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Kincaid Revisited: Clovis and Beyond

Collage of images
photo of book cover
Kincaid Shelter was mentioned only briefly in E. H. Sellards' 1952 book, Early Man in North America. The site is of interest, he noted, "as one of the southernmost localities at which typical Folsom points are known to occur." Sellards, who directed investigations at the site in 1948, made no mention of the stone pavement. The Clovis artifacts from the site had not yet been recognized.

Click images to enlarge

photo of Michael Collins
Paleoindian specialist Michael Collins reviews photos of artifacts from the Late Pleistocene Zone 4 deposits at Kincaid. His reanalysis of these early artifacts and other data finally answered the question, "Who built the stone pavement at Kincaid?" Photo by Susan Dial.
photo of Clovis biface
The re-joined Clovis biface, or preform. Before they were recognized, the sections had been separated in two different institutions since the 1950s: the pointed distal section on display at the Texas Memorial Museum, and the base at TARL. The broad flake scars extending nearly across the face of the biface are characteristic of Clovis technology. The object was broken during manufacturing, according to Collins, after the first flute had been removed. Photo by Aaron Norment. Click to enlarge and see drawing.
photo of artifacts
Artifacts from Zone 4. Photos by Aaron Norment. Click to see full image.

Coming Full Circle

There are aspects of serendipity and no small amount of irony in the Kincaid discoveries, beginning with Gene Mear's find of a Folsom point in the backdirt piles left by treasure hunters. Had it not been for the destructive activity of the treasure seekers, Mear would not have discovered the Paleoindian points, scientific investigations might never have taken place, and the ancient stone pavement at Kincaid Shelter might never have been uncovered.

The serendipity was to continue and come full circle in subsequent years.

In the early 1950s, findings from Kincaid Shelter were showcased in what became a longstanding exhibit at the Texas Memorial Museum in Austin. Along with a selection of artifacts, a section of the ancient stone pavement was recreated and displayed. The text for the exhibit explained that, while evidence of the Folsom culture was found at the site, it was not known what ancient civilization had constructed the stone pavement—the thinking of the time perhaps being that brutish hunter-gatherers would have had neither the organizational skills nor the inclination to put forth the effort required.

UT-Austin archeologist Michael Collins recalls visiting the Kincaid exhibit as a young boy, pressing his face against the glass display window, and wondering about the ancient people who had created the stone floor in the shelter. The question was to nag him over the years as he went off to college and began studying archeology and prehistoric cultures.

In 1988, armed with a Ph.D and some 20 years experience in the field, Collins obtained permission to examine the Kincaid artifacts, still on display at the museum. One specimen caught his attention—the tip of a broken biface that had been recovered from Zone 4. Looking at the flake scars on the fragment, Collins recalls, "I knew that was Clovis technology." At the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory, where the bulk of the Kincaid collection had been curated, Collins examined the rest of the collection. There, among a bag of triangular bifaces classified as "Kinney" type specimens, Collins spotted a fragment with a fluted base and unusual flaking pattern.

He held up the basal fragment next to the photo of the tip from the museum display. The break on the object in his hand was a mirror image of the one in the museum display. After 40 years of being housed in two different facilities, the two pieces were joined together. It was, as Collins had suspected, a Clovis preform, broken by an ancient knapper attempting to make a spear point some 13,000 years ago.

The Case for Clovis

For Collins, the mystery of who had built the stone floor at Kincaid had been answered. In subsequent years, as he begun delving into early Paleoinidan tool-making technology, Collins identified other Clovis artifacts from the Kincaid collection—an expended conical blade core, more fluted bifaces and preforms, and other distinctive knapping debris.

Collins also interviewed longtime friend and mentor Glen Evans, who had excavated the site in 1948, "picking his brain" for recollections about other artifacts, such as long thin, Clovis blades—another distinctive Clovis signature—which might not have been collected at the time. (During the 1940s and 1950s, it was not standard procedure to collect all lithic materials found during archeological excavations.) Evans was certain there had been no thin blades in Zone 4.

Gene Mear, who had retired after a successful career in petroleum geology, later joined Collins in examining the site records and re-inventorying the Kincaid collection, measuring and recording attributes on the chipped stone tools.

