Ancient Clovis Elephant-Hunting Camp Discovered in Mexico

A tip from a rancher in Mexico’s Sonoran Desert has led to an unexpected find: an ancient encampment where members of the Clovis culture hunted an elephant-like animal never before seen in North America’s archaeological record.

More importantly, the camp turned up a host of exquisite stone points and bone ornaments, with organic material dated to 13,400 years ago, making it one of the oldest and southernmost Clovis sites yet found on the continent.

Archaeologists were tipped off in 2007 to unusual bones eroding out of a cut bank some 200 kilometers south of the Arizona border, at a site given the ominous name El Fin del Mundo, or The End of the World. [Learn about another striking find made in northern Mexico: “Oldest Human Footprints in North America Identified“]

gomphothere excavation
The jawbone, or mandible, of a gomphothere as it was found, upside down, at El Fin del Mundo excavation site. (Courtesy Vance T. Holliday)

There they found the remains of two animals that initially proved difficult to identify.

“At first, just based on the size of the bone, we thought maybe it was a bison, because the extinct bison were a little bigger than our modern bison,” said University of Arizona archaeologist Vance Holliday, in a press statement.

After uncovering the distinctive jawbone and teeth of one of the specimens, they realized they had found gomphotheres, odd-looking, long-jawed ancestors of modern elephants once thought to have vanished from North America before humans arrived.

Much older gomphothere specimens had been found elsewhere in North America, Holliday said, and Clovis hunters were known to have stalked their evolutionary cousins, the mammoths and mastodons. But this is the first evidence that humans shared the continent with, and hunted, gomphotheres.

quartz clovis point
A clear quartz Clovis point found near the bone bed at El Fin del Mundo.
Although very difficult to shape into a tool, quartz was used by Clovis tool makers at several sites.
(Courtesy INAH Sonora)

“This is the first archaeological gomphothere found in North America, and it’s the only one known,” Holliday said, before ticking off the many firsts marked by the find.

“This is the first Clovis gomphothere, it’s the first archaeological gomphothere found in North America, it’s the first evidence that people were hunting gomphotheres in North America, and it adds another item to the Clovis menu.”

Evidence of the creatures’ fatal encounter with humans includes four large stone points, all crafted in the characteristic fluted Clovis style, found in situ among the animals’ remains.

Three more points were found within two meters of the animals — including one striking projectile fashioned out of crystal clear quartz — along with stone flakes, two small carved bone ornaments, and burned bones.

In addition to shedding light on the historical longevity of the ancient elephants, the find perhaps more importantly may broaden our understanding of the Clovis, thought by many to have been the continent’s first widespread indigenous culture.

Like many things in American archaeology, when and where the Clovis culture originated are topics of debate.

But the dates from El Fin del Mundo eclipse almost every other reliably dated Clovis site on record, including Montana’s Anzick site, which produced the remains of a 13,00o-year-old Clovis boy. [Read about a recent breakthrough in the study of Clovis DNA: “Genome of America’s Only Clovis Skeleton Reveals Origins of Native Americans“]

Only a bison-hunting camp known as the Aubrey site, discovered in North Texas in 1988 and dated to more than 13,400 calendar years ago, is definitively older, Holliday and his colleagues said.

And the presence of early Clovis sites so far south may suggest that the culture actually arose in the Southwest, they noted, and not in the northern Great Plains, as many have previously theorized.

“Including Aubrey and now El Fin del Mundo in the corpus of dated Clovis sites raises the possibility that Clovis originated in the south,” they write in their study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

And if it did originate in the North, they add, then the Clovis culture must date back even farther than 13,500 years in order for its members to have reached these southern latitudes.

All told, the evidence emerging from El Fin Del Mundo promises to revise our understanding of the continent’s most influential native cultures, from its practices and its range to the ancient environment with which it interacted so successfully.

As the team concludes in its paper, “These data expand our understanding of the age range for Clovis, Clovis diet, raw material preference, and the late Pleistocene megafaunal assemblage of North America, and provide evidence for a southern origin of the Clovis.”

Sanchez, G., Holliday, V., Gaines, E., Arroyo-Cabrales, J., Martinez-Taguena, N., Kowler, A., Lange, T., Hodgins, G., Mentzer, S., & Sanchez-Morales, I. (2014). Human (Clovis)-gomphothere (Cuvieronius sp.) association 13,390 calibrated yBP in Sonora, Mexico Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1404546111

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  1. John Lowe

    I’m assuming that the contention that this is the “southernmost evidence yet found of the culture’s reach” is based on some standard such as the presence of multiple points, or association with a Pleistocene megafauna kill, as individual Clovis points have been identified as far south as Belize and Costa Rica.

