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Folsom Site

This was not one of my typical DIY trips to an archaeological site.  No, no, no!  Jeri and I were participants in a field trip offered by the Santa Fe School of Advanced Research (SAR), a truly first class affair.  Great food, accommodations, distinguished lecturers and guides, and  being driven around by others.  A person could get used to this.

SAR, the outfit that ran this trip. If you ever get a chance to go on a SAR trip, grab it. They rock!

So just what is the Folsom Site?

The Folsom Site is a world famous archaeological site located a few miles northwest of the very small town of Folsom, New Mexico, in the far northeast part of the state.  Why is it famous?  Because it changed everything.

In the early 1900’s it was a strongly held belief by mainstream archaeologists that humans had been in the North Americas for only three or four thousand years.  They felt a migration across the Bering Strait was a relatively recent thing.  Remember this was before radiocarbon dating and there was almost no understanding of the ice age dynamics.  Folsom blew that all away.

In August of 1908 a massive Summer thunderstorm hit the Folsom area, dumping in that single storm almost 14 inches of rain on Johnson Mesa.  This in turn flowed toward town in the normally dry Cimarron River, wiping out most structures not on foundations and killing 18 people.

A few days after the storm a ranch hand named George McJunkin from the Crowfoot Ranch was out inspecting the fence lines for storm damage near the Dead Horse Arroyo, one of the tributaries of the Cimarron.  He noticed the arroyo had been massively and deeply scoured by the storm, and in one area a jumble of bones were exposed. To McJunkin, they looked odd, like Bison bones, but bigger.  50% bigger.  Climbing down into the arroyo, he found mounds of stone flakes as well as worked stone lance points of a very unusual type.

Had it been any ranch hand other than McJunkin, the story would have ended there.  But McJunkin was far from ordinary.  Born a black slave, he was self schooled in natural history and science.  He realized this was something interesting.

Unfortunately, he was the only one.  It was years before he could get anyone else interested in his find.  What could a black cowboy possibly know about archaeology?  After ten years, he and the ranch owner’s son did some excavating at the arroyo and exposed more bones and projectile points.  It then took until 1926 before a “real” archaeologist (or what weakly passed for one in those days) got to the site, Jesse Figgins.

George McJunkin’s grave in the Folsom cemetery. McJunkin died before the importance of his find became known.

Figgins didn’t have the most sterling of reputations and his claims of human made points mixed in with obviously ancient bones were rejected by the grand old men of archaeology of the time.  In their minds the points clearly came from another soil strata and were inadvertently mixed with the Bison bones during the excavation.  Eventually Figgins unearthed a Bison rib set with a stone lance blade embedded in it.  He stopped work and telegraphed a host of distinguished archaeologists to visit the site and see for themselves.  That they did, and it became clear that something revolutionary had been found and the presence of humans in North America was pushed back thousands of years.  The projectile points found were so unique and distinctive that they became a marker for the culture that existed about 10,000 years ago (Sorry ‘bout that, Creationists) and became known as “Folsom Points”, product of the “Folsom Culture”.

The actual Folsom point embedded with Bison ribs from 1927.

By 1928 Figgins’ work was done and the site abandoned.  Figgins himself said that there was nothing left at the site, that they got it all.  Turns out Figgins said that about all his sites to discourage others from following in his footsteps and upstaging him.  The site eventually moved out of private ownership and about 10 acres of it became State of New Mexico Trust land.

Now bear in mind that archaeology practices of the 1920s, as compared to modern archaeological techniques, were probably similar to a comparison of medical practices between the 1920s and today.  In summary, it sort of sucked.  So while data was recovered from the dig in the 1920s it was haphazard and left many questions unanswered.

And there it all sat until 1997 until Dr. David Meltzer of the Southern Methodist University decided it might be useful to revisit the site, to see if anything was left there.  Turned out there was, and he worked the site for several years making extensive discoveries.  Oh, and Dr. Meltzer?  He was our guide to the Folsom Site on this SAR field trip.  It doesn’t get any better than that.

Dr. David Meltzer explaining the Folsom Site layout to the rest of us. We actually understood some of it.

So what happened at Folsom?

As best as can be reconstructed from the evidence unearthed to date, about 10,500 years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene on a Fall day, a band of hunter-gatherers came across a herd of Bison.  Big, bad-ass Bison that make today’s Bison look like Shetland ponies.  So how do you prevail over such creatures knowing your only weaponry is sharp stones on the end of sticks?  Well, we humans are clever and sneaky creatures.

The group slowly and cautiously coaxed the herd up a swale in the landscape.  The Bison, not having very good vision, didn’t notice it was getting narrower.  At some point the Folsom folks probably initiated a stampede, and the Bison went charging up the arroyo.  Finally the Bison hit a spot in the arroyo that was too narrow to continue and far too high to get out.  Not to mention the dozens of fellow Bisons cramming their way up your butt.  What’s worse, there were all these guys with the aforementioned sharp stones on sticks above them, shoving said stones well into the Bison.

Based upon a tally of assorted Bison bits recovered by archaeologists, the Folsom folk killed and butchered 32 Bison.  That is a serious amount of meat, hundreds of pounds, far too much to just carry off.  One would expect the hunters to have set up a camp nearby while the meat processing was being done, but to date none has been found.  At this site, beyond the finely crafted lance points found among all the bones, no trace of the Folsom folk has yet been found.

Overview of the Folsom Site, backfilled excavation areas are in center, and to left of oak grove.

Bottom of Wild Horse Arroyo approaching a choke point.

Typical arroyo choke point. This is about 4 feet wide. Bad for Bison. Good for archaeology.

David Eck, archaeologist for the State of New Mexico on top of Meltzer’s excavated and backfilled site.

David Eck explains details at bottom of Wild Horse Arroyo.