Having sifted through the collection and the records for any other possible evidence pertaining to Zone 4, Collins and his colleagues summed up the newly identified Clovis lithic materials from Kincaid in a short article in Current Research in the Pleistocene:

From on and just above the pavement were recovered flakes, a blade core, two bifaces broken in early stages of reduction, a preform broken during percussion thinning after successful removal of one flute, and preparation of the platform for the second flute, a basal fragment of a lanceolate obsidian point, and three large retouched flakes. A reworked Clovis point and several non-diagnostic pieces with adhering travertine recovered from the looter's backdirt almost certainly belong with the Zone 4 specimens. The chert-working evidence suggests a Clovis habitation.

In this section:

photo of Kincaid Shelter exhbit
The Kincaid Shelter exhibit at the Texas Memorial Museum in Austin from the 1950s to 1990s, recreated a small section of the stone pavement and posed the question, "What ancient civilization built this?" For archeologist Mike Collins, who visited the museum as a boy, the question was to haunt him for decades. Photo courtesy Texas Memorial Museum, University of Texas at Austin.
photo of Glen Evans
Geologist Glen Evans examines a thin blade from another Clovis site on a recent visit with Mike Collins at TARL. No blades were collected from the Kincaid site, and Evans, today relying heavily on a sense of touch to compensate for encroaching macular degeneration, is quite certain there were none in the Zone 4 deposits. A longtime friend and mentor of Collins, Evans has talked about the site with his younger colleague on numerous occasions and is anxious to bring the site to the attention of the public. Photo by Susan Dial.
photo of book cover
Collins published his 1999 study on Clovis Blade Technology based on tools from several sites, including Kincaid (University Texas Press).
photo of Kincaid researchers
Kincaid researchers were on hand to give a talk about the shelter during a nighttime meeting of the Texas Archological Society field school in Utopia. Glen Evans is shown at left, and Gene Mear, right. Archeologist Tom Hester, shown center, directed the Utopia field school, and commissioned a trace element study on the Paleoindian obsidian artifact found at the Kincaid site.
drawings and photo of bifacial preforms
This series of Clovis bifacial preforms illustrates knapping gone wrong at different stages, from early stage reduction failures, left and center, to a first fluting attempt, right, that severed the preform in half. Drawings by Pam Headrick. Photos by Aaron Norment.
photo of Mear and Collins
Gene Mear, left, re-inventoried and measured many of the chipped stone tools from Kincaid. Here he reviews a site map with Mike Collins. Both researchers hope to fully analyze and report their findings in the future. Photo by Susan Dial.
photo of bone sample
Bone sampled in early dating attempt. In 1954, samples of bone, charcoal, snail, and and other materials from the site were submitted for radiocarbon dating, a pioneering new technique that Willard Libby was struggling to perfect at that time. None of the results on the Kincaid materials, however, proved satisfactory. This bone sample, like the others, was wrapped in foil as it was uncovered at the site as a protection from contamination.

No recognizable Folsom-period debitage or manufacturing failures were identified at Kincaid. As opposed to evidence of habitation, the five virtually unbroken Folsom points from the site are more characteristic of a kill sites.

photo of Folsom point
One of the five Folsom points from Kincaid. Notably, all of the points are virtually complete, although two, including this specimen, have apparent impact fractures (note the damaged tip section).
drawing of blade cores
Clovis blade cores from several sites. The small, expended Kincaid specimen (d), lower right, is not easily recognizable as such, and is dwarfed by the more classic examples (a-c) from other sites. Drawing by Pam Headrick featured in Clovis Blade Technology by Michael Collins (1999, UT Press, Austin). Click to enlarge.
photo of stone pavement
The stone pavement at Kincaid, oldest known structural feature in North America. Photo by Glen Evans. Click to enlarge.
drawing of horse
American horse, Equus. A bone from this extinct species was found on top of the stone pavement, helping to establish the feature as Late Pleistocene in age. Drawing by Hal Story.
photo of plastron
The plastron, or bottom plate of a turtle (Terapene carolinus), found in Zone 4. Although bones of megafauna, such as mammoth, bison, and horse, were found in Zone 4, the identification of smaller species, such as turtle and alligator, supports new viewpoints about a broad-spectrum Clovis diet. Turtle, in particular, has been found in numerous Clovis sites. Photo by Susan Dial. Click to enlarge.

