Monday, March 30, 2009

The "Original" Folsom Point

I have another quick post here based on our visit to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. This little exhibit as you can see, has a wonderful Bison antiquus skull and the tan block of excavated matrix in the case, shown in the shot below.

This block of matrix was excavated by Jesse Figgins of the Museum (then called the Colorado Museum of Natural History) at the Folsom type site in New Mexico in 1927.

One of the greatest questions in American archaeology has always been the timing and method of the peopling of the New World. Back in the 1920s, a strong and vocal faction, led by Ales Hrdlicka of the Smithsonian Institution, held that the Indians hadn't entered this hemisphere until a very late date, perhaps 3,000 years ago. When I was in graduate school, I remember seeing a cartoon of Hrdlicka standing at the Bering Strait with his hands up, trying to keep those future Siberian Americans from crossing over.

Another faction (Jesse Figgins among them) believed that humans had come here much earlier, sometime in the Pleistocene. In those days, before the invention of radiocarbon dating, the only method of proving this would be to find artifacts deposited in association with extinct Pleistocene fauna.

In a well-written piece from Natural History in 1997, Douglas Preston tells the story of how Figgins was alerted to the Folsom site, started work there, and what he did when he found what he was looking for:

"On August 29, 1927, Carl Schwachheim {one of Figgins' crew} found, one of the distinctive Folsom points embedded in matrix between the ribs of a bison {B. antiquus} skeleton. Still smarting from Hrdlicka's criticism, Figgins ordered the find covered up and the next day fired off telegrams to various colleagues around the country. Three preeminent scientists made the arduous trip to the site. They were Barnum Brown, the great paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History; Frank H. H. Roberts, Jr., a brilliant archeologist from the Smithsonian Institution; and Alfred Vincent Kidder, who had established the entire cultural sequence of the Anasazi Indians. The covering was removed, and Brown carefully cleared the matrix from one side of the point without dislodging it. It was a fluted point just like the others. Here, finally, was convincing evidence that human beings had been in the New World for at least 10,000 years. These early bison hunters were named the Folsom people, after the nearby town."

This block of matrix in the picture above proved to be a turning point in the history of North American archaeology. Vitually every textbook on North American prehistory or the history of American archaeology has a photograph of this Folsom point stuck in those bison ribs.

Unfortunately, none of this scientific drama is reflected in the exhibit anywhere. It was quite disappointing. This is arguably the most important scientific breakthrough this Museum has accomplished. Don't they understand this is a Big Deal? Don't they want to toot their own horn?

Maybe I'll write them a letter.


Matt Mullenix said...

Absolutely you should!

Also: if you haven't read Henry's novel The Callings, you'll get a kick out of his Comanches' references to the hunters of the giant bison.

mdmnm said...


You really ought to write them. The display would be much more interesting if it recounted the significance of that particular find. Heck, your post could be the text of the label.