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  • Ian Thompson

Clovis Point Challenge

This winter, I took on a self-challenge to learn how to make Clovis points that match the originals. Through this post, I'd like to share a little bit of the journey.

As you can tell from our recent posts, flintknapping (chipping stone points) has been a focus at Nan Awaya Farm these past few months. There are a few reasons. In fulfilling responsibilities for the Tribe, setting up two farms, putting together the Choctaw Food book, building a house, doing this website, etc., we haven't had just tons of discretionary time. These endeavors have finally become somewhat established now though, leaving us with a bit of free time this winter for the first time in about 15 years. For me, the pent up desire to chip some points just kind of exploded into the open hours.

I made dozens of points from re-melted glass bottles people dumped along our road, or bottles that were going out in our trash. It was a bit more than a hobby. This year has been hard on bison producers. Combined with a bad drought, the cost of hay, feed, transportation, butchering, and interest on land payments all skyrocketed. The one thing that prices have gone down on is, of course, the bison we sell. A tiny market opened up for my points. Even though we've sold more animals this year than ever before, with the depressed bison market, chipping points has actually brought net income to the farm while the animal business has not. Point sales went to an extra payment on our farm loan. I did the math, and each point sold gave us ownership of an additional 20ft x 20ft section of our farm. Fun and practical!

With a little time to chip, unlimited materials to use, and getting back into practice, the stars aligned for me to take on a second project - becoming proficient in making Clovis points. The purpose wasn't economic.

There has always been a mystique tied to Clovis. The original Clovis points were made by people who lived across a vast area spanning from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, and from present-day Canada to Panama during the period 11,200-10,900 BC. Their communities lived alongside giant Ice Age animals like the Colombian mammoth and Bison Antiquus. The people who made Clovis points sometimes used them to hunt and butcher these and other highly formidable creatures. In case you're wondering, they did not call themselves or their points "Clovis". Clovis was 5th century French king. His one connection with these ancient points is that they were first recognized by western science through an archaeological excavation near Clovis, New Mexico. This was important, though, as it happened during a time when professional archaeology was just starting to accept that the ancestors of Native American people had been on this continent for a long time.

For decades afterwards, most archaeologists believed that Clovis points were made by this continent's very first wave of inhabitants. While that has turned out to not be the case, the mystique endures. Using a stone point to bring down an elephant is pretty downright impressive, but Clovis points go beyond what was necessary to do the job on a technical level; they are a well-developed form of art. Many are made from gorgeous stone that came from hundreds of miles distant to the spot the point was found. Clovis artisans often showed a preference for using tough rocks, of a type that keep their edge well as cutting implement, but which due to their toughness, are also difficult to shape. Clovis knappers didn't merely chip the points into shape, they did it with a masterful flair. The finest Clovis points are among the best stone work that humanity has ever produced. From today's perspective, people have been shooting stone-tipped darts and arrows into the sky for a very long time. A Clovis point was, of course, the first to make it all the way into space, when in 2017 a museum team sent a 13,000-year old example to the International Space station where it floated above the earth.

Clovis points are pretty rare. Like many professional archaeologists, I've never found one. The closest I've come are Dalton and San Patrice points that are technologically descended from Clovis and are slightly newer. I remember the first time I came in contact with a Clovis point. When I was a kid, my parents took me to the Illinois State Museum, and I came home with a resin cast of one (Here's a recent image of it). As a beginning knapper, duplicating it was way beyond me. In early high school we got to spend a few minutes of one class session learning about pre-colonial Native American history. Besides just how thinly 13,000 years of the human experience was covered in class, I was struck by my teacher's pronunciation of Clovis as "claw-vis". By then, I had succeeded in chipping a point that superficially resembled the resin cast I brought home from the Field Museum all those years before. It was a facsimile, resembling the original Clovis points in form, but still lacking something. The same was basically true for every Clovis point I made in the years since. This only added to the Clovis mystic for me.

A Clovis point is made by removing hundreds of chips from a larger piece of stone to create a finished piece with exactly the right size and three-dimensional shape. The last big flakes removed from most Clovis points consist of a chip of stone or "flute" struck from each side of the base. Broken pieces found archaeologically attest that fluting was risky. Even the most skilled artisans sometimes broke their points during the fluting process. Fluting was clearly important enough to offset the risks. It would continue in some subsequent generations of stone points for a few thousand years even after Clovis point manufacture stopped.

The forms of the original Clovis points fall along a spectrum. The ones from the western part of the country tend to be thin and covered in bold and highly skilled percussion flake scars that start at one edge of the point and gracefully bend to the other edge. Little or no pressure retouch was used to even things up later. For the readers who have made it this far but are not lithic specialists, think of western Clovis points as capturing the kind of skilled power and live innovation that Jimi Hendrix channeled at the Atlanta Pop Festival. Clovis points from the East tend to be thicker and narrower. Their forms tend to be touched up with pressure flaking after the percussion, and they have impressively long flutes - Think of the Beatles Sergent Peppers studio album. - Compared to the originals, the points I made had less bold, less precise percussion flaking and duller edges than western-style Clovis. At the same time, they also had shorter flutes and shallower bases than the eastern style. To finish the analogy, they were karaoke.

