The Pre-Clovis Debra L. Friedkin site

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ResearchBlogging.orgButter Milk Creek is a Texas archaeological site and an archaeological complex located rather symbolically a couple of hundred miles downstream from the famous Clovis site in New Mexico. It is the most recently reported alleged manifestation of a “pre-Clovis” archaeological presence. The most important thing about this site is probably this: It is well dated (though the dates need to be independently verified or otherwise run through the gauntlet of criticism dates of important sites are always subjected to) and there are a lot of artifacts at the site. The importance of the number of artifacts is two-fold: It means that the site is unambiguously evidence of human activities and not of the activities of, say, a ground squirrel burrow into which a random artifact from a later time fell, and it means that researchers will be able to say something interesting about the lithic (stone tool) technology represented there.

In order to understand why a “pre-Clovis” site is interesting, one needs to understand the peculiar nature of American archaeology and its conceptions of prehistory.

For the first couple of hundred years of mainly immigrants in North America thinking about archaeology, it was always assumed that Native Americans were either recent arrivals in their native lands, or had been there since the beginning of time, depending on one’s conception of how the world works. Early in the 20th century, however, unambiguously human-made artifacts were found in direct association with the remains of animals that were believed to have gone extinct at the end of the last Ice Age. Over the next several decades, additional such remains were found, some of these early archaeological manifestations were better defined, and radiocarbon dating was invented. So for the period of time not longer than the lifespan of almost all North American archaeologists that every lived, there was justifiable academic resistance to evidence of very early occupation, and I think people just got used to this. Just as zoologists, either because they are very rational or because they are very irrational, automatically resist claims of big-foot like creatures, because all such claims turn out to be hoaxes or misunderstandings, North American archaeologists have come to the point where they, rationally or irrationally, resist claims of early occupation. And the Clovis became the line in the sand that one must not cross without suffering the ire of the establishment.

Or at least, that is how things were in, say, 1980. And since that time there have been enough credible pre-clovis finds that you don’t have to be made of scaly skin and very firmly tenured to make more such claims.

In the meantime, American archaeologists had come to the realization, for better or worse, true or less true, that the prehistory of Native Americans was written, as it were, in a particular kind of stone tool: The projectile point. It became dogma that a Native American ‘culture’ (and/or time-period and/or ‘horizon’ or any other medium to large scale manifestation) was represented by a ‘type’ of projectile point. The Normanskill People of the Hudson Valley left behind Normanskill points, and lived near and interacted with the Brewerton Side Noched people just to their west. And so on. Names of projectile point types were the very same names as the presumed ancient culture groups. Naming things is powerful, and in this case, projectile points are powerful talismans for North American archaeologists.

So, by the mid-20th century, it was understood that the earliest of these projectile point cultures, one of those found in association with extinct Pleistocene mammals, was the Clovis Culture, and that there was nothing before this. Clovis points were found across a large range of North America, and quite frankly, where they were not found they were often assumed to exist, so absence of evidence was evidence of anticipation, rather than a lack of actual Clovis people. Whenever they were dated, they were about the same age (just over 10 thousand years ago). Since nothing could have existed before them, and they were everywhere all at once, it was reasonable to assume that the Clovis people had been the first to enter the New World, and that once they arrived on this empty continent (empty but for the Pleistocene animals soon to become exinct) they simply spread out and became … everwhere.

It is probably true that the single best counter-argument against this is the simple fact that at least a half dozen times subsequently large areas of North America were suddenly ‘occupied’ by a novel projectile point type, representing movements of people over large distances or movement of the idea of that particular projectile point, or some combination thereof, in a non-empty continent. Also, when it comes down to it, Clovis is not acutaly everywhere.

One interesting fact that is almost universally ignored when it comes to Clovis is that the earliest dates are in the east, in particular, in the northeastern US and adjoining regions of Canada. The standard dogma is that the humans that ‘peopled’ the new world came from Asia across the Bering Sea. Clovis, it turns out, is represented in Alaska by somewhat aberrant and late-dated sites, and it is rare. There is hardly any Clovis west of the Rockies. The obvious fact that the “Clovis” manefestation (people, ideas, whatever) started in the East and moved west (but not even all the way west) has larely been ignored because it totally defies the common knowledge that it started in Alaska and moved south and east. Because it must have. Because it is the oldest and people came across the landbridge form Asia. And so on.

