Travel back in time–some 13,000 years back to the era of mastodons, mammoths, giant sloths, bison, and saber-toothed cats hunted by men armed only with spears. Imagine the ground shaking as a 13-foot-tall, 10-ton mammoth lumbers within spear point range and Paleoindian hunters fearlessly spring into action.
It’s a scenario that was repeated frequently at the Murray Springs Clovis site in southeastern Arizona’s 57,000-acre San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, one of the most significant such sites ever found providing evidence of the earliest well-documented culture in the Americas. The Clovis culture was named after the distinctive craftsmanship in their Clovis spear points.
Discoveries at this site, located half a century ago, continue to function as a proving ground for new theories regarding Pleistocene extinctions and human colonization. As a result of its notoriety, on October 17, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar designated it as a National Historic Landmark, describing it as “a place that possesses exceptional value in illustrating the heritage of the United States…a landmark representing a thread in the great tapestry that tells the story of our land, our diverse culture and our rich heritage.”
The 40-mile-long riparian area with a river flowing north from Mexico is “a place where animals and plants thrive because of the availability of water, either at or near the surface of the soil,” according to Discoverseaz.com.
“Murray Springs has been called the largest single sample of Clovis flint knapping activity yet known in the Western United States,” says Bureau of Land Management (BLM) spokesperson Diane Drobka. “Clovis spear points, numerous other stone tools, and a rare tool made from mammoth bone have been found here giving some of the best archeological evidence of early humans and extinct mammals ever found on the continent.”
Even today, bones and teeth of the larger Ice Age animals are occasionally found to join company with the bones of bison, mammoth, camel, and wolves as well as several thousand stone tools and hunting artifacts unearthed from a covering of alluvium, a black organic clay similar to that found at other Paleoindian sites. Ancient shells and vertebrate fossils from the Miocene and Oligocene eras have also been found near the San Pedro Valley. The Arizona Office of Tourism refers to the Murray Springs site as “a significant archaeological site containing an undisturbed stratigraphic record of the past 40,000 years.”
The Clovis archeological culture represents the earliest unequivocal occupation in the Americas and because discoveries were buried under an algal mat, artifacts integrity remains intact.
Clovis peoples lived in small groups that were ever-moving as they followed seasonally migrating game. Although an occasional mammoth may have ended up as supper fare, the Clovis generally hunted bison and 11 of those remains have been found at a nearby watering hole. “Evidence of the nearby hunters’ camp includes activities like weapons repair and hide working,” says Drobka.
When the Ice Age died off, so too did the large mammals and the Clovis people found themselves quickly losing their food source. The lack of nutrition as well as an area drought are believed to have contributed to the extinction of the Clovis.
The BLM invites visitors to walk an interpretive trail that includes 10 exhibits of Ice Age living. For the adventurous, after the 1/3-mile developed pathway ends, an unmaintained trail along abandoned railroad tracks meets up with the San Pedro River within two miles, a watery magnet in the desert that attracts 250 species of migrant birds (roughly half the number of known breeding species in North America). At the San Pedro House, information is available about the entire area–like the fact that Sobaipuri Indian villages used to exist along the riverbanks.
Also within the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area is another National Historic Landmark known as the Lehner Mammoth Kill Site. And don’t overlook the Spanish Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate, the most intact remaining example of a once-extensive network of similar presidios that marked New Spain’s northern extension into the New World.