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How Extensive was the Folsom Tradition in North America

Edmund A. Butkus, Crown Point, Indiana

Paleo fluted points have always been held in high esteem and have held a special fascina­tion for both archaeologists and collectors since the first early discoveries in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. Clovis points, the earliest of the fluted types, have the largest distribution range and are found throughout most of North America into Mexico and Central America. There is some variation in form, but this could be due to different time periods or regional adaptations within the Clovis culture. In some locations, Clovis points are not found because of past existing glacial conditions that made certain areas uninhabitable during the Clovis period. From the earliest fluted Clovis points, many localized variations of fluted projectile points developed. This was probably due to the different environmental zones across the Americas that supported various plant and animal life. With a more diverse and changing animal population came the need for more specialized projectile points.

One fluted projectile point that developed from Clovis, on the North American high plains, is the Folsom fluted projectile point. This unique Paleo point has a fairly large distribution range but not as extensive as the earlier Clovis Paleo points. The highest concentration of Folsoms is found on the southwestern and western high plains from Canada to Mexico, then into the Central plains from north to south. Fluted point variations such as Cumberland, Holcombe and others have a more localized distribution pattern east of the Mississippi River. The Folsom Paleo period has been dated to approximately 11,000-10,500 B.P. whereas many of the eastern fluted point variations have not been found in dateable context. The current belief is that the Folsom tradition lasted approximately 500­1000 years. Some later eastern fluted points could be of the same time period as Folsoms. Folsom points have been excavated in the west and southwest in direct association with an extinct form of bison that once flourished in a prairie-grassland-type setting. This type of environment appears to be what attracted bison herds and Folsom hunters to these areas.

In South America, a well-established fish tail projectile point complex developed at about the same time period as the Folsom culture. Two of these fish tail complex sites are identified as Magellan I and El Inga I. The Magellan I site is in a cave known as Fell’s cave shelter located in southern Chile. El Inga I is an open-air site located in the highlands of Ecuador. These sites date roughly in the 11,000-9000 B.P. range. The Fell’s cave fish tail points from Chile were found in association with extinct sloth and horse. There are other sites of this cultural complex located in South and Central America, but little data has been reported. These fish tail projectile points have wide blades that are stemmed with slightly flared ears at the ends and range from 1.5 to 3 inches long. The stems are as much as a third to half the total length of the projectile point. Longer stem lengths may be due to the amount of blade re-sharpening, resulting in shorter blade lengths. The stems exhibit basal edge grinding to dull the edges. Many specimens have short fluting on the bases. These Paleo points are generally referred to as Magellan I or Fell’s Cave fish tail and are made of obsidian and cherts. This is a classic example of regional adaptation of a Paleo projectile point cultural complex from South America, with Central America being the northern-most expansion of this culture.

The writer will concentrate on the Folsom Paleo projectile point with its many distinctive features and large distribution range. Sometimes, the Folsom point is misidentified by collectors and archaeologists. Because of the many unique features of the Folsom projectile point, the author cannot understand why this misclassification occurs. Most Folsom points that were collected in the past are anciently reworked in some manner. Prehistoric re-sharpening and occasional re-basing are forms of rework due to damaging the point in the hunt or damage during manufacture. Rarely are these points found in unused or unaltered condition. Folsom points in pristine condition (unused and unmodified) are long and slender. Unmodified Folsoms generally range from 2 to 3 inches long, with some examples exceeding 3 inches. The Folsom is still much smaller in weight and size than most Clovis points when in unaltered condition. Two classic examples of tip modifications are demonstrated on two Dane County, Wisconsin, Folsoms discussed later in this report. The smaller heavily reworked point has a wider base than the longer specimen, which has only slight tip re-sharpening.

The Folsom projectile point is identified by the leaf shape with a concave base and small basal ears. In most cases, they are fluted on both sides of the blade with wide flutes in relation to the width of the blade. The flutes generally extend almost the full length of the blade. There are a few exceptions where some examples exhibit multiple narrow flutes or flutes that do not extend the full length of the blade. In many specimens, a small nipple-like projection extends out from the middle of the base that was used as a striking platform to produce the flutes. Generally, the base width averages from 16 to 24 mm (25 mm equals one inch), and the widest part of the blade is located past the mid-section toward the tip. The few unaltered Folsom points the writer has studied do not display the widest part of the blade near the tip but closer to the midsection, and these specimens are long and slender. Basal grinding extends approximately one-third the length of the blade from the basal ears upward and also into the basal cavity. Sometimes, the thinness of some examples resulted in fluting only one side. The Folsom has a thin cross section with fine general workmanship and excellent fine retouch chipping along the blade edges inward to the flutes. The Midland projectile point appears to be related to the Folsom lithic complex. It has been found in association with Folsoms and has the same general characteristics as the Folsom point but lacks the flutes. The Midland bases are slightly concave to straight, thus do not have the distinct delicate basal ears that are prevalent on true Folsoms. Most of the Folsom point data such as blade lengths, blade widths and other observations were made from specimens that were reworked in various ways. These projectile point characteristics do not represent the original unaltered Folsom. This may also be true for many other projectile point types. Therefore, average reported blade lengths are smaller than the original Folsom projectile point before any modification resulting from re-sharpening and re-basing. All these observations are the general rule, and there are no doubt exceptions to the norm.

