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Promising new clues to early Americans.

Promising new clues to early Americans

Archaeologists from across the country gathered last week in an apple orchard near Wenatchee, Wash., and, in a preliminary excavation, uncovered what appears to be the first undisturbed collection of artifacts belonging to the Clovis people, generally assumed to have been the earliest settlers of North America around 11,500 years ago.

"This is a startling discovery," says archaeologist Michael Gramley of the Buffalo (N.Y.) Museum of Science, a participant in the project. "We've finally found Clovis material in its original position. If the site is carefully excavated, it will enable us to address important questions about these people."

Among the more than 30 artifacts unearthed so far are 12 Clovis points, distinctively shaped stone spear points named for the New Mexico town where they were first discovered in the 1920s. This is the largest collection of Clovis points ever found, says anthropologist and project director Peter Mehringer of Washington STate University in Pullman.

The find also includes stone scrapers, fleshers and several pieces of antler apparently sharpened for use as tools. Radiocarbon dating is underway on samples from the antler. Volcanic ash at the site provides a preliminary age of 11,200 years old.

The first six Clovis points were found in May 1987 by two men who were digging an irrigation ditch for the company that owns the orchard. Mehringer then learned of the discovery and obtained permission to explore further.

He notes that the Richey-Roberts site--named for the orchard's owners and operators -- has yielded the largest known Clovis points. Several of the specimens are about 8.5 inches long; they usually range from 4 to 5 inches in length.

Clovis points are usually found among the bones of extinct mammals such as mammoths at what are thought to have been kill sites, but n o animal remains turned up at the Richey-Roberts site.

"These points are larger and thinner than those found at Clovis kill sites," says Mehringer. "They're works of art produced by master flintknappers and may have had special significance beyond weaponry."

The carefully flaked points may simply have been artistic expressions, explains Mehringer, or they could have been used in initiation rites or religious ceremonies. At any rate, he says, the collection of artifacts appears to have been a "cache" that Clovis people buried and intended to reclaim.

Gramley, however, says such interpretations are speculative and need to be tested by a full-scale excavation. A Clovis site uncovered in 1968 near Anzick, Mont., is currently the best comparison to the Rickey-Roberts site, he notes. Anzick yielded nearly 100 artifacts, including spear points and plate-sized pieces of stone that could be used to strike smaller flakes. The bones of several children, coated with a red pigment, were also found, indicating that the site served as a burial ground.

No human bones were found at Richey-Roberts, says Mehringer, but the dig extends only several feet into the ground.

Whatever the site represents, it is clear that the people who left behind the artifacts had traveled some distance, adds Gramley. Obsidian flakes were found among the remains; the nearest obsidian source is in Idaho, about 300 miles from the site. The stone used to fashion the Clovis points does not appear to be of local origin either, he notes.

Mehringer and his colleagues hope to continue the excavation later this year if an arrangement can be worked out with the orchard's owners.

"This site is like fine wine," says Gramley. "You have to drink it slowly, be deliberate and uncover it gradually."
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Title Annotation:discovery of artifacts belonging to Clovis people
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Apr 23, 1988
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