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Published March 26, 2020
A University of Wyoming professor of anthropology has received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to investigate humans’ adaptation to environments during the ice age. Specifically, Todd Surovell will be studying how Clovis people lived at the La Prele Mammoth site near Douglas in Converse County.
Surovell and his colleagues will examine aspects of the subsistence practices and social organization of those ice age inhabitants of North America at the mammoth kill and campsite, which is approximately 12,900 years old.
Questions that will be asked during the research include: “How would the first humans to inhabit a region make a living?” “How would they organize themselves socially?” “In a place and time where there are few constraints on how people might behave other than those imposed by the natural environment, what would human societies look like?”
“The site provides the unusual opportunity to examine aspects of social organization in the Pleistocene (ice age) because we have multiple hearth-centered activity areas surrounding the mammoth. Those appear to be domestic spaces,” says Surovell, who also serves as department head for the Department of Anthropology. “Imagine if you could look at the contents of five households in your neighborhood and the things that you could learn from them. That’s more or less what we want to do. We want to examine aspects of mobility, sharing and cooperation. We also want to contribute to ongoing debates about the subsistence practices of the first peoples in North America.”
Surovell recently received a $225,814 NSF grant for his research project, titled “Human Adaptation to New Environments.” The grant technically commenced March 1 and runs through June 1, 2022. However, Surovell says the current novel coronavirus COVID-19 situation will likely alter that timeline.
The people who created the site in Converse County are called the “Clovis people” or the “Clovis culture,” says Surovell, who has been studying the site since 2014.
“They were likely the very first humans to inhabit North America, at least areas south of the continental ice sheets,” he explains. “They made distinctive spear points that were fluted (grooved), and that style of spear point can be found across North America at that time. They are very often found with the remains of extinct animals.”
The mammoth site preserves the remains of a killed or scavenged sub-adult Columbian mammoth and an associated camp occupied during the time the animal was butchered. Multiple hearth-centered activity areas associated with and encircling the mammoth remains provide the opportunity to examine aspects of social organization using detailed lithic, faunal and spatial analysis.
While most prior research on the first people of the New World has focused on economics, additional excavation at this site presents the uncommon opportunity to examine social aspects of Clovis life, according to the project summary.
Bob Kelly, a UW professor of anthropology; Madeline Mackie, a UW postdoctoral fellow in anthropology; Wyoming State Archaeologist Spencer Pelton; and Matthew O’Brien, an assistant professor of anthropology from California State University-Chico, will assist Surovell.
The grant will cover two years of excavation fieldwork in addition to 2.5 years of lab work. The grant will provide field and laboratory research opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students. The project also will be used to continue a collaboration with the Northern Arapaho Tribe in training field archaeologists in excavation methods.
During excavations, archaeological groups and members of the public will be welcomed to visit the site to learn about archaeological research and promote awareness of cultural resources.
Results of the work will be published in academic journals and presented at archaeological conferences as well as public settings. Presentations on preliminary results of excavations have already been given to at least six chapters of the Wyoming Archaeological Society, a statewide archaeology interest group that is mainly composed of members of the public.