History begins with the First Peoples.
Indigenous cultural traditions and archaeological research are our only ways of knowing the very ancient past. Together they tell the story of how the land took its present form and was first occupied by human beings.
Oral histories are one route into the past. Archaeological research is another, and it has revealed physical evidence of First Peoples dating back to the end of the last Ice Age.
About 18,000 years ago, the massive ice sheets that covered most of the northern half of North America began to melt. This process took many thousands of years.
Retreating glaciers opened important migration routes into unglaciated regions to the south. They also uncovered vast areas of what is now Canada for occupation by plants, animals and people.
During the last Ice Age, glaciers held so much water that sea levels fell. A wide area of dry land emerged linking northeastern Asia and northwestern North America. Known as Beringia, it supported large herds of animals and some early human populations. As the glaciers retreated, two migration routes leading south opened up. One followed the Pacific Coast. The other ran through the middle of the continent, between the shrinking ice sheets.
Clovis culture — named after an archaeological site in New Mexico — refers to the earliest well-attested archaeological evidence of human occupation in North America south of the glacial ice.
Clovis people lived about 13,500 years ago in a world of towering glaciers in the north and immense glacial meltwater lakes further south. They hunted now-extinct animals, using spears tipped with distinctive stone points. Clovis archaeological sites have been found throughout much of what is now the United States and southern Canada.
Spear tipped with stone point.
Clovis people used stone scrapers to clean animal hides — an important first step in the making of clothing. It is likely that women did this work.
A tool blank is a partially shaped piece of stone that could be made into any number of different tools as needed. It was in this form that high-quality tool stone was carried or traded over long distances. (Some of these pieces may also have functioned as knives.) Clovis people evidently cared a great deal about the beauty of the tools they made, as well as their efficiency.
Ice Age Hunters
Clovis hunters shared their world with very large animals, including giant beavers and mammoths. These animals are represented here by surviving jaw and tooth parts. By about 10,000 years ago, most of these giant animals had disappeared — probably the result of rapid climate change. Clovis hunters may have contributed to their eventual extinction.
Were Clovis the First?
Archaeologists have long debated whether Clovis people were the first in the Western Hemisphere. Most of what we know about them comes from stone tools and animal bones, which are not always informative. However, modern genetic evidence indicates that all First Peoples, apart from Inuit, share common ancestors who lived about 20,000 to 15,000 years ago. This is about 5,000 years earlier than the earliest dates for Clovis, leaving plenty of time for an earlier occupation.
In North America, possible pre-Clovis archaeological sites remain hotly contested. However, the Monte Verde site, located in coastal Chile, has produced good — if not quite compelling — evidence of human occupation dating to at least 14,500 years ago. The location and date of the site provide some support for the idea of a Pacific coastal migration route, and of pre-Clovis occupations farther north.