Folsom Folks: Reconstructing Human History in Colorado’s Gunnison Basin

For the earliest Paleoindian inhabitants of the American Southwest, a bison hunt was anything but a simple bow-hunting trip; it was a large-scale butchering effort, simultaneously chaotic and systematic in its execution. The most critical element of the hunt – the bison jump, or pishkun, a Blackfoot word that translates to “deep blood kettle” – marked the point of mass carnage.

Hunting parties ten thousand years ago strategically led great herds of bison to cliffs atop mesas or at the mouths of arroyos as a hunting tactic. Paleoindian engineers built lanes through which they funneled herds towards the edge of cliffs by assembling huge piles of stone, or cairns. The pursuing hunters raced the herd to the edge, hollering and panting like cowhands at a local 4-H rodeo. Grit and sweat filled the dry high-country air, the individual hunters lost amidst a sea of matted fur. By the time the bison closest to the edge realized their mistake, the collective inertia of the herd pushed those at the front over the cliff’s edge in heaps. The bison’s legs broke on impact, and spearmen swarmed, harvesting meat and hides for the long winter ahead.

Each winter in Southwest Colorado, as the snow accumulated at elevation, bison retreated in droves into Gunnison Basin, one of the largest open spaces in western Colorado. This enormous valley, which is bounded by the San Juan range to the South and Continental Divide to the East, is home to Tenderfoot Mountain, a vast mesa situated in the bottom of the valley. The Folsom people, the ancient winter inhabitants of Tenderfoot Mountain, chased bison along Tenderfoot’s flattened top; and today the remnants of a ten-thousand-year-old bison jump lie along the northern edge of the mesa. Just short of Tenderfoot Mountain’s northern ridge line, a lane of eroded cairns takes a final turn before falling away entirely. This turn was the crux of the operation, orienting the herd finally and inevitably towards its fate as the wooly masses thundered through the sage.

Professor Crossley (in blue) and his geospatial team look on as the drone sails overhead. (PHOTO CREDIT: Franklin Eccher)

On a bluebird day last May I watched as a drone, 200 meters overhead and whirring like a hummingbird, traced the same path as the bison ten thousand years before atop Tenderfoot Mountain. Along the ridge line, Philip Crossley, a professor of geospatial analysis at a nearby university, stood transfixed in the sandy dust, hat brim craned to the sky, watching the device rear its head and race across the patchwork blue. I watched through the lens of my Canon, meandering along behind, the sound of my snapping lens sporadically joining the alien, ambient noise of the drone. The wind picked up for a moment, a great gust spitting ancient sediment into our eyes, and whistled as it swept across the edge of the mesa and down into the vast expanse below. The mountaintop was starkly empty. There wasn’t a tree to be found. The vehicles we came in were the tallest structures for miles, save the telephone lines. Their spindly poles spanned the tabletop in long rows and dropped off the edge as if they were tumbling off of the precipice of the world. As we walked, we noted many perfect squares of exposed bedrock where the soil had been peeled back like sod, revealing the ancient Folsom pit structures underneath.

Instead of Tenderfoot Mountain, “Tenderfoot Mesa” might have been a more appropriate name for the colossal table upon which I stood. From the barren mountaintop, the site’s strategic advantage for the Folsom people was impossible to miss. The whole Gunnison valley unfurls below like a map.

Snow-capped peaks on the horizon on our drive to the top of Tenderfoot Mountain. (PHOTO CREDIT: Franklin Eccher)

Today, the small town of Gunnison lies on the valley floor, where Highway 50 intersects with Main Street before journeying east, the Gunnison River snaking along in parallel like a silver thread. Tufts of clouds hang from the sky for countless miles into the azure sky. Distant peaks appear like jagged teeth on the horizon. Ten millennia ago, a local scanning the basin would have seen waves of bison kicking up the dust below. Today, where the dirt road stretches from the highway to meet the crest of the mesa, a white sign reads: SLOW MOVING ARCHAEOLOGISTS AHEAD!

***

To Gunnison locals Tenderfoot Mountain is known as “Dubya Mountain,” a reference to the giant white “W” painted on its west-facing slope for the nearby Western State Colorado University (“Home of the Mountaineers”). For a few of these locals, namely the archaeologists at Western State who study the Folsom people and the traces of their lives atop Tenderfoot Mountain, the mountain’s flat is better known as the “Mountaineer Site.” Crossley, a professor at Western State, began working with archaeologists and students from his geospatial classes last May to tell a more cohesive story of the Folsom people. With drones and 4K imaging cameras, archaeologists can now analyze the landscape of a site without ever driving a spade into the dirt.

