A team of archaeologists from Mexico and the United States have verified the only known instance of Clovis people hunting gomphotheres.

Gomphotheres are elephantlike creatures who roamed the Americas for centuries but, before this finding, were not known to exist in North America as recently as 13,000 years ago.

Clovis is the name given to groups of hunters who foraged from the Great Plains and down into Mexico at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, when a wetter, cooler climate supported herds of megafauna such as mammoths and mastodons.

They are known by the tools they left behind, including fluted spearpoints that have been found in Arizona among the bones of mammoths.

This paper adds the smaller gomphotheres to the list of Clovis prey.

The discoveries were made at a remote arroyo along the Rio Bacoachi called “El Fin del Mundo” because it is at the end of a series of ranch roads, 40 miles and a three-hour drive from civilization.

Vance T. Holliday, professor of anthropology and geology at the University of Arizona, headed up the U.S. part of the team that excavated the skeletons of two juvenile gomphotheres, along with Clovis spearpoints, four of which were buried with the bones of the beasts.

“Gomphotheres were really rare in North America, especially at the end of the Pleistocene,” Holliday said.

Equally fascinating, said Holliday, is the size of the encampment of Clovis foragers. Spear points and spear-making tools were found in a wide arc on the banks of the arroyo.

“You get the feeling people are hanging around there for a long time. It’s either one long occupation or a site they returned to again and again.”

It is much larger than the well-known site at Murray Springs along the San Pedro River in Arizona, he said.

Archaeologists from Mexico and the U.S. will return to the dig this winter and probably for years to come, he said.

“We could probably spend, literally, the rest of our lives there.”

The peer-reviewed results of the team’s dig, including radiocarbon dating of the site as 13,400 years old, were published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The paper’s lead author is Guadalupe Sanchez, an archaeologist with the Instituto de Geología at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Sanchez earned her doctorate at the UA.

Sanchez first visited the site in 2007 after a rancher reported the presence of “big bones” in an eroding arroyo, said Holliday.

The dig was financed by the UA School of Anthropology’s Argonaut Archaeological Research Fund, the National Geographic Society, the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia and the Center for Desert Archaeology in Tucson.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@tucson.com or 573-4158.