Texas: Ancient Weapons Pre-Dating Clovis People Discovered at Buttermilk Creek

stemmed spear
A 15,000-year-old stemmed spear point. Center for the Study of the First Americans, Texas A&M University

Spear points that pre-date the Clovis culture by up to 2,500 years have been discovered at the Buttermilk Creek archaeological site in Texas.

The weapons were found in layers beneath those containing Clovis spear points and they date to between 13,500 and 15,500 years ago. The discovery could potentially mean one of two things—either humans at the site changed their style of spear, or there was another, separate wave of migration into North America.

How and when the first people arrived in North America is not entirely clear. It is thought they migrated across the Bering Land Bridge, which once linked Siberia and Canada, around 20,000 years ago. The first Americans arrived south of the continental ice sheets about 16,000 years ago and spread out from there.

In the first part of the 20th century, archaeologists started finding evidence of a prehistoric group, which subsequently became known as the Clovis culture. Initially, it was thought this represented the first humans in North America, living between 13,000 to 12,700 years ago. However, as more evidence is uncovered, it has become clear humans were there far earlier—and the story of the first Americans has become very complicated.

Michael Waters, Director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University, was leading an excavation team at the Buttermilk Creek Complex. This site is known to have been home to a group of Clovis people, but in recent years scientists have turned up evidence to suggest the presence of human settlement that predates the Clovis culture.

Excavations at the Buttermilk Creek Complex in 2016. Center for the Study of the First Americans, Texas A&M University

"I was always hoping that we would find a projectile point [spear point] with the oldest artifacts from the site," Waters told Newsweek. "Over the years of excavation, we had found fragments of these points, but not a whole point. This prevented us from knowing what they looked like."

In 2015, they found one stemmed point. This allowed the team to understand the fragments they had. "It was a thrilling discovery," Waters said. "I was very surprised to find a stemmed point… This was a complete surprise." Until now, Clovis people were known to use lanceolate projectile points, which have rounded edges.

The latest findings were published in the journal Science Advances on Wednesday. "The dream has always been to find diagnostic artifacts—like projectile points—that can be recognized as older than Clovis," Waters said. The new point forms are found below a layer containing Clovis artifacts and points. In total, we have 130 time-diagnostic artifacts (mostly projectile points) overlying the pre-Clovis deposits."

What this means in terms of human migration is still unclear. Waters says the first people at Buttermilk Creek might have experimented with different styles of spear before settling on that which is associated with the Clovis Culture. Another hypothesis is that it represents an entirely different group of people with connections to the west, where other stemmed spear points are found. "Both hypotheses are equally viable," he said. "It will take more research and finding additional sites."

Ben Potter, an anthropologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who was not involved in the research, said the discovery represents a "significant contribution" to the archaeological record, but not much else. He said there are major limitations relating to the other archaeological sites referred to in the study, and that the points "are unlikely to represent a founding population."

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Another spear pre-dating the Clovis culture found at the Texas site. Center for the Study of the First Americans, Texas A&M University

"The biggest limitation from the bold assertion of a widespread pre-Clovis stemmed point migration is that there is no technological or typological analyses of the points interpreted to represent this spread or test this hypothesis.

"The pre-Clovis sample of points is very small and difficult to use to infer population relationships on continent scales. Arguments about population relationships on the basis of lithics alone (even a very small subset of technology) are difficult at best—here we have thousands of years and thousands of miles between a few pre-Clovis sites with differential levels of empirical support and acceptance in the broader archaeological community."

Waters and his team are working at a nearby site. They are putting together an environmental background so they an reconstruct the climate and vegetation in the region for the last 20,000 years. Eventually, he hopes to build up a clearer picture of the first Americans.

"Right now we are in a time of new discoveries and new ideas about the first Americans," he said. "It will take a lot of time, but eventually more sites will be found, excavated, and studied. Also, more genetic information will come from the analysis of ancient human remains. The two lines of evidence—archaeological and genetic—are beginning to converge and tell a coherent story of the first Americans."