By Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint
About eight miles straight north from Portales, New Mexico on State Highway 467, lies one of the most important archaeological finds in North America, Blackwater Locality Number 1. It was here around 9,000 B.C. that Paleo-Indians left traces of their presence along Blackwater Draw.
Located at an elevation of approximately 4,000 feet on the western edge of the massive 130,000 square kilometer plateau, known as the Llano Estacado, Blackwater Draw is a mere shadow of its former self. At some point in its geologic past the Pecos River captured the headwaters of Blackwater Draw, draining away much of its free-flowing water. The site itself was a spring-fed lake or marsh in the most recent ice age or late Pleistocene period (8000 B.C.). Severe drought and warmer temperatures have reduced it today to a dry lake bottom. Blackwater Draw, as it makes it intermittent way to the Brazos River in Texas, consists of playas in the rainy season and stagnant pools or dried mud holes in the dry season.
Although the Draw is no longer a major drainage for the Llano Estacado, it is of major significance in the archaeological community. There had long been a debate in archaeology regarding the presence of ancient humans in the New World. Many in that field argued that humans had not reached the Western Hemisphere during the Pleistocene era. William Henry Holmes, archaeologist for the Bureau of American Ethnology in the1890s, convincingly declared that there was no American Paleolithic. Others believed that it would only be a matter of time before such a discovery would be made. That discovery came in 1908 at Folsom, New Mexico.
Cowboy George McJunkin, an employee of the Crowfoot Ranch, is credited with the discovery of the first incontrovertible evidence of the existence of Paleo-Indians in North America. After heavy rains eroded many normally dry streambeds in northeast New Mexico, McJunkin noticed unusually large bones in a nearby arroyo. With his discovery of a buffalo kill site and its associated cultural material and the later discovery of the Folsom point (a spear point), the door had opened to the study of early human presence in the Americas. However, it took nearly twenty years, shortly after McJunkin's death, before professional archaeologists from the Colorado Museum of Natural History were convinced to investigate the early discoveries.
In local communities throughout eastern New Mexico, the hope of finding more sites was rampant. Many an amateur spent their free time searching in arroyos and streambeds for fossilized bones. Ridgely Whiteman from Portales in 1929, while on one of his many forays into the countryside looking for Paleo-Indian points, came across a very large bone and a point he was unfamiliar with. He sent both specimens to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, hoping to attract the attention of its scientists and is now considered the discoverer of the Blackwater Draw complex. In 1931 the New Mexico State Highway Department used extensive gravel deposits in Blackwater Draw to construct the Clovis-Portales Highway. Highway work crews found a mastodon jawbone in a newly dug borrow pit.
In late 1932 an ancient pond at Blackwater Locality #1 attracted the attention of Drs. Stewart Northrup, Clyde Kluckhohn and Paul Reiter of the University of New Mexico, the School of American Research, and the State Museum. They examined and collected some of the Paleolithic faunal (animal) remains there but did not find any associated cultural material. However in that same year, Dr. Edgar B. Howard of the University of Pennsylvania, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, while investigating possible Paleo sites in the Guadalupe Mountains, visited Blackwater Draw and talked with Ridgely Whiteman about his earlier discoveries. Howard was able to establish a connection between the mega-fauna bones found at Blackwater Draw and early human occupation that Whiteman had earlier uncovered.
During the following field season Howard returned to the site and completed his preliminary investigations. By 1936-37 Howard had assembled scientists from many different fields: geology, climatology, archaeology, and zoology. "Significantly, Howard's work in the Blackwater Draw was among the first in American archaeology to employ an interdisciplinary approach...resulting in an accurate reconstruction of the ancient lacutrine settings of these nomadic groups." It was during this period that John L. Cotter, Howard's assistant, found two fluted, stylized bifaced points that became the type specimens for the Clovis culture, which was dated to 9,000 B.C. The excavations in the 1930s produced nearly 400 artifacts, spanning 4000 years, and included the Clovis, Folsom, Agate Basin and Plano complexes. New Mexico at the time was the center of research on the earliest humans found in the Western Hemisphere.
There was a hiatus in field investigations at Blackwater Draw due to World War II and the departure of Dr. Howard. The decade of the 1950s brought renewed interest mainly due to the threat of imminent destruction of the entire site by the Sanders Sand and Gravel Company, which continued gravel mining. The Texas Memorial Museum directed by Dr. E.H. Sellards, University of Texas, Austin, conducted fieldwork under Dr. Glen Evans, a geologist, and Grayson Meade. It was Dr. Sellards who coined the term "Clovis" to describe the cultural remains found in Blackwater Draw, but it was their combined work that led to a better stratigraphic understanding of the cultural sequence between Clovis and Folsom. This sequence placed the Clovis mammoth hunters at an earlier time than the Folsom bison hunters. This exciting revelation showed that Blackwater Draw was a multi-component site occupied by several Paleo-Indian complexes and associated mega-fauna.
