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Illustration of Paleo-Indians hunting a glyptodont by Heinrich Harder (1858-1935)

The Great American Origins Debate: Clovis First vs Pre-Clovis


The standard school curriculum teaches that Native Americans descended from a small band of Paleo-Indian people from north-east Asia who walked across the now-vanished Beringia land-bridge between Siberia and Alaska, sometime during the final glacial episodes of the late Pleistocene period between 12,000 and 15,000 years ago. Known as ‘Clovis First’ theory, after the site discovered near Blackwater Draw in eastern New Mexico in the 1920s, where a mammoth skeleton that was laid next to a spearhead dated as being from 11,500 years ago, this became the predominant ‘first people’ hypothesis among archaeologists during the latter half of the 20th century, until the recent identification of a pre-Clovis culture.

The blades of the Clovis culture had distinctively shaped stone spear points, bifacial and typically fluted on both sides, known as the Clovis point. (Public License).

The blades of the Clovis culture had distinctively shaped stone spear points, bifacial and typically fluted on both sides, known as the Clovis point. (Public License).

Sites identified as Clovis were occupied between 11,400 BC and 10,800 BC and evidence tells archaeologists that the people’s lifestyles were dominated with hunting and trapping now-extinct megafauna; mastodons, mammoths, wild horses and bison, and collecting plant foods. In 2017, scientists successfully read the genetic sequence of a baby from a Clovis burial site in Montana, named ‘Anzick-1' which dated to 10600 BC. This revealed that Clovis people were the: "direct ancestors of roughly 80% of all living Native American populations in North and South America” with the remaining 20% having come from ancestors who entered in later waves of migration. These findings also support the pre-Clovis hypothesis that modern Native Americans are descended from Paleo-Asian populations who reached the Beringia crossing between 32,000 and 18,000 years ago.

The Beringian Standstill and Spread of Native American Founders. (Public Domain).

The Beringian Standstill and Spread of Native American Founders. (Public Domain).

Were the Clovis Immigrants Frist?

But were these Clovis immigrants really the first human inhabitants who created a widespread culture in the New World? Or did another, unrelated group of people precede them? This question has been bitterly debated for several decades and although the Clovis culture has been held as the mother of North American indigenous cultures, a range of new archaeological discoveries suggests another culture with different technologies existed either prior to, or concurrently, with Clovis people.

During the 19th and 20th centuries there had always been a contingent of ‘Americanist' scholars who claimed that there existed archaeological sites in the Americas dating between 15,000 to as much 100,000 years ago, and older! 


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Ashley Cowie is a Scottish historian, author and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems, in accessible and exciting ways. His books, articles and television shows explore lost cultures and kingdoms, ancient crafts and artifacts, symbols and architecture, myths and legends telling thought-provoking stories which together offer insights into our shared social history.

Top Image: Illustration of Paleo-Indians hunting a glyptodont by Heinrich Harder (1858-1935)  (Public Domain)

By Ashley Cowie



LadyGreenEyes's picture

The debate can become quite heated, and is as much about politics as it is about scientists not wanting to let go of previously held ideas.  Really, we don’t know quite a lot about the peopling of the Americas, nor about from where all of these people came.  Vased on remains found, and also on stone tools, it’s plain that many came from somewhere other than Asia.  I’ve read about some starting to accept people coming from Africa, but most refuse to accept that anyone could as easily have come from Europe, despite data which shows that to be the case.  I’d say that people came from all over, and certainly those who crossed, if that happened, Beringia were not the earliest.  We don’t know who was, and cannot know with any certainly.  We can know that people were here earlier than previously believed, and we can know that a lot of honest research needs to be done.  The turning over of any and all remans to various tribes needs to stop as well. 


ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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