My main tool in making Clovis points had long been a big moose antler billet that you strike directly against the edge of the stone to remove flakes. That works OK until the stone edge becomes thin. Then, when you hit it hard enough to knock off those big finishing flakes that western-style Clovis points are known for, that edge crumbles (at least for me) . Besides problems with the edges, when it comes to driving off flutes, there is only so much you can do with a big billet before you break the point in half.

This winter, I learned about the horizontal punch by watching Marty Reuter's YouTube channel. It consists of a punch on the end of a stick. The stick is slid under the worker's knee, which is used to hold the punch against the edge of the stone to be chipped. A heavy object is struck against the punch, which imparts that force to the stone in a very precise and concentrated way. The punch can be made out of various materials. This winter, I made one from the shaft of a deer antler harvested on Nan Awaya Farm (see photo). My percussor was a cannon bone from a buffalo we butchered last year. The deer antler punch produces both more power and more finesse than the hand-held billet. I also made a second punch out of a whole buffalo horn. Horn is very effective on brittle materials like dacite and volcanic glass (which the original Clovis knappers used occasionally). Compared to the antler punch, the horn takes off thin flakes that have smooth terminations.

For the sake of time and material, the practice pieces that I made in my Clovis point challenge were mostly in the 3-4 inch range, small to medium size. I can attest that what I learned on the smaller points applies to the bigger ones as well.

During the challenge, I found that the punches are amazing, but you still have to know the right angles, forces and holding techniques to effectively use them. What they can do is multiply a knapper's abilities in these areas by providing better precision and power. This image is of the type of Clovis point preform that I learned to make this winter. I chipped this one from a particularly tough piece of raw Perdernalis chert from Texas, using the antler punch. Beginning at the top, you can see how flakes of stone were removed one next to the other crossing the whole face of the stone. This "overshot" technique is characteristic of how Clovis knappers reduced a natural piece of stone into a preform to make a point. I could not have flaked this tough of a rock in this way using my old antler billet.

After thinning the preform by removing large flakes, downward blows with the punch rapidly clean the edges of the point, leaving them sharp and thin. With a rapid fire tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, you can do in seconds what would take minutes with an antler pressure flaker. The flake scars and edge thinness left by finishing with the punch match what you see on many of the original Clovis points.

To set up the flutes, I used pressure flaking to make the platforms and to take off guide flakes from the base of the preform to help direct the flutes down the middle of the point. When it comes to fluting, the punches are very nearly magical.

The buffalo horn punch was the perfect tool for fluting thin, western-style points made of brittle stone and glass. I found that the key was to lightly abrade the platform, and then to strike the flute using a downward motion, with very little pressure going into the point at all. If I got greedy for bigger flutes and started heavily abrading the platform or pushing the punch into the stone when I struck it, the flute would dive through the thin preform and break it in half every time. For the eastern style Clovis, I would go back after initial thinning and use the punch or antler pressure to remove flakes that traveled from both edges to the midline of the point. This gave the preform more of a diamond-shaped cross section and a thicker profile. This kind of cross section creates a ridge; flakes love to follow ridges. Because of their thickness, these preforms are stronger. I found that I could safely load force by pushing the punch into the platform as I struck it. That, plus having a ridge for the flute to follow, makes it possible to take off flutes up to 2/3 the length of the preforms, like some of the original eastern Clovis points.

Winter is drawing to a close, and the Clovis point challenge has been a good experience. For someone who has been knapping for most of my life, I'm surprised by how much the past 4 months of focused practicing with the punches has changed the style of my work. You don't necessarily have to have decades of experience in making Clovis and some other advanced styles of stone points to be proficient at them. Once you have a good understanding of the angles and mechanics involved in flintkapping, you may just need the right tools and a few months of focused practice. There are other modern knappers who can make good-looking Clovis points without a punch. However, the horizontal punch is so efficient and it produces exactly the same flaking characteristics that Clovis points are known for. The punch is so easy to make from common materials and so easy to carry with you. I think it's probable that many if not most of the original Clovis points were made with this tool or something similar to it.

As a kid with a plastic cast, Clovis knappers seemed super human to me. My respect for them was reinforced by years of not quite being able to duplicate the things they did in stone. I will never be as good as the best original Clovis knappers, or even as skilled as some of the other people who make Clovis points today. However, I can now make eastern or western-style Clovis points from the thinnest, most brittle glass, and from the toughest stone alike, and the finished pieces have the same flaking characteristics as many of the old points. The real mystique of the Clovis point is not that their makers had some kind of special quality that separates them from us. It's that they developed a smart and efficient technology for chipping rock into advanced stone weapons, and infused the process with their own skill and sense of aesthetics. Through the experiences of the Clovis point challenge, I've come to see this more clearly and to respect these ancient people even more.

So, what's next? Anyone want to take on a stone point elephant-hunting challenge this spring? Write and tell us how it goes.

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