A hidden figure in North American archeology

AAs a historian of science, I am interested in determining who gets the credit for scientific discoveries and why. Unfortunately, credit often goes to the powerful and connected, not the people who actually do the work. Discrimination based on gender, race, status and age often play a role in these narratives.

EHowever, examples of scientific injustice are finally entering the public consciousness. A well-known example is the 2016 Hollywood film hidden numbers. It tells the story of Katherine G. Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, three African-American mathematicians who were instrumental in the success of the Cold War space program of the 1960s, but who did not get the credit they deserved.

JJanuary 22, 2022 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of George McJunkin, an African-American cowboy from northeastern New Mexico in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

OWhy is the anniversary of McJunkin’s death worth celebrating? Because he discovered what became known as the Folsom site, an ancient bison bone bed where scientists came to accept the idea that Native Americans lived in North America during the last ice age – thousands of years earlier than most scientists then thought. McJunkin is also important to many black people today, as one of many historical figures to finally be recognized for his countless contributions to science, politics and other disciplines over the centuries. In 2019, George McJunkin was inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s Hall of Great Westerners.

George McJunkin, a self-taught naturalist, found many ancient stone tools, ceramics, and animal bones while working in New Mexico. Kokopelli-UK/Wikimedia Commons

BBut what exactly did George McJunkin discover? A quick Google search for “George McJunkin” yields dozens of articles and books, and their statements range from vague to contradictory.

Many, like a National Park Service pamphlet, credits him with making “an incredible discovery that forever changed the world of North American archaeology.” A recent story in science for the people states, “McJunkin made a pivotal discovery that caused an archaeological paradigm shift worthy of being celebrated as a ‘scientific revolution.’ A story from the Arkansas Archeological Survey suggests that McJunkin found man-made artifacts at the Folsom site. Others give McJunkin credit for discovering the Folsom site while glossing over whether he knew it contained evidence of ancient humans.

JTo paraphrase the famous question of the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, it is instructive to establish what McJunkin knew and when he knew it. Only then can we fully appreciate it. Only then can we do full justice to his scientific legacy.

gGeorge McJunkin was a remarkable man. He was born on January 9, 1851 in East Texas. A slave until the end of the Civil War in 1868, he moved to New Mexico to begin a new life as a free man and lived there for more than half a century. He was a champion cowboy, an outstanding ranch manager, a self-taught reader and naturalist, and a collector of ancient stone tools, ceramics, animal bones, and other interesting artifacts he found while working.

On August 27, 1908, when McJunkin was manager of Crowfoot Ranch, an unusually strong summer thunderstorm dropped 13 inches of rain on Johnson Mesa, several miles northwest and upriver of what we now call the site of Folsom. A flash flood swept through the area, wreaking havoc and knocking down arroyos.

They understood why McJunkin was excited: the bones were huge and unlike any modern animal.After the storm, McJunkin ventured out to repair broken fences. He noticed large bones protruding from the newly eroded base of Wild Horse Arroyo. Using his knowledge of animals and natural history, McJunkin determined that the bones belonged to bison much larger than any modern bison he had encountered. He picked up a few bones and brought them back to his hut, where they took pride of place on a mantle.

FFrom there until his death, a period of nearly 14 years, McJunkin tried to bring friends and associates to view the site. But none came. The trip required an arduous two-day horseback trek that most didn’t want to endure, and few, if any, locals had cars.

JIn 1922, Carl Schwachheim, a blacksmith and amateur naturalist from Raton, New Mexico, whom McJunkin had told about the bones, convinced banker and car owner Fred Howarth to make the trip. On December 10, 1922, nearly a year after McJunkin’s death, the two traveled to the Folsom site. They immediately understood why McJunkin was so excited: the bones were huge and unlike any modern animal.

JTo learn more about the bones, on January 25, 1926, Schwachheim and Howarth met with Jesse Dade Figgins, the director of the Colorado Museum of Natural History (CMNH) in Denver. Several weeks later, CMNH Honorary Curator of Palaeontology Howard Cook confirmed that the bones were those of ancient bison, an extinct Ice Age bison. Figgins immediately hired his museum (now the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, my current employer) to continue work on the site.

