The evolving story of the Folsom spear point

The dating is better, but it is now less clear if this famous artifact killed the bison it was found in

This story, modified from material put up in two parts, one dealing with the discovery of the famous site and the next with its implications, originally appeared in Sapiens, and is reproduced here with permission.

Stephen E Nash

A Folsom spear point found between the ribs of a bison

A Folsom spear point was discovered between the ribs of an extinct species of bison—but was it really proof that humans had killed the animal? E-51/DMNS

The Folsom spear point, which was excavated in 1927 near the small town of Folsom, New Mexico, is one of the most famous artifacts in North American archaeology, and for good reason: It was found in direct association with the bones of an extinct form of Ice Age bison. The Folsom point therefore demonstrated conclusively, and for the first time, that human beings were in North America during the last Ice Age—thousands of years earlier than previously thought.

The Folsom discovery marked the end of a long series of sometimes serendipitous, sometimes deliberate actions by an intriguing cast of characters. As such, it helps us understand that archaeology — like most fields of study — has very few “Eureka!” moments in which a brilliant sage comes upon an insight that suddenly changes the world. Instead, archaeology is cumulative, often slow, and painstaking. And while an individual artifact can indeed be important, it’s context (where it was found) and association (what it was found with) are often more important than the object itself.

The story begins in 1908. In the late afternoon heat of August 27, an unusually strong summer thunderstorm dropped 13 inches of rain — 75 percent of the yearly average — on Johnson Mesa, northwest of Folsom. The resulting flash flood swept through the town and the usually dry drainages in the vicinity. In so doing, it exposed buried features and artifacts that hadn’t seen the light of day in thousands of years.

A local cowboy named George McJunkin soon went out to inspect and repair fence lines broken by the flood. McJunkin was a fascinating character. Born into slavery in Midway, Texas, in 1851, he migrated west in 1868 to escape his awful past, and in Folsom he found a welcoming community. Though effectively self-taught as a naturalist, McJunkin maintained a collection of artifacts and specimens amassed during the long hours he spent chasing cattle. While surveying along Wild Horse Arroyo after the flash flood in 1908, he noticed large bones eroding out of a newly exposed wall at the base of the arroyo some 10 feet below the surface.

A 1908 flash flood exposed the archaeological site near Folsom, New Mexico

A flash flood in 1908 exposed this profoundly important archaeological site near Folsom, New Mexico. Image, courtesy DMNS

For 14 years after he made the discovery — until his death in 1922 — McJunkin either kept the Folsom Site a secret or (more likely) was unable to convince anyone of its scientific importance. But on December 10, 1922, Carl Schwachheim, a naturalist and collector from nearby Raton, visited the Folsom Site with local banker Fred Howarth. Both must have known McJunkin; the community is very small even today. Perhaps McJunkin’s death had inspired them to finally visit the hard-to-reach site.

On January 25, 1926, Schwachheim and Howarth made a business trip to Denver. While there, they stopped by the Colorado Museum of Natural History (now the Denver Museum of Nature & Science [DMNS], where I work) to discuss the site and its contents with scientific experts. First they met director Jesse Dade Figgins, who told them to send bones to the museum for conclusive identification. Once they did so several weeks later, honorary curator of paleontology Howard Cook confirmed that the bones were from an extinct form of Ice Age bison, Bison antiquus. Cook’s identification and Figgins’ authorization finally set institutional and scientific wheels in motion.

Cook and Figgins went to the Folsom Site in early spring of 1926 to develop a plan of action; Schwachheim’s excavation team entered the field in May. Their goal was to secure an exhibition-quality bison skeleton for the museum—they had no way (yet) of knowing that the site contained evidence of ancient humans. Indeed, most scientific experts at the time thought that Native Americans had been in North America for only a few thousand years.

In mid-July, Schwachheim’s team discovered the base of a broken stone spear point. Unfortunately, they found it in a pile of the soil that had been removed by mule teams in order to gain access to the bone bed. As such, they could not prove it was directly associated with Ice Age mammals.

When told of the discovery, Figgins immediately recognized its scientific importance and potential. He told Schwachheim in no uncertain terms: If the team finds other points in the bone bed they should be left exactly where they are so that the deposit can be examined by specialists. Disappointingly, none were discovered that year.

