(February 9, 2021)—In this post, I’ll explain how people made Clovis points and what is important to look at in order to recognize them. You’ll see that it’s possible to read a Clovis point like a map.
Over most of North America, 12,000 to 13,000 years ago, ancestral Indigenous people were making distinctive fluted projectile points known as “Clovis points.” Clovis points are easily recognized because of their large size, their exquisite craftsmanship, and the beautiful stones toolmakers chose for them. Although there are regional differences in style, the technology for making the points is the same.
Hunters used these dart points to bring down mammoths and other now-extinct large game animals. Through their mobile lifestyle, people subsisted on these and other animals, as well as plant foods.
Clovis archaeological sites are rare. Points are found at single-episode kill sites, multiple-episode kill sites, campsites, in caches, and as isolated artifact finds. Campsites and caches are extremely rare finds.
Our best information on how Clovis points were made comes from caches. One cache seems to have been with a burial, but the purpose or meaning of other caches is not clear. Caches often contain earlier-stage bifaces, unused finished points, and even some reworked points. Points in a cache typically show a wide range of stone types, often from long distances apart, which suggests these people were traveling great distances to obtain high-quality stone.
Clovis points range in size. At the time of manufacture, the average Clovis point was probably about 4 to 5 inches long. The vast majority of these points were broken when they were used, however, and re-sharpened if possible. Experts think hunters may have used the largest examples as knives or on thrusting spears to finish off an injured mammoth.
Flake Maps Reveal How People Made Clovis Points
This is an illustration of a replica point that shows a lot of the flaking details you can expect to see on Clovis points. Note the colors, which will guide the following discussion.
The yellow flake scar is a basal thinning flake called a flute. Both faces of a Clovis point were often fluted in the final stages of manufacture. In technological terms, this is a percussion biface thinning flake struck from the base. These flute flakes usually extend about one-third of the length of the point. The point bases were thinned for hafting.
The basal margins are heavily ground to about the length of the flutes. The black line outside the point indicates the ground area. Grinding covers the area of the point that would have been wrapped in its haft. No preserved examples of hafted Clovis points have been found.
Here are some examples of fluting and flute flakes. Flute flakes are very distinctive.
The light green flakes are called percussion flakes. These were struck during the earlier stages of manufacture, using an ivory or antler tool (which flintknappers call a billet). Those strikes left broad flake scars across the biface. The wide spacing between flakes allowed faces to be thinned with only three or four flakes, sometimes.
People used early-stage bifaces as cores for striking the large flakes that would become points and tools. Overshot flakes travel all the way across bifaces and remove some of the margin on the opposite side of the biface. This is a common thinning strategy in Clovis.
The purple flakes are pressure flakes from the final finishing work on the point. Some points show very little pressure flaking, and others show much more extensive pressure flaking.
It appears that Clovis points often started out mostly percussion flaked. Through use and reshaping, they came to have have more extensive pressure flaking across their surfaces. Clovis knappers took care to preserve the flute scars, and did not pressure flake across them if they could help it.
The final step was the heavy grinding to margins of the base. This was done to all finished points, and is a good indicator that the maker considered the point to be finished.