Dating the Deposit

The handful of artifacts from Zone 4 and the reworked projectile point from disturbed fill was not sufficient evidence at the time to totally convince other archeologists that the deposit could be attributed to Clovis peoples. But there was no other evidence, such as a radiocarbon date for the deposit, to strengthen the case.

Earlier attempts at dating Kincaid samples had proved unsuccessful. In 1953, upon learning of the pioneering new radiocarbon dating techniques being tested by Willard Libby, Evans had begun a persistent letter-writing campaign to include some of the Kincaid samples in the study. Because some of the samples were from contexts associated with diagnostic projectile points or Late Pleistocene fauna—and thus placed in a relative chronological framework—Libby finally accepted several samples as good test cases for his new technique. In each case, however, the results were unsatisfactory—either far too young or too old based on the evidence at hand. Several of the samples used were snail shells, bone, and other materials which are now known to require special calibrations and processing methods. (Over the ensuing years, Libby improved his technique and was awarded the 1960 Nobel prize for his work.)

In 1990, Collins tried again, submitting two painstakingly collected samples of charcoal to the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory at the University of California-Berkeley for accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) dating. A major advance over standard radiocarbon dating, this revolutionary new technique can evaluate the age of even minute samples of charcoal. The two Kincaid charcoal samples, Collins recalls, looked like "flecks from a pepper shaker." Using tweezers, he extracted the first speck from the surface of a lump of travertine that had been collected from Zone 4. The resulting radiocarbon age estimate of that sample proved to be unsatisfactory, perhaps contaminated during initial collection or storage.

To produce a second sample, Collins crushed the travertine lump and removed a charcoal fleck from the interior. This sample brought results—an AMS radiocarbon age estimate of 9910 +/-250 years before present, or, in calendar years, roughly 12,000 years old. What this established, in effect, was an end date for the accumulation of Zone 4 deposits.

Haunting Questions

Did Folsom people live in Kincaid Shelter?

Five Folsom points were recovered from disturbed contexts at Kincaid, and these points are interesting in several regards. They are all essentially complete, except for minor impact fractures on three. But it appears that they are the only evidence of Folsom people at the site. According to Collins, there is no other artifact—such as channel flakes, distinctive fluted preforms, or fragments of Folsom points— that can be attributed to a Folsom assemblage from the site. No recognizable chipping debris or Folsom manufacturing failures (broken tools) were identified. As opposed to evidence of habitation, the five virtually unbroken points are more characteristic of a kill sites.

Collins notes that since all five points came from the backdirt of the large pit, they evidently laid in close proximity near the back of the shelter at one time. The points did not have any travertine coating and, therefore, seem to post-date Zone 4. The articulated leg bones of a single bison lay on the surface of a travertine deposit at the contact between Zone 4 and Zone 5, adjacent to the largest pit.

A very intriguing and plausible explanation of these circumstances has been proposed by Dr. Dee Ann Story, who as a student dug at Kincaid in 1953. In her hypothesis, Folsom hunters may have wounded a bison with multiple darts. The bison apparently escaped and perhaps sought refuge in the shelter. It died of its wounds on the floor of the shelter (then the upper surface of Zone 4) at a spot later penetrated by the treasure-hunters. Their digging dislodged the majority of the bison skeleton and all of the points, leaving only the articulated limb bones found adjacent to the pit at the contact between Zones 4 and 5.

Unfortunately, the nature of the Folsom presence at Kincaid will remain a matter of speculation. Because the deposit containing Folsom materials was evidently almost totally disrupted by a treasure-hunters' pit, it must not have covered a large area to begin with.

What was the size and lifestyle of the Clovis group?

Because of a variety of disturbances to the deposits and because of incomplete recovery of artifacts by investigators, our picture of the ancient groups who stayed at Kincaid will remain blurred. Based on the size of the stone pavement section uncovered during controlled excavations— roughly 10 square meters—it is clear that ancient builders expended substantial effort in its making, But there is no way of knowing what its original, full dimensions might have been.