When Mark Stiger, the lead archaeologist on the site, first discovered Mountaineer more than 20 years ago, he couldn’t have anticipated these advancements in technology, or the scope that his work would have outside of the Gunnison Basin. However, Stiger’s vision to build a more comprehensive understanding of the Folsom people has come sharply into focus, spreading throughout the archaeological community of the Southwest and beyond.

 A few months after my first visit to the Mountaineer Site, I attended the Montrose Archaeological Society’s October meeting, just an hour from Gunnison, to get a better sense of Stiger’s personality and approach. On a quiet Wednesday in downtown Montrose, not an empty parking spot could be found at the United Methodist Church. Archaeological interest is strong in Montrose, as in many small towns throughout the Southwest, because of its proximity to places like Tenderfoot Mountain. The crowd’s excitement was palpable. I found a seat towards the back of the rows of fold-out chairs, and watched as a group of visitors gathered next to a local artists’ booth to browse a selection of imitative native art.

Stiger’s figure dominated the church’s community center, an endless white room more suited for a wedding or funeral than an archaeological presentation. The hundred-or-so attendees found their seats as he milled about the front of the room. Stiger has something jovial and endearing about him, with huge hands and high shoulders, a head taller than most everyone in the room. He wore a pair of blue jeans that looked perpetually worn, and thick black suspenders with flames stitched on them in dark orange. A line of older men in flannels and puff-vests waited anxiously for a chance to talk to him. He listened, head cocked and eyebrows raised, deep creases appearing in his wide forehead. A few slides into his presentation, Stiger came to a satellite image of Tenderfoot, with the W flipped upside down to form an M. “M for Mountaineer? Or Mark!” he said with a smile.

“Dubya” Mountain as seen from afar. (PHOTO CREDIT: Jack Lucido, Western State Colorado University)

According to Stiger, Western State first bought the land in the 1930s from the federal government for a single dollar, with President Herbert Hoover signing off on the bill of sale. Stiger joked, “I keep offering them $10 for it, but you know…” However, it was another 60 years before the archaeological value of the land was realized. Power lines already stretched across the mesa when, in 1994, a telecommunications company sought permission to construct cell towers at the top. Stiger and his team were called in to take a cursory look at the site before anything further developed. Before then, the mountaintop was nothing more than a curiosity, as the road to the top dead-ended in an unmarked chain-link fence.

Within a few minutes of first unloading at the site in 1994, Stiger struck it rich. Shallowly buried under ten thousand years of windswept dust, Stiger began finding a particular type of arrowhead associated with the oldest Paleoindian people of the American West, known as a “Folsom point.” Folsom points are some of the most distinct pieces of evidence available to archaeologists. For Stiger, these Folsom findings came in bursts. On Stiger’s first visits in 1994 and 1995, a promising handful of Folsom points indicated the site’s potential. With more and more return visits in the early 2000s, the disturbances of boot treads in the soil pushed unseen artifacts to the surface, tens of thousands of them, all told. These weren’t just Folsom points, either. Stiger uncovered other stone tools such as scrapers for processing hides and sewing needles, along with countless other pieces of worked flakes and debris sloughed off in the tool-making process. 

The mesa was soon populated by countless pink flags, each marking a new find. The story of the Mountaineer Site began to develop, and the broader scientific community recognized Stiger for his work. The Mountaineer Site was featured in American Archaeology, and Discover Magazine named it one of the “Top 100 Science Stories of 2003.” Tenderfoot put Western State on the map for its potential as an archaeological resource.

At the October presentation Stiger’s manner of speech was thorough and matter-of-fact, so much so that his moments of humor seemed to catch the room off guard. His excitement about the work was only barely offset by his attempts at humility. He would add the occasional caveat or apology, but it was obvious from his dirt-caked jeans how deeply Stiger cares about the findings at Mountaineer. At one point he lingered on the words “beautiful biface” when describing the shapes of the stone tools and referred to Mountaineer’s early inhabitants not as Paleoindians or even Folsom people. He called them, rather, as if referring to his neighbors, “Folsom folks.”

***

The archaeological story of Folsom begins in New Mexico, at Wild Horse Arroyo during a late-summer monsoon on the night of August 27th, 1908. George McJunkin, a former Texan slave turned cowboy and amateur naturalist (not to mention expert fiddler), witnessed one of the area’s most severe flash floods in recorded history. The streets of Folsom, the nearest town, became rivers. At least 17 deaths were recorded. After weathering the storm, McJunkin arose the next morning to scout the arroyo for damages and discovered a pile of bison bones, uncovered after the sediment had been eroded away. The bones, once tested, were identified as a species of bison that disappeared during the last Ice Age. Lying among these remains was a leaf-shaped projectile point made of stone. That first “Folsom point,” named so in tribute to the town, was the first clear evidence that indigenous people, the Folsom people, had inhabited the Southwest between 12,000 and 10,000 BC.

