Tech UPTechnologyThe first settlers of America could have been more...

The first settlers of America could have been more scavengers than hunters

Ever since the Clovis Points were discovered, it has been thought that one of the first human cultures in the Americas engaged in such active hunting that it even wiped out the continent’s megafauna. But a new study casts doubt on the ability of these stone tools to kill mammoths, so the points could have been used as knives to tear skin and meat rather than as spear points to penetrate the tough mammoth hide.

The year was 1929 when carved point-shaped stones were found in Blackwater Draw, a canal near the town of Clovis , New Mexico. Scientists believed they had found the tools of the first settlers of America . Not only that, but the tips were found scattered among mammoth fossils. No further evidence was needed to support that those humans of the American Stone Age were experienced hunters capable of killing prey as large as a mammoth weighing between 7 and 10 tons, which could reach four meters in height. A dozen North American sites showed bones of mammoths and other creatures such as camels and horses with damage from these Clovis points. These places were assumed to be killing areas and the abundance of similar remains led to the belief that humans were to blame, through hunting, for the extinction of their huge prey . 

However, Metin Eren of Kent State University in Ohio is leading a research team that has challenged these claims about the Clovis culture. A series of experiments have led to conclusions that could put an end to the traditional view of the human being in the prehistory of America. Above all, Eren and his companions have seen to what extent it is possible to kill a mammoth with Clovis-tipped spears . The results argue that both experimental evidence and a new interpretation of archaeological data cast doubt on the efficiency of Clovis points to hunt proboscideans (mammoths and mastodons). The conclusions described in an article published in the “Journal of Archaeological Science” maintain that: 

“Due to the broad, thick tip geometry of Clovis spikes, their depth of penetration into a corpse would have been relatively limited, making them unlikely to reach the well-protected vital organs of a proboscidean and inflict wounds. lethal”.

Therefore, Clovis points would not have a single or main function as specialized weapons for hunting megafauna, nor would the mammoth be such an important piece in the diet of the first settlers of America. According to Eren: 

“It is not clear that the Clovis points attached to the spears could even have penetrated the skin of a mammoth. We have to stop assuming that the Clovis people and earlier Stone Age groups [in Asia and Europe] must have been mammoth hunters.”

Metin Eren and his team investigated the fossil remains of Columbian mammoths ( Mammuthus columbi , the species that the Clovis would hunt) to reconstruct the measurements, thickness and arrangement of skin, meat, fat and bones that hunters would face to kill to one of these specimens. According to these calculations: 

“A Clovis point had to dive 17 to 30 centimeters deep to kill a mammoth.” 

Is this possible? Several experiments conclude that yes, but it is something very difficult to achieve.

In one experiment, Clovis points of different sizes were thrown. Embedded in wooden spears, each point was thrown 30 times by a device that matched the strength of the most skilled spear wielders. The target of the shots was a block of clay located 1.8 meters away that offered a resistance even slightly less than that of the skin of an elephant today. The experiment analyzed more than 210 shots that hit an average depth of 18.6 centimeters. Only two shots managed to penetrate the clay up to 28.6 centimeters . 

Suppose the Clovis hunters could even throw harder than the machine used for the experiment could. Attacking a moving animal and managing to drive a spear through skin, fat, and tissue to an internal organ was unlikely , and it would take too many attempts against a mammoth that would flee or charge its attackers before being mortally wounded. 

All this, bearing in mind that the spears would not hit the mammoth’s ribs, which would break the Clovis points . In another experiment, Eren fired 203 replicas of different types of Clovis points at oak boards, a material less resistant than human ribs. Most of the shells broke on the first shot , only three withstood a second shot to also end up broken. However, of 74 Clovis points found among mammoth bones, only 12 had broken. Instead, 10 of the 19 spikes associated with hunting bison , a more affordable game, were broken. 

Therefore, the researchers believe that these archaeological data, together with the experiments, respond to a greater attempt to hunt bison, and not so much mammoths, whose meat would be consumed more often once the animal is dead, that is, in a scavenger diet . . 

Of the 10,000 Clovis points rescued by archaeologists, none have been found embedded in the bones of big game. Therefore, the Clovis point markings on mammoth bones have been interpreted in this study as evidence of the use of these points as knives to butcher and cut the meat of these large animals . They may have sporadically hunted mammoths, but experiments suggest that Clovis points were used to cut all kinds of materials and not as points solely dedicated to hunting . 


M. Eren et al. 2021. On the efficacy of Clovis fluted points for hunting proboscideans. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 39, 103166. DOI: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2021.103166.

M. Eren et al. 2020. North American Clovis point form and performance: An experimental assessment of penetration depth. Lithic Technology  45, 4, 263-282. DOI: 10.1080/01977261.2020.1794358.

M. Eren et al. 2021. North American Clovis point form and performance II: An experimental assessment of point, haft and shaft durability. Lithic Technology 47, 1, 38-51. DOI: 10.1080/01977261.2021.1926724.

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