Ancient ancestors revealed at Blackwater Draw museum and excavation

This distinctive spear point clarifies it was made during the Clovis period, perhaps 13,000 years ago. Over centuries the design changed to become what is known as a Folsom point. Photo courtesy George Crawford, Blackwater Draw Museum

Sometimes, Internet surfing turns up some fascinating tidbits. Take, for example, this one from Eastern New Mexico University:

“Thirteen thousand years ago, ice sheets spread across much of Canada, dipping down into what is now the Midwestern United States to reach the Ohio River, and covering large swathes of New England. These ice sheets had an effect on the climate that was far-reaching, cooling the atmosphere and increasing humidity all the way to the Southern Plains and to Blackwater Draw, where a spring-fed lake supported a wide variety of flora and fauna. Mammoth, ancient bison, giant ground sloth, saber-tooth cat, dire wolf, camel and more were all present at Blackwater Draw.”

Now, if you’re unfamiliar with Blackwater Draw, it’s an ancient lake bed eight miles north of Portales along New Mexico highway 467. Following the last ice age, in the late Pleistocene period, the principal drainage from the lake was captured by the Pecos River, which drained much of its free-flowing water.

In 1929, at age 19, James Ridgely Whiteman — who was an avid outdoorsman and student of Indian lore — discovered tools made by our ancient ances- tors. He found a large bone and a point with which he was unfamiliar and wrote about both specimens to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, for help in identification. Two years later, the highway department was removing gravel deposits from the draw to build the Clovis-Portales highway when they uncovered a mammoth jawbone. The first two mammoths were discovered by Edgar Howard and Anthony Cotter during their work from 1932 to 1936.

Under cover of protective sheds, the Blackwater Draw Interpretive Center is home to on-going excavations, which continue to reveal new animal specimens and Clovis tools and artifacts.(Below) Visitors at Blackwater Draw Interpretive Center can examine the excavation and learn about ancient people and animals. Photos courtesy George Crawford, Blackwater Draw Museum.
As you can surmise from the website quotation, Blackwater Draw became one of the most important archaeological sites in the New World. This was the home of the famous Clovis point — spear points, scrapers, and grinding tools — and it soon attracted the attention of scientists.

For more than 80 years after its discovery, scientists excavated the draw, recovering tools and bones, including some complete skeletons, of now-extinct mammals within the 640-acre site. The Carnegie Institute, Smithsonian Institution, Academy of Natural Sciences, National Science Foundation, United States National Museum, National Geographic Society, and more than a dozen major universities either have funded or participated in research at Blackwater Draw. The site was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1961 and incorporated into the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.

The general consensus of scientists was the Clovis people were hunter-gatherers who had migrated across the Bering Strait land bridge not too long before reaching New Mexico. This idea has been called into question by some scientists. They reference the Monte Verde site in Chile with artifacts that are older but appear unrelated to the Clovis site, and others in the eastern United States that are undoubtedly older than Clovis. It keeps archaeologists up at nights and provides job security for future generations of scientists.

In 1969, under the direction of Eastern New Mexico University, the Blackwater Draw Museum was built to house artifacts collected from the site. The museum is on campus and offers an interpretative history of life in the area from the Clovis era through recent modern periods. It had been closed for renovation but opened for visitors May 6.

The Clovis site is, as noted, eight miles to the north. Visitors can walk trails into the depths of the former quarry and into sheds that protect excavations to see examples of artifacts archaeologists have studied. There they will also see a hand-dug well that may be the earliest water-control system in the New World.

If seeing mammoths, half again as big as African elephants, or saber-tooth cats with nine-inch-long incisors excite you, you should plan a weekend excursion to Portales. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 12 noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. The Clovis archaeological site is open only Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. General admission is $3.