Blackwater Draw sits on a time warp. Located in a remote landscape where central New Mexico threatens to bump into Texas, it is near the dozens of great green clustered tiddlywinks that I had seen often from the air. Up close they were amazing disks of tall, healthy corn and milo grain, watered by huge irrigating arms that moved slowly around the field from a central pivot like the hands of a clock. In wetter times saber-toothed tigers, woolly mammoths, ancient camels – and humans – lived in this place.
For us that slice of prehistory was the real draw. I was visiting with my young son Jonathan — two decades ago — because I wanted to see the place that I was told was the first home of the earliest Americans, the Clovis people. This week I revisited my notes on that family trip after reading about the relatively recent discovery of earlier American human habitation. “Pre-Clovis” artifacts found more recently from Washington State to Chile and Peru are a thousand years older or more. A recent find was a 12,000-to-13,000-year-old female skull in a watery cave in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula n Mexico. These people were everywhere! (Our own amateur expedition occurred years ago, and as a new resident of New Mexico I was merely eager to know more about this intriguing piece of local lore.)
At the time the name Blackwater Draw made me think of some romantic setting in a film about the old West. But we didn’t see the place until we actually passed the sign that announced its presence. We looked back and saw what looked like a small private home, standing on a naked patch of dirt with a single car parked in front of it.
“Dad,” said Jonathan, “this has got to be it.” With no other building in sight, anywhere in the vast flat wilderness of the Plano Estacado, I had to agree.
To my surprise that little one-bedroom house turned out to be a visitor center and museum, with an excellent interpreter in the person of a young anthropologist named David who served as the site’s custodian, curator, and interpreter while working on his master’s degree eight miles away at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales. The house overlooked a great hole in the ground, a disused gravel pit where, in 1932, traces were found of the earliest known habitation of mankind in the New World.
We had come at an exciting time, for archeologists had recently found three five-foot deep wells, lined with clay, set in petrified mud at the same general eleven-thousand year level where fluted points were found and associated with tribes that were named “Clovis” for the discoverer’s nearby hometown. A National Historic Landmark, Blackwater Draw is now called, carefully, “the Clovis type site for the oldest accepted widespread culture in the New World.” It’s the biggest tourist hotspot in the Portales area, edging out the flashier No. 2, the Sunland Peanut factory tour.
“That’s eleven thousand years BP,” David said earnestly, explaining that in the archeologist’s lexicon “B” stood for Before and (at the time) “P” was the year 1953.
One of the wells was of particular interest because it held the bones of turtles that may have been kept there for food, and yielded enough ancient pollen to permit scientific study of ancient plant life. Those plants, and those turtles, shared the land with other Late Pleistocene fauna, including the bison, Colombian mammoth, camel, horse, saber tooth cat and dire wolf – the same critters that got trapped in Los Angeles’ famed La Brea Tar Pits.
A study carried out by Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Department of Anthropology and C. Vance Haynes of the University of Arizona indicated that long ago there was a sudden change of local vegetation from aquatic plants to grasses that are common to relatively dry places. They concluded that the first Native Americans might have been driven from here by drought, as occurred in the Chaco Canyon of the 13th century AD.
We asked David what kind of people left those points in the clay. “There are no skeletal remains here,” he explained. “Just the points. Paleolithic Indian burials are very rare anywhere. Most of what we know is guesswork, but we know that in 11,000 BP Ice Age glaciers still extended into northern Colorado and we can extrapolate quite a lot from geology and the remains of animal and plant life that we do have from that period.
“This country is kind of barren now,” Dave said. In the late Pleistocene — not so very long after the first agreed human migrations came out of Africa — you can imagine it had roughly similar contours but was covered with a mixed coniferous forest with patches of open grassland.” The people would have followed the mammoth and the bison antiquus, forerunner of modern buffalo but larger, standing as much as seven and a half feet high.” Small, dog-sized horses were also around – modern horses would be introduced by the Spanish in the 1500s – and a specimen from Utah resides in a museum not many miles from your blogger’s home. It’s believed that they and the mammoths disappeared before the Paleoindians arrived, and the only big game left then was the bison.
The Clovis people, David said, were most likely descended from people who crossed the Bering land bridge from Asia to Arctic America in times that were relatively recent to their kind. They were not the small-brained ancestors of homo sapiens, traveling in extended families of say fourteen to forty individuals, living within the rest of nature and assimilating knowledge and lore that they would pass on to a people who may have lived in the North American Southwest ever since. Scattered sites hint at the prehistory of this region. In 3615 BP residents were using maize strains, a kind of miniature popcorn imported from South America, in the Sacramento Mountains north of Alamogordo, New Mexico, near where modern Mescalero Apaches live. Their arrowheads and spear points, far from being crude chips of flint, were carefully fashioned weapons, fluted or hollowed at the base to accept a split wooden shaft. And they were early practitioners of applied physics, using a notched spear-throwing stick (called an atl-atl by the Aztecs) to extend the arm, thus gaining mechanical advantage and increasing the weapon’s power.
Armchair archeologists tend to assume that early people lived in different parts of New Mexico at different times. But it’s far more likely that they lived all over the land. The American Southwest happens to be home to many places where a lot of erosion takes place on huge areas of more or less barren land. The artifacts are easier to see here.
It was so hot, walking down into the gravel pit, that my clothes smelled as though they had been scorched by an iron. Small polite signs accosted us from separate steel posts:
STAY ON TRAILS
DO NOT DISTURB RATTLESNAKES
DO NOT PICK UP ROCKS, BONES, ARTIFACTS
There was a good breeze but at midday even the breeze was hot. A cicada buzzed beside us as we turned into a little grove of cottonwood and passed a port-a-potty labeled BIG GREEN JOHNS, right next to the place where the first discoveries were made of bison remains.
The gravel pit with its easy footpath was made a pleasant place to explore, snaking through shrubs and ground cover that David said was planted to arrest erosion. Along the lip of the excavation, where layers of gravel and rock were exposed, numbered labels marked the archaeologists’ work. Just up the hill from a little picnic bench we saw something like a huge cucumber frame, covered with chicken wire and tarpaulin. Inside it, the ancient mud – which looked exactly like what it was – was cut away to show ice-age bison bones, maybe the remains of a feast. Little signs gave us approximate dates – 12,000 BP where the Clovis points were found, and 15 inches above that a sign gives the date 10,000 BP to the site of some mammoth remains. Yet farther above is another sign, denoting bison antiquus bones at 10,500 BP.
Not long after our visit to Blackwater Draw I attended a lecture by University of New Mexico archeologist Frank Hibben (December 5, 1910-June 11, 2002), who found what he identified controversially as pre-Clovis artifacts in a cave near Albuquerque. I remember my fascination as Hibben related fascinating and quite believable stories of Paleoindians cowering in New Mexico caves while, hidden in the trees above, sabre-tooths awaited their inevitable, fatal emergence.
Jonathan grew up to be a young man who believed strongly in learning from experience. During his school years I would have preferred that he had been more interested in book-learning, but that came later. Books are irreplaceable sources of knowledge, wisdom, and inspiration. Still, you can’t beat seeing the real thing. I like to think that perhaps Jonathan picked up some of his attitude at Blackwater Draw.