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Clovis Blade Technology

[ Texas ]

Clovis Blade Technology

By Michael B. Collins

With a chapter by Marvin Kay

This book offers the first comprehensive study of a little-known aspect of Clovis culture--stone blade technology.



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7 x 10 | 248 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-71235-5

Around 11,000 years ago, a Paleoindian culture known to us as "Clovis" occupied much of North America. Considered to be among the continent's earliest human inhabitants, the Clovis peoples were probably nomadic hunters and gatherers whose remaining traces include camp sites and caches of goods stored for utilitarian or ritual purposes.

This book offers the first comprehensive study of a little-known aspect of Clovis culture—stone blade technology. Michael Collins introduces the topic with a close look at the nature of blades and the techniques of their manufacture, followed by a discussion of the full spectrum of Clovis lithic technology and how blade production relates to the production of other stone tools. He then provides a full report of the discovery and examination of fourteen blades found in 1988 in the Keven Davis Cache in Navarro County, Texas.

Collins also presents a comparative study of known and presumed Clovis blades from many sites, discusses the Clovis peoples' caching practices, and considers what lithic technology and caching behavior can add to our knowledge of Clovis lifeways. These findings will be important reading for both specialists and amateurs who are piecing together the puzzle of the peopling of the Americas, since the manufacture of blades is a trait that Clovis peoples shared with the Upper Paleolithic peoples in Europe and northern Asia.

  • List of Figures and Tables
  • Preface
  • Part One: Blade Technology and Its Place in North American Prehistory
    1. 1. Introduction
    2. 2. Blades and Blade Technology
    3. 3. A Review of Clovis Lithic Technology
  • Part Two: The Keven Davis Site, a Clovis Blade Cache
    1. The Keven Davis Cache Site and Its Setting
    2. Field and Laboratory Investigations
    3. The Collection
    4. Microscopic Attributes of the Keven Davis Blades, by Marvin Kay
  • Part Three: Comparisons and Considerations of Caching Behavior
    1. Comparisons
    2. Caching Behavior
    3. Clovis Lithic Technology and Caching Behavior: Clues to Subsistence Strategies and Behavior
  • Postscript
  • Glossary
  • References Cited
  • Index

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Prismatic blades of stone are characteristic of only a few prehistoric cultures in the Americas. The majority of those cultures are comparatively recent and also include pottery in their material culture inventory (Ford 1969). Sixteenth-century Spaniards were awed by the razor-sharp obsidian blades they encountered in their conquests of the Mayan and Aztec nations. Bernal Diaz del Castillo in his chronicles of Cortes's march to the City of Mexico in 1519 repeatedly described Indian weapons, including the "two-handled swords set with stone knives that cut better than our swords... so sharp... that they could shave their heads with them" (Idell 1956: 152), and remarked on the damage that these swords could do, as when "the Indians caught [Pedro de Moron's] lance so that he could not use it while others slashed at him with their swords and sliced at the mare [he was riding], cutting off her head" (Idell 1956: 100).

These Aztec and Mayan blades and their numerous prehistoric counterparts are part of a regional pattern of producing and working sophisticated polyhedral blade cores, mostly of obsidian but also of chert (Gaxiola and Clark 1989; Shafer and Hester 1983). Mesoamerican blade technology has been studied by a host of scholars who have amassed a great deal of archeological, ethnohistorical, and experimental data on where, when, and how blades were produced, as well as their economic importance and, in some cases, the social contexts of their production and consumption (Becker 1973; Boksenbaum et al. 1987; Charlton 1978; Clark 1982, 1984, 1985, 1987; Crabtree 1968; Gaxiola and Clark 1989; Hammond 1976; T. Hester 1978; Hester, Heizer, and Jack 1971; Hester and Hammond 1976; Hester and Shafer 1987; Hester et al. 1983; McSwain 1991; Nelson et al. 1977; Pires-Ferreira 1976; Shafer 1985, 1991; Shafer and Hester 1983, 1986, 1991; Sheets et al. 1990; Spence 1967, 1981; Stark et al. 1992; Tobey 1986). This body of literature is the most voluminous and comprehensive treatment of blade technology in the Americas, but it is restricted to Mesoamerican blades that were generally produced by craft specialists at designated workshops in state-level systems of production and exchange (Coe 1994). Devices were employed by these knappers to gain sufficient mechanical advantage to detach blades by pressure (Clark 1982; Crabtree 1968). Other blade technologies in the New World were not as specialized, were part of less-complex cultures, and most tend to be less well known.

