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
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 
were found at least twenty-six spear points
. These points are now
known as "Folsom Points", and represent the pinnacle of projectile
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
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 .
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
. 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
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.
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
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
. 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
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
, the flute can be seen as a shallow, leaf
shaped, indentation covering nearly the entire face of
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
- improved penetration
- improved blood letting
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
- 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
In summary, the following basic operations were
performed in the eleven steps:
- A suitable source material was very roughly
- A ridge was made on one side outlining the
- 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
- 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 .
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
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
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.
New Archaeological Investigations of a Classic
Paleo-Indian Bison Kill
by David J. Meltzer, Meena Balakrishnan
New Archaeological Investigations of a Classic
Paleo-Indian Bison Kill
by David J. Meltzer, Meena Balakrishnan
2006, page 260
Point Manufacture by Tony Baker
of the Horse
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IMAGES OF KNAPPING EXPERIMENTS AND
Books & Links for Further
David J. Meltzer
FOLSOM TOOLS AND TECHNOLOGY at the
Hanson Site, Wyoming by George C. Frison and Bruce A.