Folsom Culture - Ancient Bison Hunters of the North American Plains

Why did Folsom Hunters Make Such Beautiful Projectile Points?

Base of Folsom Point, from Petrified National Forest
Base of Folsom Point, from Petrified National Forest. Park Ranger

Folsom is the name given to the archaeological sites and isolated finds that are associated with early Paleoindian hunter-gatherers of the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains and American Southwest in North America, between about 13,000-11,900 calendar years ago (cal BP). Folsom as a technology is believed to have developed out of Clovis mammoth hunting strategies in North America, which lasted dated between 13.3-12.8 cal BP.

Folsom sites are differentiated from other Paleoindian hunter-gatherer groups such as Clovis by a specific and distinctive stone tool-making technology. Folsom technology refers to projectile points made with a channel flake down the center on one or both sides, and the lack of a robust blade technology. Clovis people were primarily, but not entirely mammoth hunters, an economy that was much more wide-spread than Folsom, and scholars argue that when the mammoth died off at the beginning of the Younger Dryas period, people in the southern Plains developed a new technology to exploit buffalo: Folsom.

Folsom Technology

A different technology was required because buffalo (or more properly, bison (Bison antiquus)) are faster and weigh much less than elephants (Mammuthus columbi. Extinct forms of adult buffalo weighed in at about 900 kilograms or 1,000 pounds, while elephants reached 8,000 kg (17,600 lbs).

In general terms (Buchanan et al. 2011), the size of a projectile point is associated with the size of the animal killed: points found at bison kill sites are smaller, lighter and a different shape than those found at mammoth kill sites.

Like Clovis points, Folsom points are lanceolate or lozenge-shaped.

Like Clovis points, Folsom were not arrow or spear points but were likely attached to darts and delivered by atlatl throwing sticks. But the main diagnostic feature of Folsom points is the channel flute, a technology that sends flintknappers and regular archaeologists alike (including me) into flights of rapturous admiration.

Experimental archaeology indicates that Folsom projectile points were highly effective. Hunzicker (2008) ran experimental archaeology tests and found that nearly 75% of accurate shots penetrated deep into bovine carcasses despite rib impact. Point replicas used in these experiments sustained minor or no damage, surviving unimpaired for an average of 4.6 shots per point. Most of the damage was restricted to the tip, where it could be resharpened: and the archaeological record shows that resharpening of Folsom points was practiced.

Why Channels?

Legions of archaeologists have investigated the making and sharpening of such tools, including blade length and width, selected source material (Edwards Chert and Knife River Flint) and how and why the points were manufactured and fluted. These legions conclude that the Folsom lanceolate forms points were incredibly well made to start with, but the flintknapper risked the entire project to remove a "channel flake" for the length of the point on both sides, resulting in a remarkably thin profile.

A channel flake is removed by a single very carefully placed blow at the right location and if it misses, the point shatters.

Some archaeologists, such as McDonald, believe that making the flute was such a dangerous and unnecessarily high-risk behavior that it must have had a socio-cultural role in the communities. Contemporaneous Goshen points are basically Folsom points without the fluting, and they seem to be just as successful at killing prey.

Economies

Folsom bison hunter-gatherers lived in small highly mobile groups, traveling large areas of land during their seasonal round. To be successful at living on bison, you have to follow the migration patterns of the herds throughout the plains. Evidence that they did that is the presence of lithic materials transported up to 900 kilometers (560 miles) from their source areas.

Two models of mobility have been suggested for Folsom, but Folsom people probably practiced both in different places at different times of the year. The first is a very high degree of residential mobility, where the entire band moved following the bison. The second model is that of reduced mobility, in which the band would settle down near predictable resources (lithic raw materials, wood, potable water, small game, and plants) and just send out hunting groups.

The Mountaineer Folsom site, located on a mesa-top in Colorado, contained the remains of a rare house associated with Folsom, built of upright poles made of aspen trees set in a tipi-fashion with plant material and daub used to fill the gaps. Slabs of rock were used to anchor the base and lower walls.

Some Folsom Sites

  • Texas: Chispa Creek, Debra L. Friedkin, Hot Tubb, Lake Theo, Lipscomb, Lubbock Lake, Scharbauer, Shifting Sands
  • New Mexico: Blackwater Draw, Folsom, Rio Rancho
  • Oklahoma: Cooper, Jake Bluff, Waugh
  • Colorado: Barger Gulch, Stewart's Cattle Guard, Lindenmeier, Linger, Mountaineer, Reddin
  • Wyoming: Agate Basin, Carter/Kerr-McGee, Hanson, Hell Gap, Rattlesnake Pass
  • Montana: Indian Creek
  • North Dakota: Big Black, Bobtail Wolf, Lake Ilo

The Folsom type site is a bison kill site, in Wild Horse Arroyo near the town of the Folsom, New Mexico. It was famously discovered in 1908 by the African-American cowboy George McJunkins, although stories vary. Folsom was excavated in the 1920s by Jesse Figgins and reinvestigated in the 1990s by Southern Methodist University, led by David Meltzer.

The site has evidence that 32 bison were trapped and killed at Folsom; radiocarbon dates on the bones indicated an average of 10,500 RCYBP.

Sources

Andrews BN, Labelle JM, and Seebach JD. 2008. Spatial Variability in the Folsom Archaeological Record: A Multi-Scalar Approach. American Antiquity 73(3):464-490.

Ballenger JAM, Holliday VT, Kowler AL, Reitze WT, Prasciunas MM, Shane Miller D, and Windingstad JD. 2011. Evidence for Younger Dryas global climate oscillation and human response in the American Southwest. Quaternary International 242(2):502-519.

Bamforth DB. 2011. Origin Stories, Archaeological Evidence, and Postclovis Paleoindian Bison Hunting on the Great Plains. American Antiquity 71(1):24-40.

Bement L, and Carter B. 2010. Jake Bluff: Clovis Bison Hunting on the Southern Plains of North America. American Antiquity 75(4):907-933.

Buchanan B. 2006. An analysis of Folsom projectile point resharpening using quantitative comparisons of form and allometry. Journal of Archaeological Science 33(2):185-199.

Buchanan B, Collard M, Hamilton MJ, and O’Brien MJ. 2011. Points and prey: a quantitative test of the hypothesis that prey size influences early Paleoindian projectile point form. Journal of Archaeological Science 38(4):852-864.

Hunzicker DA. 2008. Folsom Projectile Technology: An Experiment in Design, Effectiveness and Efficiency. Plains Anthropologist 53(207):291-311.

Lyman RL. 2015. Location and Position in Archaeology: Revisiting the Original Association of a Folsom Point with Bison Ribs.

American Antiquity 80(4):732-744.

MacDonald DH. 2010. The Evolution of Folsom Fluting. Plains Anthropologist 55(213):39-54.

Stiger M. 2006. A Folsom structure in the Colorado mountains. American Antiquity 71:321-352.