    1. Blake de Pastino

      You’re totally right, John. Thanks for pointing that out. The researchers describe it as “one of the oldest and southernmost in situ Clovis sites.” They didn’t get into detail re: finding points in Costa Rica and found what looks to have been a long-term camp site in the paper.

  2. Win Stone

    Both Holliday (not Halliday as the author writes) and the discoverer of the Aubrey Clovis site, Reid Ferring from the University of North Texas, were my major professors. There are still many things we don’t know or understand about the Clovis culture because our evidence for their existence is relatively sparse and highly scattered, not to mention condensed in a fairly short period of time. Certainly a SW U.S. regional origin of the Clovis Culture is possible given the evidence at hand. But I digress. Congrats on adding new data and evidence to early American archaeology and cultural understanding. BTW – that quartz crystal Clovis point is SUPER cool!!!

  3. […] First known case of this happening and a cool crystal clovis point. Ancient Clovis Elephant-Hunting Camp Discovered in Mexico | Western Digs […]

  4. Max

    Can someone explain to me why the Clovis hunters did not recover their beautifully wrought spear points for reuse? The quartz point pictured was no doubt the product of hours of skilled craftsmanship – why would the hunters abandon it?

    1. Blind Squirrel

      “The quartz point pictured was no doubt the product of hours of skilled craftsmanship.”

      More like 15-20 minutes, tops. I’ve seen it done.

  5. Bob Dole

    Why don’t schools across the U.S.A. not teach about the Clovis culture? Its fascinating.

    1. JWDougherty

      We don’t really know that much about the culture per se. The technology is often portrayed as almost uniform but isn’t really all that homogenous. In fact while isolated points are quite common, actual camp sites and burials are far, far less so. The crystal point in the article is resharpened based on the asymmetry, edge irregularity, and length, so it was likely discarded after being replaced by a new one. We see really beautiful craftsmanship and awesome stone selection, but there is a definite likelihood that the Clovis “culture” saw a practical artifact made of durable material. A skilled knapper can make a fluted quite quickly, but locating the typical preferred materials is much more difficult.

  6. vinnie

    Max, a good knapper can make a Clovis point in under 30 minutes. Check out Bruce Bradly’s youtube videos.

    1. Max

      Vinnie, while your comment is true it misses my point (no pun intended). First of all, the time it would take to make a Clovis point would surely vary with the raw material used – I really doubt that the quartz crystal point took only 20 minutes to manufacture. Secondly, your comment does not speak to why these artifacts are abandoned, unless you are saying that they were so easy to manufacture on demand when needed that they were not worth retrieving or saving. This also does not sound right to me given the very human proclivity to retain tools and precious possessions. So I remain as puzzled as ever as to why Clovis points used for hunting were not recycled. After all, these points were deemed so important they have been found cached and/or ritualistically deposited all over North America.

      1. JWDougherty

        Having worked quartz crystal. I can say quite definitely that although it isn’t as easy to work as obsidian, it is much easier to work than basalt or metaquartzite. So, the production again is easy for a skilled worker, the material acquisition is the problem.

  7. vinnie

    The spear points were a wear item. They weren’t expected to survive use. The quarts point is not unheard of.
    There is one on display at the Herrett Center for Arts and Science.

  8. Darin

    Max, I appreciate your question and would like to suggest that many many points and knives were recovered and reused in course of daily living. I also suspect that many were lost in massive piles of animal innards, blood and mud that no doubt would occur at kill sites and processing sites.

    1. Ted Kowalski

      Remember the context of the situation.

      If a large supply of meat was just taken, that is the prime mover for what is considered valuable.

      Cutting up and removing the quality portions, including long tendons, before some meaner carnivore/omnivore arrives to challenge for the kill is most important.

      Get the priorities in the right order, first!

      A skilled knapper, which most of them were as sharp tools were a necessity, would knap out points while relatively idle; e.g watching for game, or waiting in shade for the heat of the day to pass.

      One of the interesting things one can spot at quality knap material sites is that the natives did not waste time on carrying bulk material.
      They knew how to strike a piece of choice material to extract the proper size raw material for points. These cobbed pieces, are the material they would carry with them for fashioning tools at need. During idle time the natives would shape the pieces so that when it was necessary, sharp edges cut be easily applied; likely after hafting.

      Lost points, broken shafts, points that hit the ground or a rock were considered waste and left as the hunters dealt with the meat and unfriendly visitors.
      NB, points that hit something hard may incur fractures barely visible to the eye. It is far better to craft a new point then to waste effort on inspecting or carrying a likely flawed blade.

  9. terry ravey

    found a clear quartz point very similar to this one at 9000 ft in central colorado