Schwachheim’s team returned to the site in 1927 with the exact same directive: Newly discovered points were to be left precisely where they were found until specialists could be called in. On August 29, the moment of truth finally arrived: They exposed a complete spear point between two bison ribs.

According to plan, Schwachheim telegrammed Figgins, who then contacted prominent archaeologists to announce the discovery and ask them to come see, and hopefully confirm, for themselves. Serendipitously, two of those archaeologists, though based on the East Coast, were already in Pecos, New Mexico—only 200 miles away from Folsom.

The wait, though less than a week in duration, must’ve been excruciating for Schwachheim and his team. They had worked for months under difficult conditions and now had to wait for specialists to confirm what they already knew—they had made a major scientific discovery. Over the next several weeks Alfred Vincent Kidder, Frank H.H. Roberts, and other specialists confirmed the initial field assessment: The point was indeed directly associated with the bison, proving that Native Americans had hunted large mammals during the last Ice Age. That Folsom point instantly became an icon, and it remains prominently on display at DMNS, still in its original sediment block.

Barnum Brown and Carl Schwachheim in Folsom, New Mexico.

Barnum Brown and Carl Schwachheim in Folsom, New Mexico. Brown and Schwachheim are sitting at the site of the famous arrowhead. Photo, Jesse Dade Figgins 1927

The now iconic Folsom point was in fact the third spear point found at the Folsom Site. In addition to the broken point found in the soil pile in July 1926, Schwachheim’s team discovered a second point on July 14, 1927. For some reason, they ignored Figgins’ explicit directive and sent it, encased in a large block of sediment, to Denver. Figgins confirmed their discovery in the lab, but he knew from personal experience that they still needed a point in the field in order to convince the experts.

In 1924, Figgins had been involved in a remarkably similar project at the Lone Wolf Creek Site in central Texas. He had discovered Stone Age spear points in the laboratory, in sediment blocks that had been sent to the museum, just like the second point from Folsom. But he never found a point in the field at Lone Wolf Creek, which is why he was so adamant in his directive to Schwachheim’s team. Figgins must have been infuriated when their sediment block arrived in Denver in 1927. But he, like any good scientist, was patient, discerning, and critical.

The expert in-field confirmation that Figgins sought for so long, and eventually obtained, is the sole reason that the term “Folsom” is now given to a site, an artifact type, and a world-famous archaeological culture. By comparison, the Lone Wolf Creek Site is unknown, has no eponymous artifact type, and there is no archaeological culture bearing its name. Such is the nature of science.

Although the discovery and confirmation chapters of the Folsom story took place in both the field and the laboratory, it did not include research on museum collections. And it failed to answer some (now) basic archaeological questions: How old was the site, in years? How many animals were killed? Where did the raw material for the Folsom points come from? The Folsom story is still being written through the use of new analytical techniques and the reanalysis of archives and artifacts curated by museums.

In 1997, David Meltzer, an archaeologist at Southern Methodist University who studies “Paleoindians,” the earliest inhabitants of North America, began a three-year project at the Folsom Site to reassess and re-excavate the site using modern tools and techniques—which were not available in the 1920s. His goal was to better understand how, and under what conditions, the Folsom Site formed. Meltzer and his team used now-standard excavation-control techniques to record their findings in three-dimensional space and to determine if any unexcavated areas of the site could be found. In so doing, they hoped to find evidence of the Paleoindian campsite that might have been associated with the main bison-kill and butchering site.

As a result of Meltzer’s research, we now know that the bison-kill event occurred in the fall. How do we know? Bison reproduce, give birth, and grow up on a reasonably predictable annual cycle. Meltzer and his colleagues analyzed dental eruption patterns on excavated bison teeth to determine the season of the kill.

The archaeologists also determined that Folsom hunters were experts at their job, having systematically killed and butchered at least 32 bison at the site.

Meltzer and his team never did find an ancient campsite, however. It may be further up or down Wild Horse Arroyo buried deep in the sediments. It may have already been destroyed. Or it simply may never have been there at all, which would suggest that the group responsible for creating the Folsom Site may have been a hunting and processing party and not the full extended family or social group.

