For as long as Buttermilk Creek has wound its way through Texas Hill Country, its spring-fed waters have carved through the region’s dark, dense clays, cutting away layers of earth to expose the rock — and the history — below.
Here, archaeologists have uncovered evidence of a human settlement stretching back as far as 15,500 years: hammer stones and broken knives, fragments of fractured tools.
And now, scientists say, the Buttermilk Creek complex has offered up the oldest known spearheads in North America.
If the projectile point was the cellphone of the Pleistocene — an omnipresent technology that shaped cultures and defined daily life — the Clovis tools were the iPhone X.
These points, named for the city in New Mexico where they were first found, featured a fluted bottom and rounded sides tapering to a sharp point.
The distinctive spearheads are scattered throughout the rock record between 10,000 and 13,500 years ago, from the East Coast to the Rocky Mountains and as far south as Venezuela.
The tools are so ubiquitous that for nearly a century, archaeologists thought that the Clovis tradition represented the first people to arrive in the Americas.
But research in recent decades has revealed archaeological sites much older than Clovis, and genetic analyses of modern Native Americans suggest their ancestors crossed a land bridge from Asia to Alaska about 20,000 years ago, then migrated down the Pacific coast between 20,000 and 15,000 years before present.
So who exactly were these early Americans?
The new points uncovered at Buttermilk Creek may offer a clue, said Waters, who directs the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University.
Because tools are so essential to the tasks of survival — hunting, cooking, building, killing — they can say a great deal about the people who wielded them.
In more than 10 years of excavations at his site, Waters and his colleagues have found Clovis points in a rock layer dating to about 13,000 years ago.
Below that, in older rocks, they uncovered scores of stone point fragments, but no whole spearheads. It was difficult to know if they were looking at older Clovis artifacts, or something entirely different.
Then, in 2015, the archaeologists uncovered two perfectly preserved artifacts: One triangular point, which resembles a predator’s sharp tooth, and one lobe-shaped projectile with a tapered, or “stemmed,” bottom.
With these whole points as models, Waters’s team was able to make sense of the 10 additional fragments they collected.
They seemed subtly but significantly different from Clovis and other toolmaking traditions — neither a clear ancestor to the later technology, nor an obvious competitor.
Skye Gilham, a forensic anthropologist who is a member of the Blackfeet tribe in northern Montana, said that recent archaeological and genetic research has been helpful in establishing a scientific link between the first Americans and their descendants living today.
Findings like Waters’, which provide evidence for her people’s long history in the Americas, have helped ensure the return of native remains to their communities.
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