The Folsom site in retrospect
— Linda S. Cordell


During the summer of 1926, a field crew from the Colorado Museum of Natural History (now the Denver Museum of Natural History), under the supervision of Frank M. Figgens, son of the Curator, J. D. Figgens, excavated two "arrowheads" that were associated with an extinct bison. The find was made east of Raton, just eight miles northwest of Folsom, New Mexico, 8 to 12 ft down a bank of Wild Horse Arroyo, an intermittent tributary of the Cimarron River (Figgens, 1927). After two more seasons of excavation at the site by the Colorado Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History, a total of 19 distinctive projectile points and the remains of 23 bison had been removed (Wormington, 1957). In his report on the geology and paleontology of the Folsom site, Harold J. Cook (1927) noted that the single bison he examined seemed closely related to Bison occidentalis in being larger than modern bison and that "while it is premature to express an opinion as to the exact age of these beds on present evidence ... the writer is of the opinion that this will prove to be a late Pleistocene deposit" (Cook, 1927, p. 244). Presently the bison is classified as Bison antiquus. The "arrow-heads" first described by Figgens (1927) are now considered the most diagnositic artifact of the Folsom complex, an assemblage of stone tools which are the tangible remains of the best known Paleo-Indian (Late Pleistocene American Indian) culture. Folsom sites have been excavated in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Texas and Wyoming as well as in New Mexico. Radiocarbon dates presently available assign Folsom an age of about 10,300 years B.P. (Judge, in press).
The Folsom site holds a deservedly important place in the history of American archeology; however, the site is also famous for the scientific controversy concerning its antiquity. Until the discovery at Folsom, most professional archeologists refused to acknowledge that North America had been inhabited prior to 5,000 B.P. (Agogino and Rovener, 1964; Hillerman, 1971; Stuckenrath, 1964). The Folsom site with its undeniably man-made tools in clear association with Pleistocene bison proved to be a bombshell to anthropologists. The site had to be examined and verified by skeptical archeologists. It was unfortunate that during the first season two point fragments were found in loose fill out of context, and a third fragment, although in matrix surrounding a bison rib, was removed to the laboratory at Denver where its original placement could not be proved. Figgens was annoyed when the first season's results were not generally accepted by archeologists, and during the 1927 season, Figgens was determined to find irrefutable evidence. Fortunately, in that year, when a point was found imbedded in a matrix associated with bison ribs, all work ceased and telegrams were sent to notable archeologists inviting them to examine the find in situ. Among those who responded and were convinced were Frank H. H. Roberts, Jr., Alfred V. Kidder and Earl Morris (Wormington, 1957).
At that time, before the advent of radiocarbon dating or the routine use of precise stratigraphic control, finds of great antiquity were extremely difficult to conclusively prove. This is still a difficult task today. It is worthwhile to evaluate first, the contention that before the discovery at Folsom most archeologists allowed no more than a few thousand years for the presence of man in the Americas; second, the problems encountered in demonstrating great antiquity for any archeological find; and finally, the significance of the Folsom site.

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Recommended Citation:

  1. Cordell, Linda S., 1976, The Folsom site in retrospect, in: Vermejo Park, Ewing, Rodney C.; Kues, Barry S., New Mexico Geological Society, Guidebook, 27th Field Conference, pp. 83-86.

[see guidebook]