Quote: Looking back at Clovis-first

3 minute read

This is a nice paragraph from Waters and Stafford (2013) on the Clovis-first paradigm for initial habitation of the Americas:

At least three major anomalies cannot be explained or no longer ignored by the Clovis-First paradigm. First, at 13,000 cal yr BP both North and South America were occupied by humans. In North America there is the Clovis complex, with its distinctive technologies and tools. In South America the sites of this age are characterized by generalized toolkits with many ake tools and some bifaces, but no diagnostic artifact type. Thus, at the time of Clovis in North America, you have sites of the same age and with different stone-tool technologies and assemblages in South America. Second, there are several credible sites dating before the time of Clovis. These sites have biface, blade, bladelet, and osseous technologies that date at least to 15,000 cal yr BP. These sites are found in both North and South America in well-dated and secure geologic contexts. Third, the current genetic evidence suggests an older-than-Clovis colonization of the Americas between 16,000 and 15,000 cal yr BP. It is now time to create a new model for the peopling of the Americas and explore new questions about the first inhabitants of the Americas.

I’m noting this, not because it’s news, but I ran across it in the course of lecture preparation. The book chapter (in Paleoamerican Odyssey) is mostly a review of the radiocarbon chronology for Clovis and pre-Clovis sites in the Americas.

After this book chapter was published, the flood of paleogenomic studies on early American skeletal remains began. Among those studies were results that suggested an initial habitation of the Americas in a single major wave preceding 15,000 years ago, as well as the results pointing to the contribution of a “ghost population” to some South American native peoples. Also after this book chapter have been several new archaeological discoveries, including evidence of human activity at Monte Verde as early as the Last Glacial Maximum.

When I lectured about this subject in my MOOC in 2014, the wave of archaeological information that clearly rejects a Clovis-first hypothesis was still fairly fresh, and some archaeologists were still hold-outs. Now there may be hold-outs, but the picture has been thoroughly transformed. Clovis culture now seems a mere afterthought to the main events in the initial habitation of the Americas.

This chapter provides a nice summary and has some good thinking in it about archaeological paradigms as applied to the Clovis phenomenon. What I also notice is that among its 33 citations in Google Scholar, not a single one is from any of the paleogenomic studies on early American specimens that came after this paper was published.

Archaeologists and paleogenomics specialists are embedded within different modes of publication and recognition of scholarship, as I noted earlier this week. “Should archaeologists really fear and loathe geneticists?”

It’s not that the two fields don’t cite each other; it’s that the citations are shallow, targeting just a few kinds of academic outputs. Some people have reacted to my earlier post by saying that the field of ancient DNA will eventually merge with archaeology, as their subjects of study become more and more entwined. I doubt it.

What I think is more likely is that the specialized studies of genetics will have their day and then fade, and a broader, more holistic kind of scientist—probably trained in archaeology or anthropology—will synthesize the genetic results.


Waters, M. R., & Stafford, T. W. (2013). The first Americans: A review of the evidence for the Late Pleistocene peopling of the Americas. Paleoamerican Odyssey, 541-560.