The lithic materials utilized by these Paleo hunters are another fascinating aspect about the Folsom tradition. This culture went to great lengths to procure the most high-grade and colorful materials that were available. From earlier Paleo times, these later Folsom hunters must have located and mentally recorded where these lithic sources were located and visited these sites when convenient, made special procurement trips when needed, or traded with other groups of Paleo hunters. The Folsom culture was probably divided into numerous small bands of extended family groups that lived and hunted together and likely interacted occasionally with other similar bands for exchange of goods and socializing. Some of the most common lithic materials employed were agate, jasper, chalcedony, petrified wood, quartzite and high grades of chert and flint. In rare instances other materials were used, such as obsidian, basalt, and poorer grades of flint and chert. These stone substitutes were probably due to lack of other suitable raw materials while on the hunt. Unlike the Clovis cache discoveries, the writer is not aware of any Folsom caches ever being found.

Evidence from excavated Folsom sites indicates a high failure rate during the manufacturing process of the Folsom projectile point. Most breakage occurred during the fluting stage. This brings up a question: why go through all this work to obtain exotic, high-grade, colorful lithic materials and develop a manufacturing technology to produce this delicate projectile point? Was all this really necessary for successful hunting of bison and whatever other game Folsom man hunted? Could it be that the materials utilized along with the stylized projectile form were ritualistic and were thought to add to a successful hunt? Or was it simply a pride of workmanship and materials by good flint knappers from the various Folsom Paleo groups? Perhaps the answer is a little of both. Sometimes we tend to put too much emphasis into why ancient man did certain things, but I personally think part of the fun of archaeology is to speculate and come up with theories.

The main objective of this report is to demonstrate the large distribution range of the Folsom complex for the relatively short duration of this culture and to initiate further studies to determine the furthermost range of these Paleo hunters in North America. Some Paleo-environmental studies indicate that an extension of the prairie grassland, similar to the western plains that supported Pleistocene bison, may have existed up to and east of the Mississippi River in the Midwest. Late Pleistocene/early Holocene records of bison bone discoveries in the eastern half of North America correspond well with the Folsom points recovered from Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana.

Patrick J. Munson has done a study on Folsom points found in the upper Mississippi River drainage basin and has demonstrated that these Paleo projectile points are identical to the western forms. Munson also indicates that the eastern-most distribution of Folsoms probably had a prairie-like vegetation and bison that resulted in similar adaptations for both the western and eastern Folsom traditions. This grassland extension from the western plains is referred to as a “Prairie Peninsula Vegetational Province” that still existed into the early Historic period in the Midwest. Munson also relates the number of Folsom point discoveries with find locations that are in private and museum collections that were found in states bordering the Mississippi River basin. No data is given on lithic materials utilized. Munson’s tabulation of Folsom points from states within the immediate Mississippi River basin study are as follows: Minnesota-16, Iowa-9, Missouri-3, Wisconsin-10, Illinois-17 and Indiana-1. Munson’s report also indicates that Greg Perino has stated that at least twenty complete and a considerable number of broken Folsom points have been found in the headwaters area of Macoupin Creek in Illinois. These finds were not available at the time of Munson’s study and were not included in his report.

A recent conversation with Jeb Taylor from Buffalo, Wyoming, who has studied many western Paleo points, has shed some light on the possible far western expansion of the Folsom Paleo complex. In the western states Folsom points do not seem to appear west beyond the Snake River into Oregon and Washington. They are found, although somewhat rarely, in Idaho and Nevada. Folsoms seem to be absent in California, probably due to the various mountain range barriers or lack of suitable habitat. In Manitoba, Canada, there have been more Folson points than Clovis points found. The Folsom discoveries are concentrated in the southwestern portion of the province. Early environmental factors could explain the rarity of Clovis points from Manitoba. More western studies with the cooperation of archaeologists and collectors are needed to determine the western, southwestern and northern plains expansion of the Folsom tradition.