Over time, however, more and more pre-clovis sites have been found, and it could be said that the “pre-clovis” consists of one or more archaeological sites that either have no “projectile points” or that have points that do not jive well with the standard terminology. Also, and this is my impression from looking at materials and not so much from careful analysis, the pre-clovis consists of technologies that are generally more “Old World” looking than most New World prehistoric lithic assemblages. But, here we are digressing because this is a review of one pre-clovis point, not all of them.

And for the most part the article we are looking at today speaks for itself. The abstract:

Compelling archaeological evidence of an occupation older than Clovis (~12.8 to 13.1 thousand years ago) in North America is present at only a few sites, and the stone tool assemblages from these sites are small and varied. The Debra L. Friedkin site, Texas, contains an assemblage of 15,528 artifacts that define the Buttermilk Creek Complex, which stratigraphically underlies a Clovis assemblage and dates between ~13.2 and 15.5 thousand years ago. The Buttermilk Creek Complex confirms the emerging view that people occupied the Americas before Clovis and provides a large artifact assemblage to explore Clovis origins.

The site is dates with using 49 optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dates on quartz sand grains. This method measures the time since the grains were last exposed to light. These days, OSL and similar dating techniques are reasonably well refined and reliable, but confirmation from other dating approaches is still important in establishing age. In this case, stone tool assemblages with characteristics that are reasonably useful in dating sites just on the basis of what the artifacts look like are found above the layer in question. Those materials appear to be stratigraphically “in order,” the oldest dating to just younger than the pre-Clovis material, and don’t appear to be messed up as one might expect if the site was disturbed recently or in antiquity.

And here’s a sample of the artifacts found on the site:
Figure 4 from the original paper showing Buttermilk Creek Complex artifacts: (a) lanceolate point preform, (b) chopper/adze, (c) discoidal flake core, (d) radially broken flake with notch, (e) graver, (f) flake tool with retouch on a radially broken edge, (g and h) flake tools with marginal edge retouch, (i) polished hematite, (j) bifacially retouched flake, (k) radially/bend broken flake, (l) radially broken biface, (m and n) blade midsections, (o to s) bladelets.

We eagerly await reports from further research in the area!

Waters, M., Forman, S., Jennings, T., Nordt, L., Driese, S., Feinberg, J., Keene, J., Halligan, J., Lindquist, A., Pierson, J., Hallmark, C., Collins, M., & Wiederhold, J. (2011). The Buttermilk Creek Complex and the Origins of Clovis at the Debra L. Friedkin Site, Texas Science, 331 (6024), 1599-1603 DOI: 10.1126/science.1201855

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26 thoughts on “The Pre-Clovis Debra L. Friedkin site

  1. This pre-clovis assemblage is pretty cool. I hope further research can find more similar artifacts.

  2. The earth is only about 6573 years, 7 months, 329 days, 14 hours, 22 minutes and. . .11 seconds old, silly humans. Now, kneel before Zod, I mean Jesus.

  3. I’ve been meaning to read “Across Atlantic Ice
    The Origin of America’s Clovis Culture” by Dennis Stanford. If you’ve read it Greg, does it fit with the other information you wrote about?

    I heard Stanford speak at the Gustavus Adolphus Nobel conference “Who were the first Humans” and he sure was passionate about his findings. Since then I’ve read one paper that tracked a genetic lineage from Siberia, across to the New World to the East Coast, ending up in Iceland. The DNA was found in an Icelandic graveyard from the 800’s with a Hap Group not found in Icelanders.

    I would love to see the bones, tools and genes come together to give us a better picture of prehistory. The complexity will prove to be very interesting, don’t you think?

  4. Lynn, is that a book? I also saw his talk at the Nobel conference. This is an idea that has been around for some time now, and everyone I know in the field has answers to all of Dennis’ assertions. But I happen to think he may be right anyway. And yes, as I think you perceived, my comment in the post about “very tenured” was specifically about him!

    We should do a radio show with him.

  5. I apologize in advance for the dumb and possibly inflammatory question; but does this Clovis/pre-Clovis stuff have any connection, real or contrived, to the “Soultrean genocide” allegations put out by some white supremacists looking for a way to justify our ancestors’ mistreatment of Native Americans? More specifically, are the white supremacists trying to make any use of the findings you describe to support their revisionist prehistory?

  6. Yes, this issue is unfortunately related to that Soultrean genocide thing. What is not understood here is that the Soultrean people were not Europeans. The Europeans were probably still somewhere else when the Soultreans were running around in Western Europe.

    In any event, the pre-clovis would have been a native population in place when the clovis arrived from Europe (if DS is right, which most people think not to be the case), and it is most likely that the clovis ‘culture’ would have been a thing people did rather than actual people spreading across the landscape (note my reference to that idea … clovis’ sudden appearance is thought by many to mean it spread across an empty landscape, but most projectile point manefestations become established in a couple of centuries, tops, so that idea is groundless even though everyone thinks it.)