By the 1960s a paleo-ecology project gained a further understanding of the climatic and environmental changes affecting Paleo-Indians and Pleistocene megafauna. More skeletal remains were unearthed including five mammoths and a bison with associated Clovis tools. One of those tools remains the oldest grinding tool found to date in the New World, indicating that the diet of these peoples included seeds and other floral species. The site was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1961, and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in1966. In 1978 the site's157 acres were purchased by Eastern New Mexico University (ENMU) and 1983-1984 investigations revealed 800 meters of in situ cultural deposits on the southwest side of the area. Buried campsites are also thought to exist around the former ancient lake edge.
Who these people were and from where they originated continue to be abiding questions. The general consensus is that hunter-gatherers migrated from Siberia across the Bering Strait and spread south and east to populate both continents. However, with the find in 1996 of Kennewick Man in Washington State, who shows Caucasian traits and not Mongoloid, suggestions have been posited that perhaps the migration was from east to west with early peoples making their way from Russia to the British Isles, Greenland and thence south and west. Entry by early people into the Americas is problematic with some Paleo-Indians having the physical characteristics of Siberian peoples, but cultural affinities with ancient Europeans. It has been proposed that the fluting of arrow points is unique in the Americas and was a New World invention that probably spread to northeastern Asia. Sites possibly much older than Clovis have been found in Chile and in the eastern United States, suggesting again an east to west migration. The younger Folsom complex is not found in the eastern United States, but only in the west, suggesting an east to west migration trend. No definitive or overarching theory has been established and there is need for further research.
As has become evident, late Pleistocene sites (9500-9000 B.C.) are rare both in North America and the Southwest. Blackwater Draw and the San Pedro River Valley in Arizona have produced most of the excavated Paleo-Indian sites in the Southwest. The Paleo-Indian hunter-gatherers generally followed seasonal sources of both plants and animals, leaving few, if any, permanent shelters. Paleo-Indian cultural materials indicative of butchering and the processing of hides, wood and bone are most evident but settlement sites are also being discovered.
The study of paleo-ecology has disclosed that the early Pleistocene age (11,500 B.C.) supported extensive pine and spruce forests on the Llano Estacado. "The environment during the Clovis period probably was the most equable of any time during which humans occupied the Southern Plains." A general drying trend is shown in the ecological record as a decrease in pine pollen and an increase in grass and composite pollens indicate mild winters and cool summers. A drought around 9,000 B.C. necessitated the digging of wells, examples of which have been discovered by Glen Evans. The Llano Estacado was drying up and saw the formation of sand dunes.
With the late Pleistocene and this drying trend, came the extinction of a wide range of animals, including the American mammoth, American mastodon, sabertooth tiger, dire wolf, pre-Columbian horse, camel, giant sloth, lions and short-faced bears, all of whose bones are found in Blackwater Draw. These megafauna could not adapt to the climatic changes of wet to dry, nor the loss of forage (tall grasses). Bison (bison antiquus and bison occidentalis) now extinct, however, ate mixed and short grasses which became more abundant in drier times and thus were able to survive longer. Likewise, with the extinction of the megafauna the Clovis complex faded and the Folsom complex emerged. But despite a brief return to wetter conditions, "a quite severe period of desiccation terminated the Paleo-Indian occupation of Blackwater Draw." Other late Paleo-Indian complexes, such as Agate Basin, Hell Gap, and Cody, continued to survive in other areas during a time of ephemeral streams and increasingly alkaline water sources.
The Blackwater Draw Museum located on Highway 70, about seven miles northeast of Portales, opened in 1969 with displays of artifacts found at the site. The museum offers an interpretative history of life in the area from the Clovis era through the recent historic period. The Blackwater Locality #1 site itself was opened to the public in 1991, and ENMU has developed a self-guided interpretative trail.
Blackwater Draw was "the first highly visible and most wide-spread archaeological complex in the New World," and "a touchstone in American archaeology." Here a record of Paleo-Indian cultures, mega-fauna, and environmental changes are preserved.
Boldurian, Anthony T. and John L. Cotter. Clovis Revisited: New Perspectives on Paleoindian Adaptations from Blackwater Draw, New Mexico. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1999.
Cordell, Linda S. Prehistory of the Southwest. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, Inc., 1984.
Katz, Lienke. The History of Blackwater Draw. Portales, NM: Eastern New Mexico University, 1996.
Thomas, David Hurst. Exploring Native North America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
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