From additional Folsom point discoveries that I have personally observed and that were not included in Munson’s report, the writer will tabulate a new total for Folsom projectile points from Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. Data included with these newly reported Folsom points will be recovery locations, length and base width measurements, lithic materials used and other observations. Two Wisconsin Moline chert Folsoms from Dane County have full flutes on both sides of their blades. Both have ancient tip re-sharpening. The larger specimen measures 61 mm long and has a base width of 18 mm. The smaller Folsom measures 42 mm long and has a base width of 19 mm with a slight basal nipple projection present. A third Wisconsin Folsom is of a honey-colored Hixton quartzite. This projectile point was found in the southwestern part of the state and has full flutes on each side of the blade. This specimen measures 69 mm long, has a 19 mm base width and has little if any modification of the blade. These Wisconsin Folsoms represent three newly reported specimens for the state. Two Illinois Folsoms are both made from an off-white chert, probably Burlington. Both specimens exhibit full flutes on each blade surface and have basal nipple projections present. One Folsom is from Troy Grove Township, La Salle County, that measures 57 mm long and has a base width of 19 mm. The second specimen was found near Barrington in Cook County and measures 45 mm long and has a base width of 18 mm. These two Illinois Folsoms were both anciently modified by re-sharpening of the tips and represent two new Folsoms for the Illinois total. Munson has reported a Folsom that was also found in Cook County, Illinois. This specimen is from the McGinnis Slough site, 11-Ck-6, located near Orland Park, a southwest suburb of Chicago, while the other Cook County newly reported Folsom is from Barrington, a suburb located northwest of the city. In addition, there were at least six Clovis points found in the McGinnis Slough area. The most important newly reported find is a basal portion of a classic Folsom that was found on a slight rise in a flat muck-bottom farm field west of Bass Lake in Starke County, Indiana. This specimen is heavily patinated to a brown color. It appears to be a white chert, possibly Burlington. Two other brown, patinated, thin, small lanceolate blade forms were found on another rise in the same farm field. One of the lanceolates has flutes on both sides of the blade. There were also many Archaic points and a few Woodland points found on a total of three muck bottom rises in the farm field. The Starke County Folsom base measures 20 mm wide, and there is a distinct basal nipple projection present. There are wide flutes present on each side of the base that probably extended the full length of the blade. This specimen has the small delicate basal ears that are typically present on classic Folsom points. This single newly reported basal portion specimen represents only the second known Folsom from the state of Indiana. Both Indiana Folsoms are from the northwestern part of the state.

The newly revised Folsom projectile point total for three states east of the Mississippi River are Wisconsin-13, Illinois-19 and Indiana-2. The writer has heard of more Illinois Folsoms from the northern part of the state but has not personally seen these, and, therefore, they are not included in the tabulation. There are also more Folsoms from Wisconsin that the author has seen in the past but could not relocate for study. Presently, there is a fluted point survey being conducted throughout Illinois and into the border states of Wisconsin and Indiana. This study will inevitably increase the Folsom point totals for these states.

In conclusion, the author has made some observations about the Folsom tradition east of the Mississippi River. Folsom projectile points are not as rare as previously thought in the upper Mississippi River drainage basin with the exception of the fringe areas where found. Folsoms are still not as prevalent as Clovis points in the upper Mississippi River drainage basin. This lower concentration of Folsom points in relation to Clovis points can be explained by the shorter duration of the Folsom culture if the established dates from the southwestern states are correct.

Of the small number of Folsom points viewed by the writer in private collections, six total, all are made of high quality lithic materials that were obtained from sources within an approximate 300-mile radius from where the finished points were found. Archaeological Paleo projectile point studies from Illinois and bordering states indicate that the Mississippi Valley Folsom points surveyed are of various midwestern lithic materials. The lithic materials utilized may demonstrate that these Mississippi River basin Folsom Paleo hunters were in this area for a while and knew where to find these midwestern quarry sites rather than having been new comers that transported exotic stone and finished points from the west for later use.

Because of the large geographical range for the Folsom tradition, it is difficult to imagine that this culture was of such a short duration as now believed, 500-1000 years. Hopefully, someday a dateable Folsom site in the upper Mississippi River drainage area will be discovered and will then demonstrate how these dates correspond with the western Folsom sites that have been previously dated. It appears that Indiana was the eastern-most expansion for the Folsom hunters, since there are only two recorded Folsom points from this state. There are probably many more Folsoms from the Mississippi River basin region that were either overlooked by researchers or the provenance and artifacts were lost by previous and present owners of these Folsom projectile points. Other Folsoms were not included because they were not available for study when surveys were made or when reports were written. In reality, there are probably as many unrecorded as recorded specimens. More Folsom points will probably be discovered in the future as a result of construction projects, farming and archaeological digs. Hopefully future archaeological investigations will determine the entire range of the Folsom Paleo hunters and answer more questions about the various aspects of this fascinating bison-hunting culture.

The author would like to thank Ted Koelikamp, Tom Loebel, Jeb Taylor and Gene Hynek for their help and contributions that made this article possible.

Left—Personal find. Shakopee chert Clovis with dimensions similar to that of a Folsom. Length 55mm. Base width 17mm. A single narrow flute extends along the blade edge up from the base on opposite blade sides. Flutes are 21mm and 24mm long. Ancient tip resharpening is evident. Found in Green Garden Township, Will County, Illinois. Center—Previously described Folsom base from Starke County, Indiana. Right—Smaller of the two Dane County, Wisconsin Folsoms previously described.