Based on stone-sourcing studies, Meltzer and his team determined that the Folsom Site was but one stop on a wide-ranging itinerary of a nomadic people. The raw materials used to make the iconic Folsom points come from sources located hundreds of miles away from the site, including the Texas Panhandle and northeastern Colorado. Folsom people were highly mobile.

After years of painstaking analysis of museum collections and archives, Meltzer and his team found that up to two dozen Folsom points have been recovered from the site over the years; yet due to poor excavation techniques and site control, the specific find location is known for only three.

As with any project, professionals talk about their work.

At some point, Meltzer mentioned his work at Folsom to fellow archaeologist R. Lee Lyman of the University of Missouri. Lyman is a zooarchaeologist, which means he studies the animal bones that we often find in large quantities at archaeological sites.

Lyman had been aware of the original Folsom discovery since graduate school decades before.Unlike other archaeologists, Lyman has a keen eye for animal bones, and he had long been troubled by what he saw from Folsom. Something about the image of the Folsom point embedded between the ribs of an ancient bison troubled him.

One look at the bison ribs that sandwiched the famous Folsom point made zooarchaeologist R. Lee Lyman realize that they were originally from opposite sides of the animal’s rib cage. R. Lee Lyman

fir When he finally took time to have a detailed look at the photograph, it hit him like a ton of bricks: Not only are the two ribs from different sides of the animal, they are positioned in the opposite direction of one another! As a result, while we can reasonably say that the Folsom point was found “embedded between” the ribs of a skeletal Ice Age bison, we can’t reasonably say that it was ever “embedded in” the rib cage of the living animal.

It’s a subtle but important distinction. Lyman’s research doesn’t challenge the original interpretation of the Folsom find—he is quick to point out that the Ice Age bones and the Folsom point are still in direct association. His insight, however, means that the iconic Folsom point is less of a smoking gun than previously thought. It appears that our initial fixation on hunting blinded us to the subtleties of this famous archaeological discovery for decades.
What about the age of Folsom points? Do we know how old they are?

When the Folsom Site was originally discovered, its age could not be accurately determined. Until 1949, archaeologists had no reliable dating techniques for Ice Age sites. For all they knew, Folsom could be 10,000, 20,000, or 30,000 years old.

Radiocarbon dating takes advantage of the fact that all living things have radioactive carbon in their tissues and bones. When a plant or animal dies, the radioactive carbon decays at a known rate, called its half-life. (After 5,730 years, half its original radioactive carbon will be left. After another 5,730 years, one-quarter will be left, and so on.) If scientists can accurately measure the amount of radioactive carbon left in an artifact (a bone or a piece of charcoal, for example), there is a relatively simple calculation to determine how long ago the organism died.

In 2016, University of Wyoming archaeologist Todd Surovell and his colleagues analyzed a number of radiocarbon dates to determine that Folsom points, which have now been found over much of North America, were made for some 400 years from about 12,600 years ago to about 12,200 years ago. Folsom points therefore represent a long-lasting and successful adaptation to a challenging Ice Age environment.

It’s good to remember that the original Folsom Site excavation, which occurred 90 years ago, was limited in both scope and technique. In scope, it had two aims: to recover exhibition-quality Ice Age bison skeletons to exhibit in Denver and to establish the direct association, and therefore historical coexistence, of Ice Age bison and Native Americans.

Today, archaeology is a truly multidisciplinary science that is far more advanced than the archaeology of the 1920s. We now use sophisticated excavation-control techniques. We screen the dirt as we dig. We collect every artifact, not just the aesthetically appealing ones. And we have many analytical techniques to use in the lab, after the digging is done.

Nine decades after the original Folsom excavation team labored in the hot summer sun of northeastern New Mexico, recent research like that conducted by Meltzer, Lyman, Surovell, and others continues to shed new light on our understanding of ancient America.

Frankly, the story just keeps getting better and better.

Stephen E. Nash is a historian of science and an archaeologist at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. He studies a wide range of subjects, including dendrochronology (tree-ring dating), the history of museums, the archaeology of west-central New Mexico, and Russian gem-carving sculptures by Vasily Konovalenko. Nash has published numerous books, most recently Stories in Stone: The Enchanted Gem-Carving Sculptures of Vasily Konovalenko and An Anthropologist’s Arrival: A Memoir. He lives in Denver with his wife and three boys. Follow him on Twitter @nash_dr.

Images included with permission from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS)