Clovis Man turns 75 (plus 13,000)

Sharon Hull, a graduate student in anthropology at Eastern New Mexico University, maps a mammoth skull as she works on piecing it back together, in the foreground, Wednesday at the Blackwater Draw Site. CNJ staff photo: Eric Kluth.

By Michelle Seeber

He lived among saber-toothed cats, hunted giant mammoths and bison and was smart enough to dig water wells.
Other than that, even thousands of years later, we still don’t know much about the people known as Clovis Man.
Today marks the 75th year since a local amateur archaeologist discovered Clovis Man at Blackwater Draw, about six miles north of Portales and 14 miles southwest of Clovis.
Researchers believe Clovis Man may have been North America’s oldest occupant; Clovis people lived between 11,500 and 13,000 years ago.
Since Clovis Man’s discovery, evidence has surfaced that prehistoric man’s first North American appearance may have been on the East Coast, though many researchers still favor the eastern New Mexico discovery as the oldest.
They are sure of one thing: Research on prehistoric man is ongoing and there is much left to learn.
In the time of Clovis Man, Columbian mammoths and giant bison roamed the Plains with saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, giant horses, camels, giant ground sloths and big turtles.
“The Columbian mammoth stood almost 14 feet at the shoulder, weighing 8 to 10 tons,” said Matt Hillsman, curator of the Blackwater Draw Museum north of Portales. “One mammoth consumed about 700 pounds of vegetation a day.”
If Clovis Man hunted these mammoths, many companions may have helped haul the prey home. Maybe Clovis Man scavenged the mammoths, some have speculated.
“We don’t know,” Hillsman said. “We don’t know specifically what the Clovis Man ate. We don’t know what he wore. We don’t know what he looked like. We’ve never found any skeletal evidence of these people, but we know they were here.”
Anthropologists and archaeologists know Clovis Man existed because they found arrow points made of flint in the skeletal remains of mammoths and bison.
Radio carbon dating of these arrow points and bones show Clovis Man is certainly the earliest known human occupant of this region, if not in North America.
The earliest recorded finding of the arrow points and mammoth bones is Feb. 5, 1929 — 75 years ago today — at Blackwater Draw site near Portales. A 19-year-old man named Ridgley Whiteman discovered them.
Anthony T. Boldurian, professor of anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh in Greensburg, Pa., and a former curator of the Blackwater Draw site, said he knew Whiteman for 15 years.
Whiteman, who died last summer in Clovis, knew the value of his find, Boldurian said, because he “immersed himself in native lore and became an avid student of Native American legends and myths.”
“During summer vacations from grade school … (Whiteman and his uncle, T.M. Caldwell) … trekked across the Southwest, visiting parks, museums and other educational spots,” Boldurian said.
Included in their jaunts were the Colorado Museum of Natural History in Denver, where Whiteman first saw a dinosaur skeleton. They also visited Exposition Park in California, where they saw exquisitely preserved bones and lifelike recreations of Ice Age animals, Boldurian said.
Also, as a teenager, Whiteman mastered the “lost art” of making arrow points, Boldurian said.
Whiteman wrote three letters — the first on Feb. 5, 1929 — to the Smithsonian Institution, urging researchers to look at the site where he found mammoth bones, Boldurian said.
Several years later, researchers learned Clovis Man used carved mammoth bone to create shafts attached to arrow points.
They also learned from bones in Blackwater Draw that Clovis Man was surrounded, not only by mammoths, but tapirs, four-pronged antelopes, tampulama, llamas, deer, short-faced bears, shovel-toothed amebeledons, beavers, armadillos and peccary.
Scientists believe Clovis Man also created the earliest water control system in the New World. Wells dug by Clovis Man have been found at Blackwater Draw that indicate climate fluctuations and variable water tables in one of the most stable spring-fed lakes of the past.
Layers of sand that can be dated indicate Clovis Man dug these wells.
Hillsman said the Clovis people could have eaten mammoth, but the importance of the find is that “Clovis man is the oldest well-documented evidence of early occupation” in North America.