Folsom Man Archaeological Site

The Folsom area is home to one of the most important archaeological sites in North America.  This find changed our thinking about man's early presence on the continent.

After the disastrous flood of 1908, a black cowboy named George McJunkin discovered a cache of fossilized Bison bones protruding from a freshly cut arroyo.  Being a self-educated man of science, George realized that these bones were not those of modern Bison, but were at least fifty percent larger.

The find was not investigated until four years after McJunkin's death, but the discovery would turn the world of archaeology on its head by pushing the presence of man in North America back by at least 5,000 years to 12,000 years before present day.  Amongst the approximately thirty-two Bison antiquus skeletons [1] were found at least twenty-six spear points [2].  These points are now known as "Folsom Points", and represent the pinnacle of projectile point technology.

At least two major digs were performed at the site, each time leaving more to be found by future archaeologists with new technology and theories.  The edge of the dig has never been reached, thus it is expected that more is waiting to be discovered.  It is important to note that the Folsom Man campsite has never been discovered but must surely lie within a few miles of the site of the slaughter.

Other than the projectile points, no evidence of Folsom Man himself has been discovered.  His appearance, clothing, shelter, and tools remain a mystery.  Perhaps more clues will be found in the future; for now only theories can serve to soothe our curiosity.

As for theories, there are as many as there are scientists, and each seems to have his or her own.  The following scenario is merely one of those theories, a good deal of which was drafted by experts based upon the known behavior of tribes who followed in the footsteps of Folsom Man.

The Bison species found at the site are now extinct.  They were fifty percent larger than the modern Bison, which are now often referred to, mistakenly, as Buffalo.  Such an animal would have stood twelve to fifteen feet tall at the shoulder when mature.  Even the modern Bison of today is considered a dangerous animal -- difficult to herd or contain.

Based on research of the life styles and methods employed by various ancient peoples in history, archaeologists have generated some basic theories as to what may have occurred at the Folsom Site:

A band of about 30 prehistoric humans were traversing the area in Fall, most likely headed north to winter in Colorado.  The season was deduced from the fact that yearling animals were among those killed.  They came upon a herd of Bison and proceeded to trap them in an arroyo in preparation for slaughter.  The animals in the rear would have been killed first, trapping the animals in front.  The hunters would most likely have thrust their spears into the animals from the safety of the rim above the arroyo.  It is possible that the spears where thrown, perhaps even with the aid of an atlatl [4].

It is known that Bison cannot be easily herded, especially when the herders are on foot.  They are as likely to stampede over the herder or scatter as to move in the desired direction.  They can, however, be harried.  To achieve this, the herders periodically pop up from behind cover and yell.  They do not harass the prey enough to actually induce motion, rather the animals will generally move away from the annoyance as they graze.  It is likely that this technique would have been used to direct the Bison into the arroyo.

It is often overlooked that North America was devoid of horses as of about 11,000 years before present day.  Horses were not reintroduced until 1493 [5].  Many Native American tribes assimilated the horse so intimately and quickly that it is difficult to believe that it was in done in less than 300 years before the European immigrants began to expand westward in earnest.  The time frame is even less when one takes into consideration the time required for escaped horses to form herds accessible to the Native Americans!

Thus, it is most likely that the tribe was on foot.  This suggests that the camp site must have been close by the kill site.  If the hunters had not already established a camp, they surely must have done so after the kill as it would have taken a few days to process that many carcasses.  It has been suggested that perhaps only the top side of the carcasses may have been butchered in order to get as much meat as quickly as possible.  The meat was probably hung on branches to dry.  It is not known if smoking was employed, but the large quantity in this case would have made that much more difficult.  After drying, the meat would have weighed considerably less and the group would have been able to carry a great deal of it.

Very little else is known about Folsom Man.  It is a mystery as to what tools they might have utilized to butcher and transport the meat, or what type of clothing they wore.  It is unknown whether they had pottery of any type or what foods they ate other than Bison.  If the camp site is ever found, it may unlock some of these mysteries. The one and only bit of direct evidence left behind is the Folsom Point.

The Controversy

Prior to the investigation of the Folsom Site, it was believed that man had only been in North America since approximately 5,000 years before present day (bpd).  While excavating the kill site, projectile points were found embedded between the ribs of the Bison remains.  By carbon dating the bones, a date could then also be assigned to the points.  That date was approximately 12,000 years bpd.

Accepting this new date would require a lot of rethinking in regards to the history of North America.  It was argued that perhaps the points were originally embedded in a higher strata and migrated down to that containing the Bison remains by way of natural ecological processes or perhaps by the burrowing of rodents.

During the original dig, a point was found embedded directly between two ribs.  This entire block of earth, remains, and point were carefully removed as a whole and transported to the Denver Museum of Natural History where it can be viewed to this day [1].  Although this helped to quell the arguments, some dissension can still be heard even now.  Later discoveries such as Clovis man pushed the date for man's arrival back even further, so the argument has become rather moot.

The Folsom Point

Evidence would suggest that the Folsom Points were generally 3 to 5 inches in length.  What made them unique, and technologically advanced, was the presence of a long flute on each side.  In the picture at right [6], the flute can be seen as a shallow, leaf shaped, indentation covering nearly the entire face of the point.

It has taken many years for modern flint knappers to reproduce a Folsom Point.  It is still not for absolute certain which methods were employed by the Folsom Man.  There is also argument as to the purpose of the fluting.

