Texas discovery sparks debate on Clovis culture

Alisa Boswell: Freedom New Mexico Many artifacts of the Clovis culture have been excavated from the Blackwater Draw site and are now kept on site and in the Miles Anthropological Museum at Eastern New Mexico University. The Clovis culture has been identified as the oldest North American culture, but artifacts which outdate the culture may have been found in central Texas.

Alisa Boswell

Archeologists burrowing in the dirt of central Texas are stirring up a scientific debate that could change history as we know it in eastern New Mexico.

At issue is the recent discovery of artifacts at an archeological site on Buttermilk Creek, Texas. The artifacts found have been dated between 13,200 and 15,500 years old, George Crawford, chief archeologist for the Blackwater Draw site.

For the last 80 years, the Clovis culture — dating between 12,500 and 12,900 years old — has been widely accepted as the oldest culture to have existed in North America.

Blackwater Draw was discovered between Clovis and Portales in the late 1920s with excavation beginning in the early 1930s.

“It doesn’t change what we know about the Clovis culture and about this site,” said George Crawford. “We are not going to change our entire thinking of Paleo-Indian culture based on one site.”

Crawford said rather than changing the knowledge of the Clovis culture, new discoveries such as the one in Texas only add to knowledge.

David Kilby, local archeologist and assistant professor of anthropology at Eastern New Mexico University, said the possibility of an older civilization is a debatable subject for many archeologists because there has been no evidence of one at other sites and because scientists working the site have used a different dating method for the artifacts discovered.

“In archeology, you can’t do experiments like in physics and chemistry,” Kilby said. “So replication in archeology means identifying that same pattern in a number of places.”

Crawford said archeologists use radiocarbon dating on sites, which dates organic material closely associated to the artifact rather than dating the artifact itself, which is not possible.

The dating method used on the Texas site was Optically Stimulate Luminescence, which measures light energy in sediment grains.

According to Kilby, this dating method is why some archeologists believe the dating of the Texas artifacts could be inaccurate.

“Debate is normal for science and any time you have an unanswered question, there’s going to be debate,” Kilby said. “That’s what some people may question about this site is OSL dating. It’s less precise than radiocarbon dating.”

Kilby said he handled the discoveries from the Buttermilk Creek site and he has no doubt they are genuine artifacts. Whether they are earlier Clovis artifacts or a culture predating Clovis cannot be known at this time, he said.

“I think those are the two most likely outcomes but I don’t know which it will be,” Kilby said. “We (archeologists) try not to jump to conclusions and wait and see the evidence that accumulates.”

Kilby said even if artifacts of a similar time period are found at other sites, it doesn’t mean they are not part of the Clovis culture.

All agreed, only time will tell.