EExcavations at the Folsom site began in May 1926. Everyone involved initially believed it was a paleontological dig, not an archaeological dig looking for artifacts made by the ‘man. The team’s charge was to seek out reasonably complete and intact skeletons of Ice Age mammals for display at the museum.

JThat said, Figgins had long been interested in the scientific problem of ancient humans in North America, and he told Howarth and Schwachheim to keep their eyes peeled for the possibility of finding stone tools. However, it was just that: a possibility.

Read more: “The thorny question of when humans made America their home

On July 14, 1926, the team unexpectedly found a stone spear point. He was unlike any other then known. But because they found it in a pile of excavated earth and not in its original burial context, Figgins knew the archaeological establishment wouldn’t accept it as evidence that humans lived with animals from the land. Ice Age in North America.

Jhe museum conducted a second season of excavations in 1927. On August 29, the team discovered another stone spear point, this time embedded in the ribs of a bison. They left it in place, contacted prominent archaeologists by telegram and waited for them to visit the Folsom site to confirm the find in person.

AAs I pointed out in a previous column, this was not necessarily a “eureka!” ” moment. But it eventually led to scientific and public acceptance of the idea that Native Americans were present in North America much earlier than these groups previously thought. It also seemed to confirm what Native Americans had been saying all along – that they had been here since “time immemorial”.

Jo correct part of the public narrative: George McJunkin could not have known that the site he discovered would revolutionize science. For 14 years he knew he had discovered an interesting scientific locality based on the unusual bison bones, but he did not know that it contained stone tools, and therefore evidence of ancient humans. Confirmation of this discovery came more than five years after his death.

IIt is unclear whether Schwachheim or Howarth ever mentioned George McJunkin to Figgins or Cook; none of these latter men acknowledged McJunkin in their scholarly papers. (Figgins was a registered member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, so it seems unlikely that he would have given credit to McJunkin even if Schwachheim or Howarth had suggested it.)

IIt is important to celebrate how McJunkin’s initial discovery and his defense of the site sparked the later work that led to the new story of humans who lived during the Ice Age in North America. And it’s admirable that a wider audience is now celebrating rather than hiding the contributions made by people who have too often been forgotten in the history books. But somewhere along the way, for some reason, McJunkin’s initial discovery turned into a later scientific breakthrough.

JThe earliest scientific mention I can find of McJunkin’s work at the Folsom site is the 1946 book by archaeologist Frank C. Hibben of the University of New Mexico. The Lost Americans, in which he credits McJunkin, without citing evidence, for finding arrowheads at the Folsom site in 1925 (three years after McJunkin’s death), a clear contradiction. Archaeologist George Agogino published “The McJunkin Controversy”, a short article in New Mexico Magazine intended to address, through systematic research, what McJunkin actually did on the Folsom site.

A dark brown skeleton of a buffalo, of the type found by George McJunkin, stands on two support poles in a museum exhibit in front of rocks and short grass.

A skeleton of ancient bisonthe Ice Age species that George McJunkin found at the Folsom site, is on display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. James St. John/Wikimedia Commons

IIn this article, Agogino reviews finds based on archival research and oral histories collected by Adrienne Anderson, Mary Edmonston, Gail Egan, and Mary Doherty in the late 1960s. They confirmed that McJunkin discovered what became later known as the Folsom site. Agogino insisted that McJunkin I did not know on the artifacts on the site: “[None of the archives] has a single sentence suggesting that McJunkin found, or even considered, the hand of man in the bison’s destruction.

OOn the next page, however, Agogino concludes with a sweeping, dramatic and ambiguous statement:[George McJunkin’s] discovery at Wild Horse Arroyo marked the beginning of an exciting new chapter in American prehistory, the story of the Paleoindians who entered the New World through the Bering Strait more than 12,000 years ago.

JTo summarize, Hibben opened the door in 1946 to the idea that McJunkin found artifacts and bison bones at the Folsom site. Agogino seemed to close that door in 1971 but reopened it with a scientifically imprecise conclusion. In doing so, he inadvertently triggered another half-century of uncertainty.

HStories are rewritten all the time, usually as new information comes to light. As a naturalist and collector committed to uncovering hidden stories himself, I like to think that McJunkin would want his own story rewritten so that it could be told accurately. Either way, George McJunkin can be celebrated as an extraordinary man whose inquisitive mind, fearless spirit, and perseverance were responsible for discoveries that would transform archaeology.

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