What might be the significance of Clovis sites' bursting forth in the centuries just before 11,000 B.C., rather than in those before 16,000 or 21,000 B.C.? Recall that Siberia has always been cold, and that a continuous ice sheet stretched as an impassable barrier across the whole width of Canada during much of the Pleistocene Ice Ages. We have already seen that the technology required for coping with extreme cold did not emerge until after anatomically modern humans invaded Europe around 40,000 years ago, and that people did not colonize Siberia until 20,000 years later. Eventually, those early Siberians crossed to Alaska, either by sea across the Bering Strait (only 50 miles wide even today) or else on foot at glacial times when Bering Strait was dry land. The Bering land bridge, during its millennia of intermittent existence, would have been up to a thousand miles wide, covered by open tundra, and easily traversable by people adapted to cold conditions. The land bridge was flooded and became a strait again most recently when sea level rose after around 14,000 B.C. Whether those early Siberians walked or paddled to Alaska, the earliest secure evidence of human presence in Alaska dates from around 12,000 B.C.
Soon thereafter, a north-south ice-free corridor opened in the Canadian ice sheet, permitting the first Alaskans to pass through and come out into the Great Plains around the site of the modern Canadian city of Edmonton. That removed the last serious barrier between Alaska and Patagonia for modern humans. The Edmonton pioneers would have found the Great Plains teeming with game. They would have thrived, increased in numbers, and gradually spread south to occupy the whole hemisphere.
One other feature of the Clovis phenomenon fits our expectations for the first human presence south of the Canadian ice sheet. Like Australia/New Guinea, the Americas had originally been full of big mammals. About 15,000 years ago, the American West looked much as Africa's Serengeti Plains do today, with herds of elephants and horses pursued by lions and cheetahs, and joined by members of such exotic species as camels and giant ground sloths. Just as in Australia/New Guinea, in the Americas most of those large mammals became extinct. Whereas the extinctions took place probably before 30,000 years ago in Australia, they occurred around 17,000 to 12,000 years ago in the Americas. For those extinct American mammals whose bones are available in greatest abundance and have been dated especially accurately, one can pinpoint the extinctions as having occurred around 11,000 B.C. Perhaps the two most accurately dated extinctions are those of the Shasta ground sloth and Harrington's mountain goat in the Grand Canyon area; both of those populations disappeared within a century or two of 11,100 B.C. Whether coincidentally or not, that date is identical, within experimental error, to the date of Clovis hunters' arrival in the Grand Canyon area.
The discovery of numerous skeletons of mammoths with Clovis spearpoints between their ribs suggests that this agreement of dates is not a coincidence. Hunters expanding southward through the Americas, encountering big animals that had never seen humans before, may have found those American animals easy to kill and may have exterminated them. A counter-theory is that America's big mammals instead became extinct because of climate changes at the end of the last Ice Age, which (to confuse the interpretation for modern paleontologists) also happened around 11,000 B.C.
Personally, I have the same problem with a climatic theory of megafaunal extinction in the Americas as with such a theory in Australia/New Guinea. The Americas' big animals had already survived the ends of 22 previous Ice Ages. Why did most of them pick the 23rd to expire in concert, in the presence of all those supposedly harmless humans? Why did they disappear in all habitats, not only in habitats that contracted but also in ones that greatly expanded at the end of the last Ice Age? Hence I suspect that Clovis hunters did it, but the debate remains unresolved. Whichever theory proves correct, most large wild mammal species that might otherwise have later been domesticated by Native Americans were thereby removed.
From Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond. © 1997 Jared Diamond.
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