Folsom People Flourish in New Mexico Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The discovery of the Folsom site in New Mexico proved that North America had been populated much earlier than archaeologists had previously believed.

Summary of Event

In 1908, after a prolonged dry spell, a powerful storm dumped more than 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain on the small northeastern New Mexico town of Folsom. The town sustained substantial damage, and there was a significant amount of erosion in the vicinity. Among other effects of the storm, the local arroyos (dried-out streambeds or riverbeds) were deepened and widened.

Outside town, in Wild Horse Arroyo, George McJunkin, an African American cowboy who was foreman at the Crowfoot Ranch, found many unusually large bones protruding from the wall of the arroyo while he was inspecting the ranch’s fence for storm damage. Although he was unable to identify the bones, he knew that they did not belong to any of the animals commonly found in the area, and he reasoned that they might be very old because he had found them where they would have remained deeply buried if the storm’s runoff had not exposed them. McJunkin, an amateur surveyor, carefully noted and recorded the location, which he called the Bone Pit.

McJunkin tried to interest various people in his find, but no one wanted to make the long trip on horseback to the site. McJunkin died in 1922, and a few months afterward, Carl Schwachheim and Fred Howarth, both of nearby Raton, traveled to the site that McJunkin had described to them. They were sufficiently impressed by the bones they found there to contact Jesse Figgins, director of the Colorado Museum of Natural History. Figgins identified the bones as belonging to an extinct species of bison, Bison antiquus. In May of 1926, Figgins and Harold Cook, honorary curator of paleontology at the Colorado Museum of Natural History, began excavating at Wild Horse Arroyo.

By summer, many bison bones as well as projectile points that had belonged to spears or darts had been uncovered. When one of the Folsom points, as they came to be called, was discovered in the carcass of an extinct bison, Figgins and Cook called in numerous experts to examine the find. The consensus of the experts was that the find provided evidence that humans had lived in North America during the Ice Age, far earlier than scientists had previously believed. In later years, more such finds came to light.

Although little detailed evidence regarding the lifestyle or beliefs of the Folsom people is available, it is clear that they were nomadic hunter-gatherers whose primary prey was bison, which they killed with throwing or thrusting spears as well as atlatls, implements that enable a hunter to throw a projectile with up to 150 times the force of a hand-thrown spear. (Experiments with the carcasses of elephants, which are similar to bison in terms of skin thickness, have demonstrated the penetrating power of darts thrown with atlatls.) Most experts believe that Folsom hunters used the terrain to their advantage, driving their prey into arroyos or other natural traps to facilitate the hunt. This appears to have been the case at Wild Horse Arroyo, where the remains of a herd of approximately thirty-two bison were found.

Sometimes Folsom people processed the carcasses of their prey very carefully where the kill occurred; in other cases, such as that of Wild Horse Arroyo, the processing was less thorough, perhaps because of cold weather at the high altitude of nearly 7,000 feet (2,100 meters). Such a kill would have taken at least several days to process thoroughly.

It is clear that the makers of Folsom points were concerned with not only the efficiency of their weapons but also their aesthetic value. Folsom points are remarkably beautiful artifacts characterized by fluting (the removal of large flakes with stone implements), which is accomplished by means of a shaping process called knapping. In the case of Folsom points, the fluting covers the entire length of the points on both sides. Knapping points in this way is an extremely difficult process, and it is likely that even the best Folsom knappers broke many points while shaping them.

Folsom knappers went out of their way to obtain not only hard and practical stone but also beautiful stone with which to make points. In some cases, points were manufactured of stone too fragile to yield usable points, which leads scholars to believe that they were used for ritual purposes. Some of the approximately sixteen points found at Wild Horse Arroyo were made of varieties of stone procured hundreds of miles from the site. Although it is likely that some stone was obtained by trade, it was not uncommon for Folsom people to transport stone hundreds of miles before they knapped it.

Significance

Until the discovery of the Folsom site proved that New Mexico had been populated between 10,900 and 10,000 b.c.e., it was believed that humans had not lived in North America at such an early date. Even after the Folsom discovery, some archaeologists, such as the noted Ales Hrdlicka, believed that Ice Age Americans had never existed. Later, the discovery of the Clovis site in eastern New Mexico proved that North America had been populated even before the Folsom period.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cordell, Linda. Archaeology of the Southwest. 2d ed. San Diego, Calif.: Academic Press, 1984. This book, the best overview of its subject available, contains a concise discussion of the Folsom culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frison, George, and Bruce Bradley. The Fenn Cache: Clovis Weapons and Tools. Santa Fe, N.Mex.: One Horse Land and Cattle Company, 1999. Although this beautifully illustrated book focuses on Clovis artifacts and culture, it sheds much light on the daily life of Paleo-Indians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meltzer, David J., Lawrence C. Todd, and Vance T. Holiday. “The Folsom (Paleo-Indian) Type Site: Past Investigations, Current Studies.” American Antiquity 67, no. 1 (2002). This relatively technical article, which deals with new research into the original Folsom site, provides much information that can be understood by nonspecialist readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tankersley, Kenneth. In Search of Ice Age Americans. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 2002. An entertaining, illustrated examination of both the lives of Ice Age Americans and the history of archaeological discovery in the Southwest, this volume focuses primarily on Clovis culture but also addresses Folsom culture.

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