This book is concerned with Clovis blades, one of the lesser known of the blade technologies in the Americas and one that was practiced by hunters and gatherers near the beginning, rather than by state-level specialists near the end, of American prehistory. A need for a book like this became apparent when I began to study the Keven Davis cache of prismatic blades from Navarro County in northeastern Texas (Collins 1996). A few site-specific reports that touch upon Clovis blades have been published, but no synthesis has appeared.

Prehistorians concerned with Clovis manifestations in the early Paleoindian period of North America have not placed much emphasis on the blades and blade cores that were sometimes part of the technological repertory of Clovis knappers. In recent years this aspect of the Clovis pattern has become somewhat more widely recognized and better documented. It would appear from recent developments that blades are particularly characteristic of Clovis in the southeastern and south-central areas of the United States and occur in minor numbers in the western parts of the Clovis range. Evidently, many Clovis localities in the northeastern part of the country lack blades entirely. Only very recently have archeologists working in the south-central United States given serious consideration to the presence and significance of blades in Clovis lithic assemblages. In reporting and interpreting blades from the Keven Davis cache, I attempt in this volume to add to the general understanding of Clovis blade technology while recognizing that this effort is but a beginning and that it has several limitations.

One limitation of this study is its scope. I have focused on those data from the south-central United States with which I am most familiar. To these I have added selected information from other regions.

Another limitation, I suspect, is that there are many inadequacies in the reporting of Clovis blades in the literature. I am particularly interested in seeing how the presently perceived distribution of Clovis blades changes as awareness of blades increases. A few years ago, I doubt that half of the archeologists working with Clovis in Texas would have been aware of Clovis blades and blade cores in Texas sites, whereas now these artifacts are being recognized and reported with increasing frequency. Perhaps some of hte areas that presently are blank on the Clovis-blade distribution maps will rapidly fill with reported finds as more archeologists become aware of the distinctiveness of Clovis blade technology.

Presumably with improved data on the occurrence of Clovis blades, understanding of the role blades played in Clovis adaptations also will improve. It is far from clear at this time why such blades seem characteristic of Clovis assemblages in many areas but are almost completely absent from Clovis sites in other areas. Equally puzzling is what appears to be the virtual absence of blade technologies in other Paleoindian manifestations.

Finally, there is the limitation that only a minor portion of what I consider to be the evidence on Clovis blade technology is derived from secure archeological contexts. Even the original definition of Clovis blades was based on specimens from disturbed context in the gravel quarry at Blackwater Draw (Green 1963). On the strength of Green's thorough documentation of the evidence and sound argument for those blades having been dislodged from the Clovis-age white sand, we have managed nicely for nearly thirty-five years with the improbable circumstance that this important aspect of Clovis technology was defined entirely on specimens from piles of loose dirt left by earth-moving machines.

Even today, we have only a few blades and blade cores from secure Clovis contexts, but these exhibit highly distinctive technological attributes. A greater number of specimens and assemblages are from less-secure contexts; these I infer to be also of Clovis affiliation because they manifest the same distinctive attributes as those of known Clovis affiliation. If we accept that inference for the moment, then the subjective interpretation of Clovis blade technology presented below can be proposed. Although it is a subjective interpretation, it can now be scrutinized because it has been articulated. Those archeologists interested in doing so should now go forth and subject my interpretations to full scrutiny.

Two prerequisites to the present consideration of Clovis blades are, first, to look closely at the nature of blades and the techniques of their manufacture and, second, to examine the full spectrum of Clovis lithic technology and how blade production articulates with the production of other stone tools. These prerequisites are addressed in Part One of this book. Part Two reports the Keven Davis blade cache in detail. Part Three presents a comparative study of blades, discusses caching behavior, and considers the implications that lithic technology and caching behavior have for the interpretation of Clovis lifeways.

Michael B. Collins is Associate Director of the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin.

"In this book, Michael Collins ... demonstrates why he is considered one of the leading researchers in the field of lithic analysis. The work offers a masterful review and synthesis of Clovis blade technology with lucid prose and lavish illustrations.... I recommend this book for all professional and avocational archaeologists interested in Paleoindian occupations of the New World."
Illinois Archaeology

"This book makes an important contribution to a newly revived debate on the significance of the Clovis phenomenon and the timing and migration routes of the peopling of the New World more generally."
SAS Bulletin