FOLSOM AND THE GRAYBEARDS
Twenty years before Hrdlika’s mockery, a flash flood tore a deep gully into a ranch in the northeast corner of New Mexico, near the hamlet of Folsom. Afterward ranch foreman George McJunkin checked the fences for damage. Walking along the new gully, he spotted several huge bones projecting from its sides. Born a slave before the Civil War, McJunkin had no formal education—he had only learned to read as an adult. But he was an expert horseman, a self-taught violinist, and an amateur geologist, astronomer, and natural historian. He instantly recognized that the bones did not belong to any extant species and hence must be very old. Believing that his discovery was important, he tried over the years to show the bones to local Folsomites. Most spurned his entreaties. Eventually a white blacksmith in a nearby town came, saw, and got equally excited. McJunkin died in 1922. Four years later, the blacksmith persuaded Jesse D. Figgins, head of the Colorado Museum of Natural History, to send someone to Folsom.
Figgins wanted to display a fossil bison in his museum, especially if he could get one of the big varieties that went extinct during the Pleistocene. When he received a favorable report from Folsom, he dispatched a work crew to dig out the bones. Its members quickly stumbled across two artifacts—not crude, Abbott-style arrowheads, but elegantly crafted spear points. They also found that a piece from one of the spear points was pressed into the dirt surrounding a bison bone. Since this type of mammal had last existed thousands of years ago, the spear point and its owner must have been of equivalent antiquity.
The spear points both intrigued and dismayed Figgins. His museum had discovered evidence that the Americas had been inhabited during the Pleistocene, a major scientific coup. But this also put Figgins, who knew little about archaeology, in the crosshairs of Aleš Hrdlika.
Early in 1927 Figgins took the spear points to Washington, D.C. He met both Hrdlika and Holmes, who, to Figgins’s relief, treated him courteously. Hrdlika told Figgins that if more spear points turned up, he should not excavate them, because that would make it difficult for others to view them in their archaeological and geological context. Instead, he should leave them in the ground and ask the experts to supervise their excavation.
Figgins regarded Hrdlika’s words as a friendly suggestion. But according to Meltzer, the Southern Methodist University anthropologist, the great man’s motives were less charitable. Figgins had sent excavation teams to several areas in addition to Folsom, and had also found implements in them. Encouraged by the increasing number of discoveries, Figgins’s estimation of their import was growing almost daily. Indeed, he was now claiming that the artifacts were half a million years old. Half a million years! One can imagine Hrdlika’s disgust—Homo sapiens itself wasn’t thought to be half a million years old. By asking Figgins to unearth any new “discoveries” only in the presence of the scientific elite, Hrdlika hoped to eliminate the next round of quackery before it could take hold.
In August 1927 Figgins’s team at Folsom came across a spear point stuck between two bison ribs. He sent out telegrams. Three renowned scientists promptly traveled to New Mexico and watched Figgins’s team brush away the dirt from the point and extract it from the gully. All three agreed, as they quickly informed Hrdlika, that the discovery admitted only one possible explanation: thousands of years ago, a Pleistocene hunter had speared a bison.
After that, Meltzer told me, “the whole forty-year battle was essentially over. [One of three experts, A. V.] Kidder said, ‘This site is real,’ and that was it.” Another of the experts, Barnum Brown of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, took over the excavations, shouldering Figgins aside. After spending the next summer at Folsom, he introduced the site to the world at a major scientific conference. His speech did not even mention Figgins.
Hrdlika issued his caustic “where are any such things” speech months after learning about Folsom—a disingenuous act. But he never directly challenged the spear points’ antiquity. Until his death in 1943, in fact, he avoided the subject of Folsom, except to remark that the site wasn’t conclusiveproof that the Americas were inhabited during the Pleistocene. “He won every battle but lost the war,” Meltzer said. “Every one of the sites that he discredited was, in fact, not from the Pleistocene. He was completely right about them. And he was right to insist that Figgins excavate the Folsom points in front of experts. But Abbott and the rest of the ‘nutcases’ were right that people came much earlier to the Americas.”