Lacking that evidence, speculation about group size is rather meaningless. However, the shelter is large—roughly 35 by 32 feet, or 10 by 11 meters. As Collins has noted, even though the known paved area is comparatively small, it required considerable effort to construct. These facts, he adds, suggest a group of sufficient size to have required the entire floor space of the shelter. And they would have intended to stay sufficiently long to warrant the effort to build the pavement.

Based on the artifact evidence, it seems clear that the shelter was used as a habitation and as a Clovis "workshop" for making chipped stone tools. We can imagine a scene13,000 years ago when a Clovis craftsman, perhaps wielding a heavy antler baton, struck blades off a small chert core. Another worker may have refreshed his hunting gear by pulling a broken black-glass projectile point from a dart shaft and replacing it with a new tip.

With the exception of the obsidian point, the tool stone chosen, almost uniformly, was local Edwards chert, based on appearance and on a cursory scan with ultra violet light by Collins. The resharpened Clovis point found at Kincaid is of interest in this regard. As Collins notes in his study, Clovis Blade Technology (1999, University of Texas Press), the fact that the discarded point at Kincaid was made of the same local material as the knapping debris indicates a return to the same chert source within the use-life-span of the points.

The Kincaid Legacy

With the analysis and identification of the Clovis artifacts, Kincaid Shelter took its place in a relatively small universe of early Paleoindian sites. Several aspects distinguish it from others, while other Kincaid evidence provides support for an ongoing shift in our thinking about these early groups.

  • The stone pavement is the oldest reported construction in North America, some 13,000 years old. At other sites, such as Hell Gap and Agate Basin, investigators have found the remains of possible tent stakes made of bone or tusk, but these sites are younger than Kincaid by 1,000 to 1,500 years. At the Vail site in Maine, there is an arrangement of huge boulders, cobbles, and chipped stone tools on a stream-side gravel bar. Although their arrangement is circular, the boulders are too massive to have been moved by humans. It is possible they were used as supports for some sort of structure.

    There is also a suspected Clovis-age structural feature—a rectangular gravel pavement—that was uncovered at the Gault site north of Austin, but findings from this major Clovis occupation site are still being analyzed by Collins, the lead investigator, and his team.

    According to Collins, Kincaid is the only site with indisputable evidence of Clovis-period construction, and "there is the bone of an extinct horse lying right on top of the pavement." Further, because the site was excavated by geologists employing stratigraphic principles, there is very sound stratigraphic context for the pavement. Their geologic observations on the type and arrangement of the limestone cobbles used for paving stones (Edwards vs. Anacacho formation) established further that it was not created by natural forces, such as spalling.
  • Kincaid is one of the first sites known with an unequivocal Clovis component overlain by Folsom. These are rare—only three or four sites are presently known, the most important of these being the Blackwater Draw site in New Mexico.
  • Kincaid was the first site to produce a Clovis blade core from a Clovis component and with other Clovis materials.
  • The obsidian projectile point base found in Zone 4 is one of the southernmost obsidian Paleoindian artifacts from a known stratigraphic context. This is one item from Zone 4 that cannot be attributed confidently to a Clovis assemblage, according to Collins. It is of a size, thickness, and general outline comparable to Clovis, and it does have basal thinning flakes on one face. As Dr. Thomas R. Hester noted in his trace element study, most of the obsidian Paleoindian points found in Texas and New Mexico are Clovis. Obsidian is a black, volcanic glass of unusual flaking properties. The beautiful stone could only have been acquired through trade or a long journey.
  • Animal bones found in the Clovis deposits (Zone 4) hint at a broad-spectrum diet not solely based on big game. Along with bones of horse, camel, bison, and mammoth, investigators also found turtle, racoon, and alligator. At other Clovis sites such as Gault, turtle and small mammals have been identified as well. Turtle, in particular, is gaining attention as the most common type of reptile found in early sites in North America. These findings are challenging the long-held notion of Clovis people as chiefly mammoth hunters.
  • The chert source materials used by early Kincaid knappers (as well as the makers of at least four of the five Folsom points) appear to be local, indicating an intimate knowledge of the landscape and environs. As with the faunal evidence, this aspect also implies a less mobile lifeway than previously assumed. This predominate use of local materials has been seen at other Clovis sites, as well.
  • Kincaid was one of the sites to provide samples for Willard Libby to use in his new (at the time) radiocarbon dating experiments, although the results were unsuccessful. Fortunately, a tiny sample of charcoal from a chunk of travertine later was successfully dated using accelerator mass spectrometry. This sample helped establish an end-date for the Zone 4 deposits at about 10,000 radiocarbon years B.P. (or 12,000 years ago in calendar years).