In 1924 a group of amateur archaeologists including Claude C. Coffin, Claude’s son, and family friend C.K. Collins, made a similar discovery while looking for arrowheads approximately 300 miles north of Tenderfoot near the Colorado-Wyoming border. The projectile points found at the Lindenmeier site, as it was later named (after landowner William Lindenmeier), were Folsom, just like those found in New Mexico. However, because the Folsom researchers failed to publish their findings for another three years, the name didn’t exist yet. The USGS and the Smithsonian Institute were both notified, and immediately began a large-scale excavation that uncovered charcoal and projectile remains 15 feet below the surface. More sophisticated systems of excavation that used horizontal and vertical measurements as spatial and temporal indicators proved to archaeologists that the findings at Lindenmeier were not temporary hunting camps. The Lindenmeier site, unlike the first Folsom sites, held the first evidence of long-term settlement for Paleoindian people.

The Gunnison Valley at sunset, with Tenderfoot Mountain nestled in the background. (PHOTO CREDIT: Jack Lucido, Western State Colorado University)

While the first key artifact for other Folsom archaeologists might have been the first Folsom projectile point, for Stiger in his work at Tenderfoot it was the hearth. The Lindenmeier site indicated some kind of semi-permanent residence in the high plains, but the assumption was that any journey into the mountains for the Folsom people could have only been a hunting trip for male warriors; the winters were presumed too harsh for any community to survive. However, Stiger’s discovery of a hearth structure buried just underneath the surface of the mesa made it clear that the Mountaineer Site was not simply a hunting camp. Instead of a temporary campfire ring, Stiger uncovered a depression carved into bedrock, the foundation of a larger home built from mud and aspen. Stiger concluded that these were the remains of a community space rooted in stone, a microcosmic remnant of a shared humanity across millennia of human progress. A mile and a half above sea level, atop a lone mountain in the Gunnison Basin, someone had built something permanent.

***

In front of the Montrose Archaeological Society, Stiger was as much of a storyteller as an archaeologist. Listening to him talk, it was clear that he imagined the Folsom people as storytellers too. “These people were out hunting,” he explained. “Some people missed, some people hit. They broke their points when they hit bone, came back to the structure with broken gear, threw it out when they walked in the door. And then they would sit down, and tell lies,” he joked, imagining the Folsom people exaggerating hunting and fishing stories like any other Gunnison local today.

As Stiger explained, projectile points, or arrowheads, often provide the most straightforward evidence of ancient North American inhabitants. That typified kind of evidence painted a picture of Folsom folks solely as male hunter-gatherers. But Tenderfoot, as Stiger found, was not a make-shift encampment for a band of Folsom hunters. What Stiger found at Tenderfoot was undeniably residential.

Writing an archaeological history requires some amount of deductive storytelling, but the evidence is everywhere on the Mountaineer site. Stiger uncovered artifacts that appeared strikingly like stone game pieces and children’s toys, along with bits of bones carved to form sewing needles. Folsom folk, to Stiger, were practically Gunnison locals. Folks that, like anyone else, got bored. Folks that exaggerated hunting stories and played games.

The concentration of Folsom points, scrapers, and bifaces at the Mountaineer Site is so high that Stiger uses contours, like a topographic map, to recreate gathering places. One of those maps superimposes human figures on the landscape, displaying them sitting in one of the scatters of artifacts. Like investigating blood spatter at a crime scene, the distribution of material waste strewn across the mesa suggests Folsom people sitting outside, flaking quartzite, and tossing it over their shoulders.

Stiger hypothesizes that the community structure at Tenderfoot was essential in the winter months. Even by Colorado standards, Gunnison is frigid. Nowadays temperatures dip to -20 degrees Fahrenheit in February. For that reason, Stiger began to draw parallels between the Folsom people at Tenderfoot and the structures used by indigenous people in Siberia. Using the artifact contour maps they developed and aerial views of individual excavation blocks, he led us to imagine how the scattered stones on the mesa once formed small rock igloos, like western Eskimo huts. “Cold in both places, I’ll say,” Stiger told his audience at one point.

