Montana before history book cover

Douglas H. MacDonald ’94
Mountain Press, 2012

The oldest archaeological site in Montana, the Anzick Site near Wilsall, has been carbon-dated to 11,040 years ago. It is, writes Douglas MacDonald in this fine survey of Montana archaeology, the only Clovis site excavated in Montana. Apparently a ceremonial burial site, it contained the oldest human remains found in North America.

Whether or not they were a coherent “culture,” the Clovis people are known for their common use of distinctive stone tools first discovered near Clovis, New Mexico, early in the twentieth century. Clovis tools have since been discovered throughout much of the contiguous United States, including a significant find near Wenatchee, and into Mexico and Central America. The tools have often been found with bones of mammoth, mastodon, giant bison, and other species of megafauna.

And then, just a few years after that Montana Clovis site was established, the megafauna were gone. Many ideas have been proposed regarding their demise. MacDonald dismisses one of the most controversial, that the Clovis people hunted these animals to extinction. There is, argues MacDonald, little or no evidence for this overkill hypothesis.

Rather, he embraces the idea that a climate-changing asteroid explosion ended the era of North American megafauna —and the Clovis people.

Thus, MacDonald moves effectively between a fairly exhaustive cataloguing of Montana archaeological sites and the broader context of North American prehistory.

MacDonald earned his master’s and doctoral degrees under Bill Andrefsky, an authority on lithic, or stone, technology. MacDonald’s resulting expertise is evident in his engaging description of fluting, or grooves, in the stone points made by the Folsom people, who followed the Clovis. The Folsom period in Montana dates from approximately 10,900 to 10,200 years ago.

The fluting of the Folsom points is perplexing. “Folsom flintknappers took Clovis thinning and fluting to an extremely sophisticated level,” writes MacDonald.

In spite of their elegance, however, the fluted points seem to be no more effective at killing game than the non-fluted versions that the Folsom also made. Besides, inscribing such a groove carried considerable risk in the manufacturing process. The question of the fluting’s purpose, like many archaeological questions, may never be answered.

Indeed, MacDonald ends his survey with a long list of questions to be answered by future archaeologists. Montana provides an excellent place to contemplate hunter-gatherers, as it is unique in being untainted by the social complexity that agriculture and permanent villages bring. Montana’s prehistory is pure hunter-gatherer.

But that purity is merely relative, as hunter-gatherer cultures leave us their own multitude of unanswered questions. Indeed, MacDonald might have considered beginning his book with his provocative list of questions, as they provide an intriguing coherence to an enormous range of time.