Some of the suggestions regarding the flute purpose are:

  • hafting
  • improved penetration
  • improved blood letting
  • style
  • symbolism

It is believed that the points were lashed into a short stem of less than 5 inches in length.  This stem would have then been inserted into the end of a longer shaft, thus forming a three piece spear.  This construction would certainly lead to frequent loss of the point in the prey, which seems consistent with the number of such found at the Folsom site.

As the manufacture of this point represents a pinnacle of technological prowess, perhaps matched only by the Clovis Point, many people ask why the craft devolved into the much simpler points typically used in the 1800's.  At least two possible answers have presented themselves:

  • the size of prey decreased
  • cost of manufacture vs. efficacy

If a simpler point could do the job, the craft would probably evolve over time towards increased efficiency.

Folsom Point Manufacture

By studying the broken pieces left at sites where the points were being made, much can be learned about the sequence of operations used in the manufacture of the Folsom Points.  While a particular stage in the process can be identified by looking at the broken piece, it cannot be ascertained the exact method used to achieve that stage.

It would appear that there were eleven distinct phases in the creation process.  It is interesting to note that the makers learned exactly which steps were most prone to disaster and performed those steps first, thus avoiding the likely breakage of a nearly finished piece and wasting the time invested.  By counting the number of broken pieces discarded at each stage, researchers have determined the success rate of each step performed.

In summary, the following basic operations were performed in the eleven steps:

  • A suitable source material was very roughly shaped.
  • A ridge was made on one side outlining the flute.
  • A tang was carved at one end.
  • The tang was struck by using an antler as a chisel - placing the point on the tang and striking the other end with a rock or similar - if done properly, a flute insert would be split from the work piece.
  • If the first flute was successful, the process was repeated for the opposite side.  The tang end of the point was shortened so that a new tang could be created properly for that side.
  • If the second flute was successful, the point would be finished: shaped, edged, ears carved at the base.

One aspect of the manufacture which made it advanced was the requirement of "secondary percussion" or a similarly complex method to remove the flutes.  Most other arrowheads are made by striking or pressing with a hard, sharp object such as a deer antler.  When using secondary percussion, an intermediate object, such as a deer antler, is used much as a chisel is used today.  The point of the antler is positioned on the tang and the other end of the antler is struck with a rock or similar.

Several methods have been devised for achieving the fluting.  One of these has been documented in Africa and uses a pad on the end of a long piece of antler.  The point is held in a leather pouch between the knees while the knapper's chest is pressed down on the padded end of the antler, the tip of which is positioned on the tang.  A great deal of pressure can be generated in this manner.

Modern knappers employ many methods to achieve the desired result [7].


Mike Schoonover, November 27, 2010

About This Essay

This treatise is a compilation of verbal stories told by archaeologists who have been present for the annual Folsom Man Site tours, facts from scientific texts, and anecdotes from selected research found on the Internet when that research appears to be both thorough and rigorous.

As archaeology is subject to many differences of opinion, the reader is encouraged to research as many different sources as possible in order to arrive at an independent conclusion.

Many thanks to:

Willard Louden, archaeologist
David Eck, Trust Land Archaeologist with the New Mexico State Land Office
Calvin Smith, archaeologist

I'm sure each would disagree vehemently with some part or other of what I have written -- such is the nature of the beast.


[1] Folsom: New Archaeological Investigations of a Classic Paleo-Indian Bison Kill by David J. Meltzer, Meena Balakrishnan 2006

[2] Folsom: New Archaeological Investigations of a Classic Paleo-Indian Bison Kill by David J. Meltzer, Meena Balakrishnan 2006, page 260

[3] Folsom Point Manufacture by Tony Baker

[4] atlatl

[5] Evolution of the Horse

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Books & Links for Further Education

David J. Meltzer website:

FOLSOM TOOLS AND TECHNOLOGY at the Hanson Site, Wyoming by George C. Frison and Bruce A. Bradley


Folsom Man Archaeological Site Tours

The Folsom Museum sponsors tours of the site each year under the guidance of the New Mexico State Land Office. Visit the museum site for this year's dates: Folsom Museum

Tour Details

The Folsom Man Archaelogical Site is only open to the public a few times each year and all tours are operated under the guidance of the New Mexico State Land Office. A representative of that office is present on all tours hosted by the museum to provide historical, cultural, and archaelogical interpretations of the site.

On each scheduled museum tour date, there are two tours:

  • morning tour leaves from the Folsom Museum at 8:00 AM
  • afternoon tour leaves from the Folsom Museum at 1:00 PM

All participants should plan to arrive at the museum 30 minutes prior to the departure time.

There is no set fee for the tour; donations to the museum are appreciated.

Transportation is NOT provided, although some participants do car-pool to reduce the number of vehicles.

Vehicles should have a high clearance; pick-up trucks, jeeps, and most modern SUV models will suffice. Part of the tour is over two-rut ranch trails.

Please bring a hat, an umbrella, a light weight jacket, and bottled water. Comfortable walking shoes are a must, as you have to walk about 1/4 mile over grassy terrain to reach the site. Leave your sandals, flip-flops, and Crocs at home -- cacti are NOT your friend!

Folsom Man Archaeological Site Dig
image by Abbie Reaves >>larger view

George McJunkin
photographer unknown >>larger view