The more Stiger elaborated on the Folsom folk, the clearer it became that he was a Gunnison local himself. “On top of Dubya Mountain, lookin’ at all that meat down there, all you gotta do is get ‘em and freeze ‘em.” Freezing the trapped meat wasn’t hard. “Here in Gunnison, I’ll head down to City Market and spend maybe fifty dollars and one cent on one of those big turkeys at Thanksgiving time, or maybe two, and I’ll hang em on the north side of my house and they’ll stay solid till May!” Just last year, when severe winter weather rocked the Gunnison Basin, Channel 5 News came down to Highway 50 to report on the huge numbers of elk wandering the road. The patterns now are the same as they were then: game descends from the peaks to the basin as the landscape freezes over. For the Folsom people, that game was bison. For the Gunnison locals now, that game might be a straggler deer or two on the road, of concern especially when black ice creeps across the highway in the winter nights.

Tenderfoot, unlike many of the Folsom sites discovered before, was not just a kill site. The more Stiger uncovered, the more human the site’s residents became. The way Stiger talked about the Folsom locals of 10,000 B.C. – as his friends and neighbors – made this clear.

***

Because Stiger had not been present at my initial visit in May, and because there is little reason to excavate frozen soil in late fall, I had yet to see Stiger in the field. But interest in the site has rekindled around the state, even outside of archaeological circles, and I found another way to learn more. History Colorado, in coordination with Western State and some of the leading archaeologists in the West, aired a 30-minute documentary in mid-November of 2017 about the Paleoindian people on Rocky Mountain PBS. The film featured, among others, Stiger at work atop Tenderfoot Mountain.

Undergraduate archaeological work in the Mountaineer pit sites as seen from above. (PHOTO CREDIT: Jack Lucido, Western State Colorado University)

Curious to learn more about the film, I spoke with Jack Lucido, a professor at Western State and member of the documentary team, a month prior to the film’s release. From Lucido’s corner office at Western State he shared his impressions of Stiger’s work. “I equate it to panning for gold,” he said. He pored through cuts of drone footage for his contribution to the documentary, and allowed me to watch some of the A and B roll footage from the documentary. The material was a mix of ethereal drone-filmed landscapes: long-exposure weather events over the mesa and panoramas of the valley, interspersed with interviews and undramatized scenes of Stiger in the field.

On camera, Stiger in the field looked exactly like he did at the United Methodist Church, down to the flaming suspenders. The only difference was the broad-brimmed white bucket hat on his head, tilting up towards the sky as he watched the drone flit by overhead. Lucido searched for footage of Stiger at work and pulled up many long cuts of sediment sifting and dusting, as well as aerial views of the open pits with Stiger deeply in focus. Stiger was joined by a team of undergraduates, all on hands and knees working with the material. The work is deliberate, “a bone needle in a haystack,” Stiger had said. The sediment, first troweled into a bucket on-site, is sifted through a window-screen mesh, bagged, taken back to a wet lab on campus, sifted again, and then picked through, grain by grain, for Folsom material. Throughout the footage, Stiger looks on at every step of the process. “Once the digging starts, they’re all digging,” Lucido said.

***

All of the digging at the Mountaineer Site contributes to what Stiger referred to at the Montrose Archaeological Society meeting as an “additive process.” But that additive process, the reconstruction of ten-thousand-year-old history with trowels and pink flags, faces the constant threat of erasure. Since the land’s first purchase in 1930, no one had thought to do archaeological digging so close to home. Tenderfoot’s accessibility to Gunnison and other modern human development has been its biggest asset and its biggest threat. Practically anyone could have driven a vehicle to the top, with no real recourse or knowledge of the site’s value, prior to Stiger’s discovery. The telecommunications companies that expressed interest in the mesa were interested for the same reason as the Folsom people: its vast line of sight.

Stiger and his team, working on a hunch, arrived just in time. Bulldozers had already driven the length of the mountaintop. Stiger later found compromised pit sites under the bulldozer path. Analyzing artifact scatters around a hearth is a delicate process, a balance irreversibly altered by human activity. Some structures have been found almost directly under existing power poles and towers, and others have been excavated so close to the dirt road that the same vehicles shuttling undergraduates to the mesa have worn away at the material they hope to find.

I later spoke on the phone with Colorado State Archaeologist Holly Norton, who also appears in the PBS documentary. I was surprised to learn that the position of State Archaeologist existed at all. “It’s a well-hidden secret in nearly every state,” Norton said.

Sites of archaeological value are finding themselves now, more than ever, at the confluence of myriad political and social wills. In the case of a discovery of archaeological value on private land, the State Archaeological Agency can do little but educate the landowner about the site’s value and hope for voluntary cooperation. As Norton said, “our agency is not always the most forceful.” Due to the patchwork of land ownership and stakeholder values across Colorado, only eight percent of the state’s land area has even been surveyed for archaeological value.

