A century ago, archeologists believed human beings had occupied the Americas for just 3,000 years. Then, a series of discoveries on the plains of West Texas and eastern New Mexico transformed that view.
In 1932, archeologists excavated the remains of a mammoth in Blackwater Draw, near Portales, New Mexico. Among the bones, they found a spearpoint. It was proof that humans had lived in North America as far as back as the Ice Age – and had shared the continent with a stunning array of now-vanished mammals.
At Blackwater Draw National Landmark, and Blackwater Draw Museum at Eastern New Mexico University, visitors glimpse the Paleolithic past.
In 1875, Quanah Parker and his Comanches surrendered to the U.S. military – and nomadic ways of life on the Southern Plains ended. Fifty years later, sites on the plains began to reveal just how old those ways of life had been.
The revelations began at Folsom, New Mexico, near the Colorado line. In 1926, excavations showed hunters had killed 23 massive bison antiquus here – some 11,000 years ago.
But Blackwater deepened the picture. A 19-year-old from Clovis – Ridgely Whiteman – made the find. He wrote the Smithsonian. Archeologists confirmed his find – the mammoth had been killed with stone spearpoints, now called Clovis points.
Jenna Domeischel is Blackwater Museum curator.
“So we already knew that people were here longer than we had originally assumed,” she said, “but now this definitively said, no, they were here during the Ice Age, too. And that was new – and very exciting.”
Blackwater Draw has been a site of nearly continuous excavation since. Through the 50s, it was also an active gravel quarry, and archeologists labored to stay ahead of mining operations. It was declared a national landmark in 1961, and Eastern New Mexico University now owns part of the site.
In addition to Clovis points – which are more exquisitely crafted than later spearpoints – archeologists found other Ice Age objects: stone scrapers, tools – and a single bead – fashioned from mammoth-tusk ivory.
On the plains, archeologists were partly indebted to a catastrophe: the Dust Bowl. Artifacts and bones were revealed, as soil was swept away by dust storms.
“And what was below was mammoth,” Domeischel said, “but not just mammoth, a variety of other Pleistocene animals that had not been seen with humans before then – American lion, short-faced bear, dire wolf. All sorts of really interesting stuff.”
Indeed, the Llano Estacado was a Serengeti for Paleolithic hunters. In addition to mammoths, there were ground sloths, giant bison and horses and camels – which evolved in the Americas.
In these conditions, the hunters – traveling in small bands – didn’t need to be stingy.
“So our butchering piles consist of like, the humeri, which is really good meat coming off that foreleg,” Domeischel said. “Or we’re seeing the skull. Maybe they’re going for the brains, either for tanning or for nourishment, whatever it is. There probably weren’t too too many people, and they hunted and managed to kill more than they necessarily needed.”
Blackwater Draw was then an 80-acre lake, at the headwaters of the Brazos River. On its south bank, hunters drove bison into a gully to be killed.
At the university’s museum, visitors see artifacts, bones, interpretive materials. But at the south bank itself, they see something truly unusual.
“So we have the walls of the gully on either side of us, but the whole central area is just covered in bison bones,” Domeischel said. “Just picture the largest archeological expedition you’ve ever seen, and double it.”
It’s a remarkable sight – an expanse of antiquus bison bones, Paleolithic butchering piles.
Nearby is another wonder. Rather than drink lake water fouled with animal waste, Clovis peoples dug wells at the lake’s edge. The landmark has the continent’s oldest known well.
“This one goes down about 4 feet,” Domeischel said. “But the question you should be asking is, Who’s digging it? Probably the children. Picture holding your child by the ankles.”
After Blackwater Draw, Clovis points were found across North America, and archeologists long believed Clovis culture was the continent’s oldest. But recent finds pre-date Clovis by thousands of years. No tool has yet been found to identify these cultures.
The question – how long have humans lived here? – is still very much alive.
Nature Notes is produced by Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.