Folsom Site, NM


David J. Meltzer

            The Folsom site, in Colfax County, New Mexico, is one of the most widely known archaeological localities in North America. It is routinely mentioned in archaeological texts, regularly appears on maps of notable American sites and, of course, served historically as the type locality for the Folsom Paleoindian period – a slice of time and a distinctive archaeological culture dating from around 10,900 to around 10,200 years ago. Folsom is on the National Register of Historic Places, it is a National Historic Landmark, and it is a New Mexico State Monument.

            All this is so because excavations there by the (then) Colorado Museum of Natural History between in 1926-1927, and jointly by the Colorado and American Museums of Natural History in 1928, uncovered finely made fluted projectile points – Folsom points – lodged between the ribs of a species of bison that went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene. That these animals were hunted at Folsom demonstrated for the first time and after decades of bitter controversy that American prehistory began at least in late Pleistocene times, bringing to an end (at least temporarily), the longstanding dispute over human antiquity in America.

            But while Folsom is one of the best known sites in American archaeology, it is also one of the least known, scientifically. The major purpose of the 1920s excavation was to recover bison skeletons for museum display, and once the site’s archaeological significance became known, to document the association of the artifacts with the bison skeletons, and determine the site’s age. That was done well.

            As the decades passed, our knowledge of Folsom Paleoindians grew considerably with the discovery on the Plains of dozens of other sites of the same age and cultural tradition. Yet, our knowledge of the type site lagged behind, largely because of the narrow goals of the original excavations, the field and analytical methods in place at the time, and the few publications (many of which were merely abstracts or discussion comments) that ultimately emerged from that earlier work. Indeed, the articles by Harold Cook and Jesse Figgins of the Colorado Museum that are routinely cited from that earlier work were largely polemical pieces, written before any projectile points had been found in situ, and with an eye on several other sites that the authors felt would provide more secure evidence for a Pleistocene human antiquity than Folsom.

            As a result, basic questions about the Folsom site’s geological history and stratigraphy, its age, the environment at the time of the occupation, how thoroughly and in what fashion Folsom hunters butchered the animals, the scale and extent of their settlement mobility, or how long they may have lingered at the site remained unanswered. In effect, the Folsom type site revealed little about Folsom period adaptations. That situation was partly rectified in the 1970s in work done by Adrienne Anderson (then a doctoral candidate at the University of Colorado) and C. Vance Haynes (University of Arizona) under the rubric of the Folsom Ecology Project, but a detailed investigation of the site, and particularly the area of the Paleoindian bonebed, had not been undertaken since crews from the American Museum of Natural History left in 1928.

            In an effort to enhance our understanding of the site, an interdisciplinary field project including intensive excavations and site coring & augering was initiated under the auspices of the QUEST program at Folsom in 1997, and continued over portions of the 1998 and 1999 field seasons. The work, which also included analyses of archival materials and museum collections of archaeological remains from the 1920s, focused on several issues: the geology, stratigraphic history, and geochronology of the site; the paleoenvironmental setting of the site at the time of the Paleoindian occupation; the structure, scale, and taphonomic history of the bonebed; and, of course, the Paleoindian activities on site, and what the kill area might reveal of bison use and exploitation, butchering and processing, artifact technology and variability, and any other additional activities on site.

            The results of this research have appeared in a series of articles, and are the subject of a volume that will be published by the University of California Press, under the title of FOLSOM: new investigations of a classic Paleoindian bison kill. In the meantime, articles in American Antiquity (2002) and Quaternary Research (2005) fill in some of the archaeological and paleoclimatic details on this historically-important Late Glacial site. What follows comes from the abstract of the American Antiquity paper:

            The preliminary results of the QUEST research show that all excavations to date have been in the kill area, which took place in a small and relatively shallow tributary to the Pleistocene paleovalley of Wild Horse Arroyo as well as in the paleovalley itself. Preliminary butchering of ~32 Bison antiquus took place near where the animals were dropped. The kill area is dominated by low-utility bone elements and broken projectile points; high utility bones and tools for processing meat and hides are rare or absent, and either occur in another, as of yet undiscovered area of the site, or altogether off-site. Faunal remains are generally in excellent condition. The bison remains in the tributary are mostly in primary context, underwent rapid burial beneath fine-grained (dominantly Aeolian) sediments, which in turn were subsequently armored by a shingle shale; those in the ancient paleo-valley experienced post-depositional transport and re-deposition. The small lithic assemblage is dominated by projectile points and comprised of material mostly from two sources in the Texas panhandle, several hundred kilometers southeast of the site. It also includes stone obtained from sources at comparable distances north and northwest of the site. A series of radiocarbon ages are available for the stratigraphic units, nearly all from charcoal or non-cultural origins; radiocarbon dates on bison bone put the age of the kill at 10,500 B.P.