THE FOLSOM CULTURE PDF Print E-mail
THE FOLSOM CULTURE

By Leslie S. Pfeiffer

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Figure 1. Type site Folsom point in situ.
(Rights Reserved, Image Archives, Denver Museum of
Nature and Science)

Excavations at the Folsom site in Colfax County, New Mexico between 1926-1928 uncovered finely-made fluted points lodged between the ribs of a giant species of bison (Bison bison antiquus) that became extinct at the end of the Pleistocene approximately 10,300 years ago (Fig. 1). This ended a long and bitter debate among archaeologists and paleontologists about when humans first inhabited North America, proving to even the most skeptical scientists that man was here at least 10,000 years ago. We now know that the Clovis culture predated Folsom, and it is logical to assume that Folsom fluting technology evolved from Clovis fluting techniques. Sometime around 10,800 years ago the Folsom culture replaced the Clovis culture over most of the western United States. The climate became cooler and wetter, corresponding to a period known as the Younger Dryas. During this transitional time, modifications in weaponry were a response to increased specialization as bison became a major food source.

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Figure 2. Owl Cave in eastern Idaho.

Folsom sites have been radiocarbon dated to as early as 10,900 BP (before present) at the Hell Gap site in Goshen County, Wyoming, and as late as 10,200 BP at the Hanson site, also in Wyoming. The Folsom Culture lasted approximately 700 years, and covered a broad geographic area that stretched from Owl Cave (Fig. 2) in eastern Idaho, to the Montgomery site in eastern Utah, down through eastern Arizona into northern Mexico, eastward to the Texas-Louisiana border (the Prairie-Eastern Woodlands junction), up through Oklahoma and eastern Arkansas through western Illinois into Wisconsin, and into southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada. The Folsom sites are densest on the High Plains, and reported Folsom points are very rare to the eastern boundaries. There is an interesting cluster of Folsom points that have been found in the area of Knox, Macoupin, and Greene Counties, Illinois (Fig. 3). I have seen probably 20 of these that Greg Perino called Illinois Folsoms. They are all made of the same very high-grade, pure white Burlington chert. This area is just to the north of present-day St. Louis, Missouri, where the Missouri River meets the Mississippi River. Jeb Taylor reports that the Missouri River was highly utilized by the Folsom people in North Dakota, and it is not difficult to imagine a Folsom band traveling the length of the Missouri River on a hunting expedition.

Important Folsom sites include Bobtail Wolf and Big Black in North Dakota; Hanson, Agate Basin, and Hell Gap in Wyoming; Lindenmeier and Stewart's Cattle Guard (in the sand dunes of the San Luis Valley) in Colorado; Cooper in Oklahoma; Folsom and Blackwater Draw in New Mexico; and Lipscomb and Shifting Sands in Texas. There have been a large number of Folsom artifacts found around the playas (dry Pleistocene lake beds) in the Tularosa Basin around El Paso, Texas and extending into Chihuahua, Mexico.

Another important Folsom site is the Mountaineer site in the southern Rocky Mountains at 8600 feet elevation in southwest-central Colorado. This site is important because it proves, along with mountain sites in Middle Park, Colorado, that Folsom people inhabited high elevation sites and did not live just on the plains. At the Mountaineer site, archaeologists to date have found 17 clusters of Folsom artifacts including knapping debitage numbering in the thousands; and there are the remains of an ancient house structure - a shallow circular depression five meters in diameter with rocks up to a hundred pounds in weight placed around the depression. Evidence indicates that gaps around these larger rocks were filled in with smaller rocks and leftover holes were plastered with mud to form a walled structure. The structure was likely finished with 3 upright willow or aspen poles.

Folsom points tend to be smaller, more delicate, and more refined in workmanship than Clovis points. They were fluted over most of the point, and this resulted in a very high failure rate during the fluting process, with estimates ranging from 40-75% of the preforms snapping (Fig. 4). The Folsom tool kit contained unifacial and bifacial knives (with some of these known as ultrathin bifaces), end scrapers in great numbers, spokeshaves, gravers, drills and punches, and burins. There are no ivory artifacts such as those sometimes found with Clovis assemblages, but incised bone discs, a tiny bone bead at the Shifting Sands site in west Texas, and tiny eyed bone needles at sites in Colorado have been found. These eyed needles prove that Folsom people wove fabric, and they undoubtedly had other wood, bone, and fiber goods that were not preserved.

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Figure 4. Broken point fragments from the Shifting Sands site.

Most Folsom bison hunting probably centered around simple ambush kills of a few animals at springs and water holes, but the best evidence we have is at larger, communal kill sites. The numbers of bison found at kill sites range from 5, to 55 at the Lipscomb site. Arroyo (dry, deeply cut creek bed) bison traps were used by Folsom hunters at the Carter/McGee site, the Agate Basin site, and the Cooper site in the Oklahoma Panhandle. (Fig. 5). Here a large male bison skull with a red ochre, lightning-like symbol painted on it was found on top of the bone bed, and is unique evidence for ritual activity by the Folsom hunters. Non-bison remains and food sources found at Folsom sites include duck, deer, pronghorn antelope, rabbit, turtle, wolf, prairie dog, peccary, mountain sheep, marmot, and possibly a camel or llama at the Wasden site in Idaho. Most Folsom sites are near playas, streams, or springs and are near bison kill sites. These camp sites are very small, and population estimates range from five family units (approximately 25 people) to larger temporary numbers for large communal hunts. These camps were used to butcher and process the bison, and then for rearmament and tool maintenance.

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Figure 5. The painted skull and artist reconstruction.

Lithic material acquisition was very important. Likethe Clovis knappers before them, Folsom knappers traveled 4 long distances to obtain the highest quality lithic materials. Dennis Stanford has reported that Flattop chert artifacts found at three Folsom sites in Colorado were made of the only lavender variety of Flattop chert he had ever seen. There was a nearby source of white Flattop chert in large quantities, with the same knapping qualities, that was not used at these sites. Three Texas lithic materials were widely used and transported great distances from their sources, these being Alibates chert and Tecovas chert from the Texas Panhandle, and Edwards Plateau chert from central Texas. Hixton silicified sandstone was used in Wisconsin and Knife River silicified lignite ("Knife River flint") in the northern High Plains. George Frison, at the Clovis and Beyond conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico, reported that he believes that fluting had some ritual component, as there was a significant emphasis on high-grade, colorful lithic material and an apparent insistence on full fluting techniques despite high failure rates during knapping.


Regarding Midland points, the consensus is that they are unfluted Folsom points.  I have seen an Alibates point from west Texas that was fluted to the tip on one side, and the reverse had no fluting and a classic Midland appearance. The Scharbauer site near Midland, Texas is considered the type site for the Midland point.

Leslie has had a life-long interest in archaeology, with his main interest being the Paleo and Early Archaic time periods. He founded the Lone Star State Archaeological Society in 1998, the same year he started the Temple, Texas artifact show. Leslie has served the G.I.R.S. as Treasurer, Co-Editor, member of the Board of Directors, and has written numerous articles for both Prehistoric American and the Central States Archaeological Journal. He is also Chairman of the Board for The Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A & M University, and is a board member for The George Frison Institute at The University of Wyoming.