Clovis hunting an African elephant

Clovis points from the Rummells-Maske Site, 13CD15, Cedar County, Iowa. Image by Bill Whttaker from Wikimedia Commons

Clovis points from the Rummells-Maske Site, 13CD15, Cedar County, Iowa. Image by Bill Whittaker from Wikimedia Commons

One of the advantages of having entered academia after the internet revolution is that the majority of my library is virtual. My laptop PDF paper collection is currently at 6,554 items (and there are another 1,500 or so waiting to be sorted in my download folder). I generally download anything that interests me on a theme of ancient DNA, felids, Pleistocene mammals, extinction, archaeology etc. and everything is renamed by first author surname to be easily searchable. There is too much awesome science!

I was flicking through some of the papers the other day when I came across an article by George C. Frison from American Antiquity titled “Experimental Use of Clovis Weaponry and Tools on African Elephants” vol.54 p.766

It is like no paper I’ve ever seen before and a riveting read.

In it the author recounts his use of replica Clovis points during collaboration with Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe to cull African savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana). The elephants are deemed a suitable substitute for the woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius), Columbian mammoths (Mammuthus columbi) and mastodon (Mammut americanum) of the Nearctic late Pleistocene, known to the Clovis culture.

"MammothVsMastodon" by Dantheman9758 at the English language Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Two of the big giants in North America, the Woolly Mammoth (left) and the Mastodon (right). There is evidence that both these beasts have been hunted by humans. (Image Public Domain).

Frison seems to have been slightly obsessed with the notion of “true hunters” – hunters who would only select mature, healthy individuals to kill. To me this seems a slightly romantic notion and I am sure that palaeoindians, cro-magnons, and other modern human groups that encountered and hunted mammoth in difficult conditions would not have taken so noble a path. (In reality, carnivores kill more old or injured individuals than those in their prime. Simply because they are easier to catch.)

He created replica socketed thrusting spears and throwing spears (using a spear thrower, known as an atlatl). Atlatl are ingenious inventions that almost effortlessly add incredible speed and force to a spear; more than a human arm could achieve. ‘Effortlessly’ is a slightly underplayed adverb, because they may be fast and powerful but it takes intensive practice to throw a spear with an atlatl and hit a target. Around 21,000 years ago, in what is now France, paleolithic people were practicing with spear throwers made from mammoth ivory and reindeer antler.

"Mammoth Spear Thrower" by Sara Branch from Cymru / Wales (Spear thrower carved as a mammoth). Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons -

An amazing spear thrower made from reindeer antler. This has been carved into the shape of a mammoth, from 12,5000 years ago in France. (Image by Sara Branch. Public Domain)

The study began with 7 Clovis points. One was accidentally broken before any use. One shattered on impact with an elephant rib on its first use. Five others survived the experiments (and one of those five broke on the last day of use). Quite an incredible attrition rate for serious chunks of stone. Almost all the tips broke off and the points had to be reshaped (something that paleolithic hunters would have done themselves if they retrieved their spears).

In the paper Frison recounts using his Clovis points on elephants that had been “mortally wounded or killed” during culling operations. He used his atlatl to hit elephants from a distance of 15m, 17m, 20m. He achieved penetration of the stomach, the lung, and various muscled parts, easily penetrating the thick skin and producing woulds that would have been lethal in living animals. He also brought large biface-reduction flakes for experiments in skinning the animals. Apparently one of these Clovis tools was lost while the group was chasing a herd of elephants. Frison mischievously comments “This may someday come as more than a small surprise to someone, because there are no known artefacts of this nature in this part of Africa”.

Written by Ross Barnett (@DeepFriedDNA)

[This post was originally from @DeepFriedDNA’s personal blog]

Further Reading:

Frison, G. C. “Experimental Use of Clovis Weaponry and Tools on African Elephants.” American Antiquity 54, no. 4 (1989): 766-84.[Abstract]

Surovell, T. A. , and N. M. Waguespack. “How Many Elephant Kills Are 14? Clovis Mammoth and Mastodon Kills in Context.” Quaternary International 191, no. 1 (2007): 82-97. [Full Text]

Waters, M. R., T. W. Stafford, Jr., H. G. McDonald, C. Gustafson, M. Rasmussen, E. Cappellini, J. V. Olsen, et al. “Pre-Clovis Mastodon Hunting 13,800 Years Ago at the Manis Site, Washington.” Science 334 (2011): 351-53.[Full Text]

Woodman, N., and N. B. Athfield. “Post-Clovis Survival of American Mastodon in the Southern Great Lakes Region of North America.” Quaternary Science Reviews (2009).[Full Text]


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6 Responses to Clovis hunting an African elephant

  1. Pingback: Clovis hunting an African elephant | Brittius

  2. kerberos616 says:

    Reblogged this on Kerberos616.

  3. While I regret the loss of the elephants (and realize that I don’t know what their situation is like in Zimbabwe), this is quite interesting. I didn’t realize a stone-tipped spear could cause that kind of damage to so large a creature. Perhaps the notion of early humans being a driving force behind late Pleistocene extinctions isn’t so far-fetched after all.

  4. The observation about actual carnivore behavior is right on track.

    The problem with the experiment’s actual applicability is that the Clovis points sound like they were used against static targets (dead and dying). This is a far different prospect from attacking a fully mobile and very dangerous animal. The period between between the spear’s penetration and the actual death of the animal is an eternity when the hunters are only 20 meters away.

    A weapon of choice for hunting elephants in the last two centuries was the large-bore double rifle. The first shot didn’t always kill the animal. The second had to be quick and dead-on reliable. There would be no time for a third.

    Which is why I’ve always had a fair bit of skepticism about the impact of human hunting on mammoths. A successful kill with spears is going to be an opportunistic event that exploits terrain and the weaknesses of a particular target. And would not happen that often.

  5. Pingback: Giant Sloths & Sabertooth Cats | TwilightBeasts

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