We’re back again with another great Monday in South Dakota history. This series attempts to get you through Monday morning alive by taking you back through some of the most important Mondays in South Dakota’s own history.
For installment lucky number three, we’re looking at a truly momentous occasion not only in the history of South Dakota, but in the history of all the Americas: Humans have finally reached the Great Plains.
Monday, May 22; 12,519 B.C., 6:04 a.m.
Your belly rumbles, but as you look over at some of the older members of your band defleshing the small mammoth carcass, you know your meal is still a few hours away. The kill was made by seasoned hunters of your band late last night. It was a good night for mammoth hunting; dark, cloudy and moonless to conceal the hunters from their prey’s poor eyes, with a fresh rain on the wind to cover their scent. With blazing torches and sharp darts, Your brave bandmates managed to spook a mammoth herd and separate a young calf from its mother — or so they say. At barely ten summers old, you’re still not allowed on the mammoth hunts. For all you know, the hunters could have simply stumbled on the carcass washed up on a riverbank and dragged it back to camp. They’d have every reason to lie — killing a mighty mammoth, even a small one, is a great feat. One that earns a hunter respect among their own band and others that wander the plains.
That’s what you want to be, someday. A great hunter. A name mammoth mothers tell their calves stories about to convince them to behave. For the moment you and all the other children are stuck skinning and drying the mammoth hides that the elders pulled off the carcass; hides that will be used for clothing, shelter, bedding. Some children don’t seem to mind the work. They laugh, joke, throw clumps of mammoth hair in each other’s faces. But you can’t take your eyes off the hunters, now luxuriating in warm fur warm wraps near the campfire with the first, choicest cuts of meat.
Nearby, a gentle tap-tap-tap also competes for your attention. The younger hunters, yet unproven in the eyes of the band elders, are crafting dart heads; dozens in the course of a day. Each one is a work of art — and a deadly weapon. Using a hard stone as an anvil and a specially-made bone tool as a hammer, the youth shape lumps of brittle flint into long fluted triangles with a deep groove dug along their center. Finely pointed, sharp enough to cut flesh at a touch on the two long sides, blunt and concave at the base, these darts will be loaded onto a special launcher that acts like an extension of a hunter’s wrist. With practice and a strong arm, they can fly over the horizon and pierce the flesh of any beast — even a towering mammoth.
As you contemplate an image of your future self, triumphant atop a fallen mammoth, your scraping of the beast’s hide slows to a halt. An elder flicks blood fresh from the carcass in your face and shoots you a dirty look — enough to get you back to work. But even as you resume your task, you swear you hear the distant trumpet of a mammoth herd, somewhere on the early morning wind.
Relatively little is known about the Clovis culture, the far-flung people of whom this week’s young protagonist was a member. Named for the city of Clovis in New Mexico where their tools were first discovered, they were some of — if not the — first humans to permanently settle in North America and South Dakota specifically. Many scholars consider them the ancestors of most modern Native American peoples. According to the most popular theory, their own direct ancestors migrated to North America from East Asia across Beringia, a land bridge that connected Asia to Alaska during the last ice age. From about 30,000 to 11,000 years ago, sea levels were low enough to reveal the land bridge and allow humans to cross. As the planet began to warm, the sea rose and swallowed the bridge, isolating the migrants in their new land.
We do not know what language(s) the Clovis spoke, how they identified culturally, or if they maintained contact across the vast range of territory in North and South America where their tools have been found. Dr. Larry Bradley, a retired USD anthropology professor and current volunteer at the W.H. Over Museum in Vermillion, said he believed Clovis peoples alternated between periods of isolation and togetherness.
“They probably had very small groups, smaller than 25 people… [The groups] were isolated most of the year, but they got together occasionally,” Dr. Bradley said. “Otherwise you get inbreeding.”
The Clovis’ tools provide most of what little information we are aware of. The Clovis culture is famous for its broad, sharp darts; too big to be arrowheads, too small to be spear-points. Each was constructed with a striking similarity of form, a form Dr. Bradley called “an ovate shape; the base was kind of concave.”
Their shape supports the hypothesis that they were mounted on short sticks and thrown from a device known today as an “atlatl,” a dart thrower so effective at killing that as late as the 1500s, the Aztecs were still using them for hunting and warfare.
The spread of humans in North America about 16,000 — 12,000 years ago is also associated with the widespread extinction of many huge North American mammals, like mammoths and giant ground sloths.
“Even skunks are larger,” Dr. Bradley said.
While some evidence points to extinction by human over-hunting, other theories suggest that these animals, adapted to the fierce cold of the last ice age, could not cope with the global warming that occurred around the same time as the first human settlement in the Americas.
“Over-hunting, climate change; there’s a whole range of ideas,” Dr. Bradley said.
Whatever the case, Clovis points in South Dakota are definitely associated with both Columbian Mammoth remains, and those of Giant Bison — the extinct big cousin of our modern bison herds. Whether this indicates active hunting of the animals or simply opportunistic scavenging of carcasses is still unknown. But, like this week’s young Clovis child, it’s fun to think about.
Next week, the first Americans’ cultures begin to take on familiar forms, and goods from as far away as Yucatan Peninsula begin to travel across the plains. It’s an era of complex societies and extensive trade, too often overlooked.