National Geographic News
 A clear quartz Clovis point found near the bone bed at El Fin del Mundo. Although very difficult to shape into a tool, quartz was used by Clovis tool makers at several sites.

This quartz Clovis spear point was found near the gomphothere bones at El Fin del Mundo, an archeological site in northwestern Mexico.


Gloria Dickie

National Geographic

Published July 14, 2014

At a Mexican site known as the End of the World, archaeologists have unearthed a Native American first: the bones of two extinct elephant-like animals that sported four tusks apiece, surrounded by 13,400-year-old spear points.

The discovery at the El Fin del Mundo site in northwestern Mexico's Sonora Desert provides the first archaeological evidence that the so-called Clovis people, who belonged to the earliest well-defined culture of the New World, preyed upon gomphotheres, ancient animals similar in size to modern-day elephants. (Related: "Speared Mastodon Bones Hint at Earliest Americans.")

It's not just the meal that has archaeologists intrigued; it's the age of the leftovers. El Fin del Mundo is one of the oldest and southernmost Clovis sites ever discovered, according to University of Arizona archaeologist Vance Holliday, a co-author of the study announcing the find, released Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Far from the famous Bering land bridge, the location has researchers questioning the origin of our early ancestors.

"I think sites like El Fin del Mundo really force us to rethink the process of the colonization of the Americas," says archaeologist Thomas Jennings of the University of West Georgia in Carrollton, who was not part of the discovery team.

For a long time, Clovis culture was believed to have originated in the North American Southwest, south of the glaciers and Bering land bridge area. But the discovery of older Clovis sites in Texas and at El Fin del Mundo, which yielded nearly identical radiocarbon dates (13,400 years old), has cast doubts on that theory.

"All of a sudden here we are with the two oldest Clovis sites in North America in the south," says Holliday, a National Geographic grantee. "It raises the possibility that maybe Clovis didn't originate [in the north]. If it didn't, then it obviously had to come from somewhere else, which means it could be even older."

Jennings noted the latest artifacts from the El Fin del Mundo site allow researchers to close in on answers to some unsolved mysteries surrounding Clovis culture. Of highest interest to archaeologists is the diffusion of Clovis technology throughout the continent, for example, distinctive spear points with a long, broad, two-bladed face. Whether the points spread across the New World by migrations of a distinct Clovis population, or as an idea passed to already existing populations of other early Native Americans, is an open question.

"Finding the oldest Clovis sites that far south really does suggest to me that Clovis probably originated somewhere in southern North America, and that has a lot of implications for the peopling of the Americas," says Jennings.

Gomphothere mandible in place, upside down, at El Fin del Mundo excavation site. The fossil was fully prepared at the INAH zooarchaeology lab in Mexico City.
The El Fin del Mundo excavation site yielded this gomphothere mandible, shown here in place, upside down.

Ice Age Creatures

Following up on a tip from a rancher, archaeologists first surveyed El Fin del Mundo in 2007, expecting to find mammoth bones or maybe even a mastodon. But when they excavated the mandible of the animal, it became clear they were dealing with something quite different.

While the Clovis were known for hunting megafauna like mastodons, mammoths, and bison, Holliday admits researchers had not given much thought to the possibility of gomphotheres as Clovis prey.

"I think people just assumed there probably wasn't a link between Clovis and gomphotheres because gomphotheres were so rare in the paleontological record of North America," he says.

Gomphotheres were more common in Central and South America during the last ice age. The first Native Americans are thought to have crossed to the American continent from prehistoric Siberia to Alaska in that era. Eventually they made their way to Mexico, setting  up their fateful meeting with the elephant-like creatures at El Fin del Mundo. (Related: "Oldest Burial Yields DNA Evidence of First Americans.")

The pachyderms primarily lived in the high grasslands of South America and went extinct around 10,000 years ago.

"One of the neat things about this site is that it's one of the oldest Clovis sites, but it's also the youngest gomphothere site in North America," says Holliday.

Guadalupe Sanchez, an archaeologist with the Instituto de Geología at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and a co-author of the study, will return to the field this December to survey more than a dozen additional sites near El Fin del Mundo, in the hope of uncovering more about Native Americans' past.

Follow Gloria Dickie on Twitter.

Jana Dawson Frazier
Jana Dawson Frazier

I've found that the oral history of different peoples are quite accurate and hold great amounts of information about our past.  Science is just now "getting" that, yet still too many poo-poo oral traditions and histories and brush them away as "myth".

Rod Henry
Rod Henry

could it be possible they came by sea.following the ice pack while hunting sea mammals?
wasn`t the water level much lower?
sites are under water that will be discovered and tell you so much more about my ancestors.
I am Tsimshian
northwest coast of BC
you will find our oral history has truth to it.great floods,great darkness,great cold
great creatures

to be found at prehistoric sea levels

Ronalene Mindomar
Ronalene Mindomar

on the fertile crescent originated the all races in the world and all language originated there so the red men in america continent

Ronalene Mindomar
Ronalene Mindomar

no no. the cradle of civilization begins in mesopotamia, people in south america were probably arrrived from that region, one thing the evidence is that their architectural buildings are somewhat similar to the babylonian and egyptian. so its strong conclusion that they came from the old civilization in mesopotamia because during that time exploration and colonialization were so doing. isn'y that the phonecian ruled the sea. babylonian colony during that time is the italian peninsula. isnt it that the etruscan were too babylonian. spain was the colony of phoenicia and the northern africa.?

Daniel Cegalla
Daniel Cegalla

Homo Sapiens was a ruthless killer in the stone age. The megafauna extinction was in the greater part due to changeable environmental conditions, but man had his hand in it too.

William Ruskovich
William Ruskovich

Yum....Elephant like creatures. I suppose that a hunter would have to get them fairly young for maximum taste and tenderness. My name for this is Barbecue Sauce and Ivory.

Kevin B.
Kevin B.

What are the facts of a Bering Sea land bridge?  what if human migration began in South America?

Gabriela K.
Gabriela K.

I would like to see a likely picture of this creature.

loren russell
loren russell

In fact, the Americas were home to wildlife that exceeded present-day east Africa in number, size, diversity.  Gone in a few centuries after the first big-game hunters.  A shame we don't have more than a glimmer today.

Samuele Rosa
Samuele Rosa

Incredible how the fauna of our planet were so differently scattered in those times. Must have been an amazing period to be alive.

Larry Lyons
Larry Lyons

@Rod Henry 

I can't see how stories could last that long, we're talking about 15,000 years or more. Moreover the Tsimshian culture has changed substantially over the last 1000 years alone. Additionally where are shell middens specifically associated with a Tsimshian from more than 5000 years old. Its a great idea but unfortunately the evidence isn't there to support such.

C. Dufour
C. Dufour

@Teresa M. @Kevin B. what science is saying is that there possibly multiple migrations between north and south america going both ways for thousands of years. lets not try to use science to seek books here...


Popular Stories

The Future of Food

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

See more food news, photos, and videos »