The situation at Tenderfoot is even more complicated. Since the land is owned by the state and managed by the university, officials had already leased portions of it to telecom companies to build towers, with little knowledge of the site’s potential as an archaeological resource. Some of those towers are also owned by the Federal Communications Commission, which, after Stiger’s discovery, initiated a state and federal mandate to protect the Mountaineer Site, forcing both the state and telecom companies to come to an agreement. Those mandates fall under the State Register Act, an act which, in Norton’s view, lacks teeth. In addition to the law, there “has to be political will,” she said.

In the case of the Mountaineer Site, it was exactly that. In 2013, the telecom companies and state came to an agreement: that the towers could remain, as long as no further construction continued on the mesa. The agreement, put forth in the Cultural Resource Management Plan, established a code of conduct for workers heading out to the towers, allowing Stiger’s work at the Mountaineer site to continue uninhibited.

Although Norton’s time is spent mostly in her Denver office, she shared Stiger’s excitement for the project. “I think there’s something about our contemporary imagination that for most people, for non-specialists, it’s a little bit easier for us to understand the day-to-day lives of people who live like us. This whole messy life was happening on top of that mountain.”

***

Over the last century the archaeological practice, too, has changed. When the Coffin family first turned up the remains of ancient mammoths on Lindenmeier’s northern Colorado property, the Smithsonian rolled in as if in search of a second gold rush. The first instinct was to dig, to excavate and accumulate as many artifacts as possible. The same was true of McJunkin, the original Folsom discoverer, and the same is true of any self-proclaimed naturalist stumbling upon an arrowhead. With the profession comes a desire to possess.

That wonder is both what drives archaeological interest and what threatens to erode these archaeological treasures. Over the last century archaeology has become less of a gold rush and more of a hard science, and now it faces the latter’s ethical principles. Is a better human understanding of the landscape worth irreversibly altering it? Archaeologists no longer dig something up just for the sake of uncovering it. As soon as an artifact, especially an organic artifact, becomes exposed, its integrity immediately begins to degrade. Stiger, more so than anyone, is proof that the wonder and excitement of the field remains, even if the days of mass dig sites and tunneling networks are behind him.

Towards the end of his time at the October meeting, Stiger directed our attention once again to the bison jump. In a technical sense, the jump would forever lack its critical juncture: the turn. A driver in a lone pick-up truck, perhaps imagining himself an ancient Folsom warrior, drove the length of the bison jump and parked at the turn, just before the cliff’s edge. Most of the original cairns remain, but those at the turn were driven over and swept away in an act of random archaeological violence. Without a clear turn, the bison’s final approach towards the cliff has been left up to the imagination. Stiger shrugged, downcast but not entirely surprised. “As you excavate it, you destroy it.”

I thought back to that crisp day in May, and how the drone skirted the edge of the bison jump, hesitated, spun, and returned to its plotted base. I remembered pacing the lane of rock cairns, imagining the fear and the power of the bison that once stampeded that same causeway. Where the turn should have been, the path simply dissipated towards the north-facing slope, empty. The Mountaineer project, for Stiger, is both additive and subtractive, a taxing and rewarding feat of preservation practically in his own backyard. In the winter months, when the locals sling fresh game over their porch railings, it isn’t difficult to imagine Folsom folks doing the same. In the icy February dawn, they too might sit at the hearth, flaking away through the annals of geologic time.

Franklin Eccher

Franklin Eccher

Franklin Eccher is a junior Environmental Studies major and Education Studies Scholar at Yale College from Montrose, Colorado. Franklin is pursuing the Environmental Humanities concentration, and is interested in environmental writing and policy in the Mountain West. Franklin works with the "Trout Team" at the Ucross High Plains Stewardship Initiative, in addition to the nation's largest student-run PAC, Students for a New American Politics. In his free time, Franklin climbs, fly fishes, and manages the undergraduate brewing club SayBrew.

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2 Comments

  1. Great article, Frank! We watched the PBS special that you cited. I do wonder, however, why you didn’t mention your father’s work there with his drones and students (Doug Eccher).

    • Franklin Eccher Franklin Eccher says:

      Much appreciated! The work that Peak Academy’s science department has done there is really interesting too, and was the personal connection that tied me to visiting the place. My only reasoning for not mentioning them was to keep the focus on the land and the Paleoindian story but I’m so grateful that Peak academy and Mr. Eccher’s class gave me the opportunity to visit.

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