Llano culture refers to late Pleistocene North American people on the Llano Estacado, or Southern High Plains, who used distinctive stone projectile points, known as Clovis points, to hunt mammoths. Formal description of the Llano culture during the 1950s established it as the oldest known prehistoric archaeological culture in North America and reinforced the notion that Paleoindians were specialized big game hunters. The term “Clovis culture” replaced “Llano culture” by the late 1960s, so Llano culture is primarily a historical concept important for its role in Paleoindian studies.
Elias H. Sellards proposed the term “Llano complex” in his 1952 book Early Man in America for assemblages of artifacts associated with mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) bones at archaeological sites on and near the Llano Estacado (Spanish for “staked plains”) of western Texas and eastern New Mexico. The artifacts of the Llano complex consisted of distinctive stone projectile points, stone hide scrapers, hammerstones, and bone tools. Sellards used the terms “Llano culture” and “Llano man” to refer to the people who made and used the artifacts. Sellards included in his Llano complex sites throughout much of North America that contained Clovis points, regardless of whether they also contained mammoth remains.
Sellards was a geologist by training, but since 1915 he had pursued an interest in the antiquity of humans in North America. Not until the discovery in 1927 at Folsom, New Mexico, of distinctive stone projectile points (Folsom points) found in unambiguous association with bones of extinct bison (Bison antiquus) did it become generally accepted that humans had been on the continent for more than a few thousand years. B. antiquus was thought to have gone extinct by the end of the Pleistocene, although the exact age of that event was not known until the 1950s when radiocarbon dating placed it at around 10,000 years ago.
Folsom points were lanceolate in shape, very finely made, and distinctive in having a long flake removed from each face running from the base nearly to the tip, giving them a “fluted” appearance. Folsom points immediately set the standard against which all future finds of early points would be compared. As archaeologists searched for additional evidence of early human occupation, they found points that were obviously the same as Folsom points as well as points that were larger, were less finely made, and had shorter flutes. Names for these latter points included generalized Folsom, Folsom-like, and Folsomoid.
During the mid-1930s, Edgar B. Howard and John L. Cotter of the University of Pennsylvania and the Academy of Sciences of Philadelphia conducted excavations at the site of an ancient spring-fed pond on the edge of Blackwater Draw near Clovis, New Mexico, where they found Folsom-like points and beveled bone artifacts associated with remains of mammoths and other extinct mammals.
At the Clovis site, they also found Folsom points with bones of B. antiquus stratigraphically above the Folsom-like points. In 1941, the Folsom-like points were named Clovis fluted points. Acceptance of the temporal relationship between Clovis and Folsom points demonstrated here did not occur until Sellards’s definition of the Llano complex.
In 1937, Sellards, as director of the Bureau of Economic Geology and later also the Texas Memorial Museum (both part of the University of Texas at Austin), began two decades of excavations at early paleontological and archaeological sites on the Llano Estacado. Sellards was assisted in his work by the geologist Glen Evans and the vertebrate paleontologist Grayson Meade. This team was one of the first to combine geology and paleontology with archaeology in research on North American human antiquity and to use the geological principles of stratigraphy and superposition.
Two of the sites that Sellards investigated became the basis for his Llano complex. In 1937, Sellards and his team excavated at Miami, Texas, where they found the remains of five mammoths with three Clovis points and a stone scraper. In work at the Clovis site in 1949 and 1950, Sellards excavated a Clovis point, a bone tool, a hammerstone, and a stone scraper with remains of four mammoths as well as remains of horse, bison, turtle, and small mammals. Sellards excavated Folsom points associated with bison bones in an overlying stratum and demonstrated that the two strata were separated by an erosional unconformity. He emphasized the relationship of Clovis points with mammoth remains and of Folsom points with bison remains. In addition to Miami and Clovis, Sellards included four mammoth-Clovis point sites excavated by other investigators in his definition of the Llano complex: McLean in Texas, Dent in Colorado, Angus in Nebraska, and Naco in Arizona.
By 1952, the Lubbock Lake Folsom site had been dated to approximately 9,900 radiocarbon years before present (rcybp). There were no dates for the Llano complex, but the stratigraphic positions of the two at the Clovis site necessitated that the Llano complex was at least that old. We now know that the Llano complex at Clovis has been dated to 11,300 rcybp and that the Llano complex at Dent had been dated to 10,980 rcybp. Calibrated radiocarbon ages for the same two sites are 13,350 and 12,950 years before present, respectively.
Different people used the concept of Llano culture in different ways. Sellards included all Clovis point sites in his Llano culture, and most followed his lead. Others, however, restricted the name to only sites with both Clovis points and mammoth remains. Still others restricted it to the Llano Estacado and vicinity.
From Sellards’s publication in 1952, the term “Llano culture” competed with the term “Clovis culture.” The former term was used primarily during the 1950s and 1960s until it was largely supplanted by the latter term. “Llano culture” is used only rarely now and is discussed primarily in historic treatments of Paleoindian studies. But Sellards’s demonstration of an older age and association with mammoths for Clovis points and a younger age and association with bison for Folsom points remains unchanged today.
- Boldurian, A. T., & Cotter, J. L. (1999). Clovis revisited: New perspectives on Paleoindian adaptations from Blackwater Draw, New Mexico. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, University Museum.
- Evans, G. L. (1951). Prehistoric wells in eastern New Mexico. American Antiquity, 17, 1-9.
- Haynes, G. (2002). The early settlement of North America: The Clovis era. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Hester, J. J. (1972). Blackwater Locality No. 1: A stratified early man site in eastern New Mexico (Publication No. 8). Ranchos de Taos, NM: Fort Burgwin Research Center.
- Holliday, V. T. (1997). Paleoindian geoarchaeology of the Southern High Plains. Austin: University of Texas Press.
- Sellards, E. H. (1938). Artifacts associated with fossil elephant. Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 49, 999-1010.
- Sellards, E. H. (1952). Early man in America. Austin: University of Texas Press.
- Sellards, E. H., & Evans, G. L. (1960). The Paleoindian culture succession in the Central High Plains of Texas and New Mexico. In A. F. C. Wallace (Ed.), Men and cultures: Selected papers of the Fifth International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, Philadelphia, September 1-9, 1956 (pp. 639-647). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.