The Loss of History

photo of lab results
Lab results from dating a tiny fleck of charcoal from Kincaid, using a revolutionary new technique, established the travertine deposit at 9910 radiocarbon years before present, or, in calibrated calendar years, nearly 12,000 years old. TARL Records. Click to enlarge.
photo of travertine
A lump of travertine from Kincaid was crushed to produce an uncontaminated sample of charcoal, no larger than a fleck of pepper, for AMS radiocarbon dating. The results indicated it was roughly 12,000 years old.
photo of Dee Ann Suhm
Field school student Dee Ann Suhm gets a close-up view of the articulated bison limbs found just above Zone 4 at the rear of the shelter. Her theory is that a bison, wounded by Folsom hunters, died in the shelter, thus accounting for the five complete Folsom points found there. The bones are the only evidence of a Folsom-age deposit to survive the destruction of the treasure hunters. Suhm, who later married illustrator Hal Story, went on to earn a Ph.D in archeology, become a professor of anthropology at UT-Austin and, later, director of TARL.

We can imagine a scene in the shelter 13,000 years ago when a Clovis craftsman, perhaps wielding a heavy antler baton, struck blades off a small chert core. Another worker may have refreshed his hunting gear by pulling a broken black-glass projectile point from a dart shaft and replacing it with a newly made tip.

photo of Clovis point
This heavily resharpened Clovis point is made of local chert, as were most of the other tools and knapping debris left by Clovis workers at Kincaid. Click to enlarge and see drawing.

Kincaid is the only site with indisputable evidence of Clovis-period construction, and there is the bone of an extinct horse lying right on top of the pavement.
-Mike Collins

photo of zone 4 artifacts
Toolmaking debris from Zone 4. Kincaid was the first site to produce a Clovis blade core (left) with other Clovis toolmaking debris.
photo of obsidian
The obsidian base found in Zone 4 near the articulated bison leg bones. The point, untyped as yet but with Clovis affinities, is unusual in several aspects. The obsidian material, a black volcanic glass, has been traced to a source near Querétaro, Mexico, some 600 miles to the southwest.
drawing of Kincaid shelter
Drawing of Kincaid Shelter by Hal Story.
Photo of an artifact
Photo of an artifact
Photo of an artifact
Photo of an artifact
Four of the hundreds of artifacts dug out of their original contexts at Kincaid Shelter by treasure hunters. With the loss of context, artifacts lose their identity, so to speak. Time frames are difficult to establish, except through cross-dating with other sites, and no meaningful statements can be made about the cultures who created them.
photo of Michael Collins
Michael Collins on reconnaissance at Kincaid Shelter in 1988. The Paleoindian specialist, now deeply immersed in writing up findings from the Gault site in Bell County, Texas, still hopes to complete his analysis of the Kincaid findings. He notes that, although all cultural deposits were removed from the shelter, the artifact collections and records are curated for posterity at the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory at UT-Austin, ready for future analysts to study and interpret using latest techniques and perspectives. Photo by Thomas Hester. TARL archives.

Looking at the Kincaid collection today, it is tragic to see that some of the most intriguing and potentially informative specimens are labeled with the lot number "908-2" and other numbers which signify, "provenience unknown." What this has meant for researchers is that the items left by prehistoric peoples camped in the shelter perhaps 12,000 years ago were unearthed and mixed together with those left by shelter dwellers perhaps 8,000 or 5,000 or even 500 years ago. For the most part, any meaningful connections among cultural remains of the same time period have been lost.

While mixed deposits in archeological sites are common, natural disturbances such as erosion or rodent burrowing often are found to have been the cause. Prehistoric people also disturbed earlier evidence simply by camping on top of it, by recycling tools or stones from earlier hearths, and by digging pits into earlier deposits. What archeologists hope to prevent through continued education efforts is the knowing destruction of historic sites by individuals who want to collect a few more projectile points which, when separated from their context, offer little insight into the people and cultures who made them.

Large arrow to click on to follow Kincaid Shelter exhibit