    The Solutrean hypothesis ala Dennis Stanford is an idea worth exploring. The white supremicist version of it is right up there with big foot.

  7. …and it is most likely that the clovis ‘culture’ would have been a thing people did rather than actual people spreading across the landscape…

    You mean, as in, the artifacts indicating “Clovis culture” are believed to indicate “a thing people did” being adopted by different people, not one people who did the thing spreading all over? Just looking for clarification here. Thanx for the quick answer.

  8. Greg; “What is not understood here is that the Soultrean people were not Europeans. The Europeans were probably still somewhere else when the Soultreans were running around in Western Europe.”

    Can you cite a source for this? Trying to Google Solutrean genetics is just getting me a lot of stuff about the Solutrean genocide thing.

    I’m looking for some kind of statement like, “Although Solutrean sites are found in France and Spain, Professor X’s study of [Y chromosomes, mitochondrial DNA….] indicate the Solutreans were more closely related to modern [Kenyans…Iranians…Chinese…] than to modern French and Spanish.”

    (And if you can find research that can be read without a fee, that would be great.)

  9. Raging Bee: Correct. Both, probably.

    Archaeologists can’t make up their mind about the movement of people, ideas, vs. things, in many cases. Sometimes it is easy to make a reasonable argument, but not always.

  10. Hoary, you won’t find that. Cranial studies show that mesolithic people in Europe were different from early Neolithic people and Upper Paleolothic people, and language studies show that much of what we see in Europe overlies an imprint that is probably post early Neolithic, and historical and genetic studies show people moving across Europe quite a bit in the last five thousand years. It is quite possible that those who made the Solutrean artifacts have virtually no representativies today.

    The null model …. the model that we assume true until disproved, if you will, is not that people did not move. Going back between 10 and 20 thousand years ago and prior to agriculture, the assumption can’t be that the people you see then are the same as the people we see today.

    Off hand I’m not sure we have any usable skeletal material from the Solutrean.

  11. Nice commentary, explanations and analysis of the site and pre Clovis culture. Why does Prof. Waters believe these ancient people selected this site from all the rest of the possible locations, for such a long occupation? Perhaps good water year round, raw material (chert), food and weather?

  12. I don’t know the reason for that, but I’d bet access to water in combination with good drainage (i.e., not TOO much access to water) and appropriate vegetation. Also, the site is preserved; Sites that are not amenable to deposition as opposed to erosion may have been selected for use but rarely come to us in the archaeological record. In any event, this site was used off and on for a long time so it must be a good place to have lunch, at least!

  13. Very interesting write-up, especially in regards to the comment on the lack of human fossils to go with the artifacts. How old are the oldest dated human remains known from the Americas?

  14. The oldest reasonably well dated remains actually seem to form a cluster between 10 and 12 thousand years ago, or maybe a bit younger for some of them, and are widespread, though not numerous.

  15. Greg–
    Thanks for the response.

    I’m a bit leery of language as a marker for genetics; I just got back from a trip to Wales and Ireland, where I met a bunch of people who were fluent in both a Gaelic language (either Welsh or Irish) and English. Obviously, their genes weren’t shifting every time they switched languages.

    Nevertheless, if we can’t even identify who the Solutreans were when they were in Solutre, any attempt to equate them with people in North America, let alone develop an entire theory about a genocide, is really off the chart of what constitutes science.

  16. The movement of ideas, artifacts, and people from an archaeological perspective makes total sense only after you watch a large number of Dr. Who episodes.

  17. Solutrean gave rise to clovis, east to west in the US, west to east in europe… when sea levels were 400 feet lower 20K years ago, land masses were above water in the middle of the atlantic…. (see atlantis)

  18. There is no such thing as Atlantis. The Solutrean idea is interesting, has been around a long time and has received some recent life, but the majority of archaeologists (who admittedly run fairly conservative, but for good reason) don’t accept it at this point.

  19. I would like to send you some pictures of artifacts from my
    property southeast of Salado,Texas, specifically in regards
    to # (d) in the Friedholm artifact display. If you are interested,
    where do I send them? 512-308-5023

  20. If they are electronic files, email them to

    If they are not electronic files, scan them so they are, then send them. Fair warning: 8 out of 10 things people show me because they think think they are artifacts are not artifacts! But, there’s always a chance, and I’m ore than happy to comment on whatever you’ve got.

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