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Cactus Hill Update April 10, 2000
by Mark Rose

Evidence for a pre-Clovis level at Cactus Hill was presented in a series of papers given on April 7 at the annual Society for American Archaeology conference in Philadelphia by the director of the excavations at Cactus Hill, Joseph McAvoy, and a number of specialists studying various aspects of the site. Cactus Hill, on the Nottoway River in southeastern Virginia, has Archaic material which is underlain by a Clovis-era level. Several inches of sand separate the Clovis-era deposit from a lower level in which points, blades, and cores, as well as charcoal and calcined fragments of animal bone have been recovered. Initial radiocarbon dates from the lower level were too early given its position beneath Clovis-era remains, leading to questions about the integrity of the site's stratigraphy. Some of the papers given in Philadelphia examined different lines of evidence to address this question, while others described the stone tool and faunal assemblages from the lower level.

Soil chemistry analysis has revealed elevated amounts of phosphate, an indicator of human occupation, in the lower level. The abundance of phytoliths, silica structures found in plants, and the amount of cultural material (as measured by weight) followed a similar pattern: a drop-off after the Clovis-era deposit that corresponds to the sterile sand level, followed by a small peak corresponding to the lower cultural level. Review of the radiocarbon samples by palaeobotanist Lucinda McSweeney suggests that the initial dates were from rootlets and partially carbonized hickory wood that had intrude into the lower level from above. Samples cleaned of the hickory wood yield dates consistent with pre-Clovis. Significantly, while younger material has in local instances intruded from above, older material has not been found, or at least recognized or dated, in the upper levels. The three pre-Clovis dates that the excavators have obtained are 15,070 ± 70, 16,670 ± 730, and 16,940 ± 50. Additional dates obtained through luminescence were presented but, while consistent in being pre-Clovis, need more evaluation before their relation to the radiocarbon dates is understood.

The stone tool assemblage at the site was described by Larry Kimball. About the two points found in the lower level, Kimball said that their roughly pentangular form appears to be the intended shape, that is, they were not re-worked over time to that shape. He bases this conclusion on the thinness of the pieces and the presence of striking platforms on the sides of them suggesting they were not resharpened. Microwear indicates they were hafted and fractures on the tips suggest they broke on impact--that is they were projectiles. Kimball sees them as a logical precursor to fluted Clovis points. Over 90 percent of the stone tools from the lower level are blades. Microwear shows that they were hafted and used for butchering and hide processing. Microwear also indicates that over half of the cores from which the blades were struck were subsequently used for hide scraping. There are no endscrapers, drills, or bipolar pieces in the assemblage. Two of the blades, however, were fashioned into burins.

Faunal remains from the lower level are scant: some 20 specimens, the largest of which is 1.5 cm long. Ten could be identified: 2 mud turtle shell fragments, 2 whitetail deer toe bone fragments, and 5 fossil shark's teeth possibly brought to the site from Miocene fossil deposits 20 kilometers downstream from the site.

McAvoy said that, as far as he is concerned, the quotation of whether or not the pre-Clovis level at Cactus Hill is real is "not even close." In discussing the papers, Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution suggested the assemblage adds to evidence that Clovis may have originated in the Southeast.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America