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Sapiens: Why the Famous Folsom Point Isn’t a Smoking Gun

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?

The research into the arrival of how and when people first arrived in North America by noted SMU archaeologist David J. Meltzer was covered in the online anthropology magazine Sapiens in a column by Stephen E. Nash, science historian and archaeologist at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

The article, Why the Famous Folsom Point Isn’t a Smoking Gun, published Aug. 29, 2017.

Meltzer, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and Henderson-Morrison Professor of Prehistory in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, conducts original research into the origins, antiquity and adaptations of the first Americans.

Paleoindians colonized the North American continent at the end of the Ice Age. Meltzer focuses on how those hunter-gatherers met the challenges of moving across and adapting to the vast, ecologically diverse landscape of Late Glacial North America during a time of significant climate change.

Meltzer’s archaeology and history research has been supported by grants from the National Geographic Society, the National Science Foundation, The Potts and Sibley Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution. In 1996, he received a research endowment from Joseph and Ruth Cramer to establish the Quest Archaeological Research Program at SMU, which will support in perpetuity research on the earliest occupants of North America.

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By Stephen E. Nash

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.

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.

Read the full story.

By Margaret Allen

Senior research writer, SMU Public Affairs