Anthropology Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences Dedman College Research Faculty News

Why the Famous Folsom Point Isn’t a Smoking Gun


Originally Posted: August 29, 2017


Remember the iconic Folsom point? The one that I said, in my last post, changed the future of archaeology?

To recap: On August 29, 1927, paleontologists from the Colorado Museum of Natural History (renamed the Denver Museum of Nature & Science in 2000) discovered a stone projectile point embedded in the ribs of an extinct form of bison.

After making that discovery in the field, the researchers left the point sitting where it was and immediately sent out a call to their colleagues to come to northeastern New Mexico to see it for themselves. Within two weeks a number of well-known scientists had visited the site, seen the point in position, and established a scientific consensus: Native Americans lived and hunted in North America during the end of the last Ice Age, about 12,000 years ago, far earlier than they were previously thought to be here.

It turns out, though, that the story at the Folsom Site was more complicated than researchers initially believed. So what has changed since 1927? The latest part of the story began 20 years ago.

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.

Folsom site - 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?
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

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. READ MORE