been published to date.  A few of us are working hard to remedy this and I have dedicated my career to unraveling the mess of 80+ years of excavation, sampling, and recording of this site.


Edgar Howard at the Clovis site, 1933.

What we’re up to now.  A building was placed over a small portion of the South Bank in the 1990s to preserve in situ some of the spectacular preserved specimens from this area.  As time permits, we are slowing removing the overburden in this area to reveal the palimpsest of bison kills, butchering, and other activities in this area.  A particularly good crew of excavators with faunal experience were willing to volunteer some of their time over the past couple weeks and huge progress is being made.


Here’s a gallery of random photographs from the excavations so far.

Thanks to those who are giving time to this project of mine.  Since, for me, archaeology isn’t worth doing without disseminating the information to the broader public I’ll update the blog as we continue to make progress.  Unfortunately, day-to-day operations of the Landmark and the university take precedent over the fun stuff like this so it will be back to the grindstone before too long.

And the evidence continues to build.

Score one, possibly a definitive one, for the pre-Clovis people.  Below is an abstract from an article by Michael R. Waters et al published in the October, 2011 issue of Science that summarizes his findings concerning a projectile point lodged into a rib of a mastodon at a potential pre-Clovis site.


The tip of a projectile point made of mastodon bone is embedded in a rib of a single disarticulated mastodon at the Manis site in the state of Washington. Radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis show that the rib is associated with the other remains and dates to 13,800 years ago. Thus, osseous projectile points, common to the Beringian Upper Paleolithic and Clovis, were made and used during pre-Clovis times in North America. The Manis site, combined with evidence of mammoth hunting at sites in Wisconsin, provides evidence that people were hunting proboscideans at least two millennia before Clovis. [Waters et al, 2011]

Here is a full reference to the Science article, as well as a link to a BBC article that discusses the findings.  Additionally, I have found an NPR interview with Waters, and I will provide a link to it also.

Waters, Michael R.
2011  Pre-Clovis Mastodon Hunting 13,800 Years Ago at the Manis Site, Washington.  Science 334: 351-353.

Hawk and Snake

Blackwater Draw is still an active hunting site.

I was fortunate enough to see an amazing wildlife battle yesterday evening.  It was life at its rawest on the Llano Estacado.  I wanted to be an impartial observer but, being human, I stepped in and intervened.  I live in a rural area with a lot of wildlife including many raptors and snakes.  It is not uncommon to see a hawk swoop down and catch a rabbit, rat, mouse, or lizard.  I was heading home to eat so I wasn’t too concerned with watching when a large hawk landed hunched over some prey out in the scrub.  I went past to check our back gate and came back the same way a minute later.  I saw the hawk was hopping around and it looked like it was fighting something.  Due to the brush and growing darkness I couldn’t tell what it was fighting with but wanted to have a closer look.  There was a split second of frenzied activity and suddenly the hawk was flipped onto its back on the ground.  Luckily, I had a camera so I was able to snap off this shot.

I would have had a hard time believing it had I not seen it.  A relatively small coachwhip snake was all over the hawk and choking the life out of it.  It was getting dark and my initial thought was that it had been bit by a prairie rattler.  The hawk’s beak was open, eyes bulging and obviously gasping for air.  Closer inspection showed the snake to be a gopher snake, and net even a very big one.  A friend pointed out that it is likely the hawk grasped it near the head to keep from being bit but the long lithe coachwhip was able to fling itself around the neck and body.

My presence was obviously upsetting everybody and there was more thrashing.  The snake was able to hide under the feathers pretty effectively.  I wanted to just grab the snake and unwind it but images of being bitten or clawed by a frightened hawk kept me at a little distance.  Not sure what to do next I was able to call someone down to give me hand; at least to take a few more pictures as I expected to be slashed or bit by the hawk.

I grabbed a yucca stalk to help hold the hawk down while I grabbed for the snake and tried to avoid talons.  I doubt it would have done much but it was all I had.

Here I am awkwardly pulling snake out with one hand and holding the hawk away with the stick.

She got up, staggered around, shook herself out and flew up into a nearby tree.

This irritated snake actually pursued me, snapping at me until I left.

Anyway, it was a wordy story.  I have spent a lot of time outdoors and seen many interesting animal behaviors but nothing like this before.

(copied from author’s personal blog)

Photo of the Week 9/16/2011

Illustration of a worked mammoth tusk excavated and on display at the Blackwater Draw site.

Archaeologically speaking, finding the raw material (mammoth ivory), or finding finished tools (ivory rods, shaft wrenches…), is far more common than finding ivory  in the process of being modified.  The stone tool marks on this artifact are quite distinctive and clearly visible to the naked eye.  Read more about this interesting artifact in the 1990 article written by Jeffrey Saunders et al.  Dr. Saunders is responsible for most of the identification and stabilization of the faunal remains excavated during the 1960s.  He is currently a curator at the Illinois State Museum and his work is displayed with pride at the BWD site’s visitor center.

Saunders, J.J., C. Vance Haynes, Jr., Dennis Stanford, and George A. Agogino
1990   A Mammoth-Ivory Semi-fabricate from Blackwater Locality No. 1, New Mexico.  American Antiquity 55:112-119.

Blackwater Draw Bibliography

The Age of Dogs

Its seems the date of dog domestication keeps being pushed further back in time.  Recent finds in the Altai mountains of Siberia indicate domestication by 33,000 B.P., near the peak of the last ice-age.  The specimen shows paedomophism in the snout, but with large, wolf-like teeth.  Dogs are so important to recent bio-cultural evolution that they are something we shouldn’t leave out of any look at hunter-gatherers.

photo credit: BBC News

There are no dogs reported from the Paleoindian excavations at Blackwater Draw but I suspect we will someday have some evidence of their interaction with the First Americans in the area.  Our excavation bias at the Landmark is that we have primarily a series of kill-sites but little domestic evidence.  I am often asked by the public “why are there no humans buried here?”  What we find are piles of bison, mammoth, pronghorn, etc. but the hunters were not dying here.  If they were, I suspect even then they would be taken away for some sort of mortuary practice.  The dogs, just like their more recent descendants, likely went off to die alone or possibly were eaten and ended up in the trash midden.

Click the photo for the BBC article or copy the link: