Sunday, November 15, 2020

The Clovis Projectile Point Type and the Clovis Phenomenon

            This week’s blog will focus on artifacts of the Paleoindian Period, more specifically on one of the most iconic and widely recognized Native American artifacts, the Clovis spear point. This spear point is the earliest style of fluted point in the New World and was used in the hunting of Pleistocene megafauna such as mammoth and mastodon over 11,000 years ago. The Paleoindian Period dates between the time when the ancestors of Native Americans first arrived in North America about 15,000 years ago until the end of the Ice Age or Pleistocene era at 10,000 years ago. During this time, Native Americans were adapting to colder temperatures than present and a vastly different assemblage of flora and fauna than present. The environment at the end of the Pleistocene was unstable creating a mosaic of rapidly changing ecological settings not found in the region or the world today. Generally, the vegetation of this period in Pennsylvania consisted of an open spruce and pine parkland – a mosaic of coniferous forest, scrub forest, grass lands and small bands of deciduous forest along river valleys. The fauna in Pennsylvania included a variety of now extinct species including grassland animals such as mammoth, horse, camel, bison, and more forest dwelling species such as mastodon, giant sloth, and giant beaver. Clovis points have been found with many of these types of animals.  

Hunting Mammoth with Clovis tipped spears 

         The Paleoindian Period can be divided into the Pre-Clovis period and the Fluted Spear Point Tradition. There has been a long-standing debate among archaeologists as to when people first arrived in North America from Siberia. Up until the 1970s, the data supported a recent entrance beginning about 12,000 years ago when people entered the continent via the Bering Strait Land Bridge, traveled down through the Ice Free Corridor between the two major glaciers in Canada reaching the lower 48 states about 11,400 years ago and rapidly inhabiting the continent by 11,000 years ago. These early sites in the lower 48 states are all characterized by fluted Clovis projectile points. However, since the 1980s, several sites have been discovered that date earlier than Clovis (thus the term Pre-Clovis), such as the Meadowcroft Rock Shelter in Washington County, Pennsylvania. The new model for entering North America involves populations moving south from the land bridge as early as 15,000 years ago following a route along the ice-free Pacific coastline either by land or more likely by boat. These groups traveled south of the glaciers that covered Canada and entered North America below the glaciers in what are now the states of Washington and Oregon. This is known as the Pre-Clovis tradition. The stone spear points of this era, such as the Miller Lanceolate from Meadowcroft, consist of relatively small lanceolate shapes and are not particularly distinctive. 

Map of Possible entrance routes. The Coastal route seems the most likely path.
 Carr and Moeller 2015

     Pre-Clovis populations were very small and sites dating to this time are extremely rare, consisting of less than twenty sites across the continent. However, beginning at 11,200 years ago there is a significant increase in human populations. Clovis spear points appear at thousands of archaeological sites throughout the unglaciated regions of North America. These points are lanceolate in shape, parallel sided, 5 cm to 8 cm long (2 ½ to 3 ½ inches), 2 cm to 3 cm ( ¾ to 1 ¼ inches) wide with flutes that extend no further than the mid-point of the blade. Fluting is a technique whereby a flake was removed from the base of the spear point on each side forming a grove in the blade that extend up the face of the point. The base was indented or slightly concave with grinding on the base and lower lateral edges to protect the lashing that secured the point to the spear shaft. The production of Clovis points has been analyzed in detail and Paleoindian spear point makers followed a specific set of steps for making the point. These are bifacial pieces, that is, flaked on both sides and there is an effort by Native flint knappers to thin the piece of stone. Along with fluting, another technique for thinning the spear point was “over shot” flaking – striking a flake on one side of the point that extended over the midline almost to the other edge. These two techniques, fluting and overshot flaking required a great deal of skill and were used to thin the block of stone to achieve the final product.

Black chert Clovis fluted point
From the collections of the State Museum of Pennsylvania

Diagram of hafting technique for Clovis spear points using a bone fore shaft. Carr and Moeller 2015

      Fluting is a unique stone tool production technique and is only found in the New World and specifically only in North America. It is a difficult procedure and approximately 10 percent of the spears were broken in production. Fluting served to thin the spear point, but why did these people choose such a difficult technique for thinning when there were other techniques to achieve the same goal? The functional explanation for this technique is that it provided a mechanism to secure the point to the spear shaft as exhibited in the figure above. However, its unique form and difficulty to make may have been used by the makers to distinguish themselves from everyone else – a badge of honor and symbol of their group. In addition, brightly colored jaspers and cherts were frequently chosen to make Clovis points possibly incorporating symbolic meanings.  Fluting was almost certainly associated with social organization and rituals (Jennings and Smallwood 2019:46). Imagine a ceremony with dancing and singing when a young person successfully fluted their first spear point. Or prayers being given to the spirit of fluting prior to a hunting trip.

     Clovis points are almost always made of relatively hard stones that flake well such as chert and jasper, or less commonly, quartzite, and quartz. These rocks have a high silica content that allows for controlled flaking and a more durable edge than other rock types. By tracking the location of the sources of the types of rock used by Clovis people and the distance to where the artifacts were found, archaeologists have been able to determine the size of Clovis hunting territories and their seasonal movements. Paleoindians in general were highly mobile groups, frequently traveling between 200 and 300 km per year: two to three times as large as later groups. For example, the inhabitants of the Shoop Paleoindian site in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania traveled over 350 km. (200 miles) to western New York to collect Onondaga chert to make their tools (Carr, Adovasio and Vento 2013).

    Interestingly, Clovis points are found at sites all over North American below the glacial limits as if the spread of this spear point type represents one culture. The oldest dates are in the Southwestern United States, while the highest density of sites are found in the Southeast, so both regions have been proposed as the origin of this technology. In addition, this point type was only used for about 400 years and then it was replaced by other types of fluted points that have longer flutes, some extending to the point tip and points that have a slightly flaring base, giving it a fishtail shape. The prevailing scenario has the invention of fluting taking place somewhere in the southern part of North America by Pre-Clovis people. The idea probably had functional advantages but was also associated with exciting rituals. The idea was widely accepted and spread either by diffusion from one group to another or was carried by rapidly moving small groups across the continent. As these groups settled in new territories, they developed their own style of fluted points and the Clovis style disappears by 10,800 years ago. 

     Pennsylvania lies on the boundary between the glaciated New England region, that does not have any Clovis points and the unglaciated Southeast which has the highest density of points. Based on the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey files, over 135 Clovis sites have been identified in the Commonwealth. Most of these are located in the river valleys and are associated with major streams. Less than a dozen of these have been archaeologically tested. One of the most important sites in terms of its contribution to our understanding of Paleoindian lifeways is the Shawnee Minisink site located in the Poconos along the Delaware River. This site produced two Clovis points, along with hundreds of hide scrapers and other tools. The scrapers were probably used to process caribou or elk hides into clothing. It was radiocarbon dated to 10,900 years ago (Gingerich 2013) and represents the oldest dated Clovis site in the region and probably represents one of the first groups migrating into the Northeast. 

Clovis point from the Shawnee-Minisink site with impact fracture
Smithsonian collections

       We hope that you have enjoyed this blog on the oldest fluted spear point type in the New World. This is a unique technological weapon that was used in the western United States to kill mammoth and mastodons. In Pennsylvania, caribou were more likely the subject of the hunt. Considering its unique shape and its difficulty in production this point type had symbolic significance and was probably incorporated into social, religious, or political events. Please visit our blog again as we present more in the series on projectile point types found in the archaeological sites of Pennsylvania.


Carr, Kurt W. and James M Adovasio

2020    The Paleoindian Period in Pennsylvania. in The Archaeology of Native Americans in Pennsylvania, Volume I. pp. 59-105. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.


Carr, Kurt W., James M Adovasio and Frank J. Vento

2013    A Report on the 2008 Field Investigations at the Shoop Site (36DA20). In The Eastern Fluted Point Tradition, edited by Joseph A. M. Gingerich, pp. 75-103. University of Utah Press, Salt Latke City.


Carr, Kurt W. and Roger W. Moeller

2015    First Pennsylvanians: The Archaeology of Native Americans in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.


Claiborne, Robert

1973    The First Americans. The Emergence of Man series, Time-Life books, New York.


Gingerich, Joseph A. M.

2013    Revisiting Shawnee-Minisink. In The Eastern Fluted Point Tradition, edited by Joseph A. M. Gingerich, pp. 218-256. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.


Jennings, Thomas A., and Ashley M. Smallwood

2019    The Clovis Record. The SAA Archaeological 19(3) 45-50.


For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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