Cooperation and Competition: Clovis Hunters and Gatherers


The Clovis people were the first that have been identified to come to the western hemisphere across the land bridge from Asia. There may have been others that preceded them, but they have not been identified.

Clovis hunters passed on their hunting skills and knowledge to the generations that followed. The Clovis men required intimate knowledge of their homeland so that their descendants could also survive the harsh conditions there during the tail end of the last Ice Age. As David Hurst Thomas explained, “This is why men wanted to stay put, insisting that the wife must leave her family and immediate homeland. The way Clovis men saw it, their familiarity with the land spelled the difference between life and death.” This attitude became part of the lasting heritage of Indigenous people in the Americas. A close connection to their environment—the land—is a vital part of their culture and identity. This attitude has been passed down for generations by all kinds of Indigenous peoples.

In Clovis society labor was usually divided along lines of gender. It was likely in part determined by physiological differences and also age.

As David Hurst Thomas described it life of Clovis people was closely bound to their roles in hunting and gathering:

“For physiological reasons , adult women are mostly responsible for nourishing and socializing infants and small children. These physical constraints led foraging women to do things that did not interfere with childcare and that could be performed near home. Yet even in male-dominated Clovis society, women provided critically important every everyday sustenance by cooking and collecting stationary resources such as plants and firewood. Women probably also took care of the meat after the hunt. Many times, their daily caloric contribution must have spelled the difference between survival and catastrophe.’

Not only that, as Yuval Harari showed, the gathering part of such societies was actually often more significant than the hunting as it provided for more sustenance. Yet Clovis society revolved around what men did. No surprise there. Men always seem to have a strong desire to be at the centre of most civilizations, whether justified or not. But really both genders played crucial roles in Clovis societies. As Thomas reports,

“Other biological factors must have charged adult men with the primary responsibility for safeguarding the home. The Clovis life style centered on the male hunter.  Those stalwarts felling six-ton mammoths must have been richly rewarded in ritual and folklore, in tribute and in station. But in truth, it was the primary male-female symbiotic bond that enabled Clovis society to survive.’

There is another factor that contributed greatly to the success of the First Americans and that is one that many moderns discount. Many people in the west, shaped by the economic forces of capitalism and its imposition of an ideology of competition have ignored the important role of co-operation. Humans are social animals.

The world famous Harvard scientist E.O. Wilson has called these the eusocial creatures. These are creatures that have learned that by containing multiple generations, these organisms are prone to employ altruistic acts as part of their division of labor. They are what he called “technically comparable to ants, termites, and other eusocial insects.” Wilson emphasized of course that that there are fundamental differences between humans and insects, such that most humans compete with each other in the force of reproduction.

Many people have noticed that in places of difficult living conditions such as the far north of Canada, the ability to co-operate is essential to survival. Rugged individualism does not work well in such places. To some extent the Clovis world in North America during the last Ice Age was also such a place. As David Hurst Thomas said,

“Another survival secret was their absolute dedication to reciprocity. Regardless of who killed an animal, or who harvested a plant, everyone was entitled to a share. Even the most esteemed hunter failed sometimes, and this prudent practice of sharing yielded all from short-term setbacks. Great honor was accorded to those who provided best and to those who share most willingly. Food hoarding was a public and criminal transgression.”

These attitudes were passed on to subsequent descendants of the First Americans. Later such attitudes evolved into what others have called the World with One Spoon, gift giving and the potlatch and most recently egalitarianism.

As far as researchers can tell, the Clovis people continued to grow and prosper but eventually they died out. Many of the later Indigenous peoples were however descended from these earlier humans—the First Americans. And many of those early traditions were carried forward.

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