Evolution

A Hidden Determine in North American Archaeology


As a historian of science, I’m concerned about figuring out who will get credit score for scientific discoveries and why. Sadly, credit score usually goes to the highly effective and linked, to not the individuals who really do the work. Gender, race, standing, and age discrimination usually play a task in these narratives.

Examples of scientific injustice are lastly coming into extra of the general public’s consciousness, nonetheless. One well-known instance is the 2016 Hollywood movie Hidden Figures. It tells the story of Katherine G. Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan—three African American mathematicians who had been instrumental within the success of the Nineteen Sixties chilly conflict area program however didn’t get the credit score they deserved.

January 22, 2022, marks the one hundredth anniversary of the dying of George McJunkin, an African American cowboy in northeastern New Mexico through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Why is the anniversary of McJunkin’s passing value celebrating? As a result of he found what grew to become often called the Folsom website, an historic bison bone mattress the place scientists got here to just accept the concept that Native Individuals lived in North America over the past ice age—1000’s of years sooner than most scientists then believed. McJunkin can be necessary to many Black folks at the moment as a result of he’s certainly one of many historic figures lastly gaining credit score for his or her myriad contributions to science, politics, and different disciplines over the centuries. In 2019, George McJunkin was inducted into the Corridor of Nice Westerners on the Nationwide Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.

A black-and-white photograph shows the profile of a Black person on a horse in an open space.

George McJunkin, a self-taught naturalist, discovered quite a few historic stone instruments, ceramics, and animal bones whereas working in New Mexico. Kokopelli-UK/Wikimedia Commons

But what precisely did George McJunkin uncover? A fast Google search on “George McJunkin” yields dozens of articles and books—and their statements vary from imprecise to conflicting.

Many, like a Nationwide Park Service brochure, give him credit score for making “an unbelievable discovery that modified the world of North American archaeology ceaselessly.” A latest story in Science for the Individuals claims, “McJunkin made a pivotal discovery that resulted in an archaeological paradigm shift worthy of celebration as a ‘scientific revolution.’” An Arkansas Archeological Survey story suggests McJunkin discovered human-made artifacts on the Folsom website. Others give McJunkin credit score for locating the Folsom website whereas glossing over the query of whether or not he knew it contained proof of historic people.

To paraphrase the well-known query from the Watergate scandal of the Seventies, it’s instructive to determine what McJunkin knew and when he knew it. Solely then can we totally admire him. Solely then can we do his scientific legacy full justice.

George McJunkin was a exceptional man. He was born on January 9, 1851, in jap Texas. Enslaved till the top of the Civil Conflict, in 1868, he moved to New Mexico to begin a brand new life as a free man and lived there for greater than half a century. He was a champion cowboy, an impressive ranch supervisor, a self-taught reader and naturalist, and a collector of historic stone instruments, ceramics, animal bones, and different attention-grabbing objects he discovered whereas working.

On August 27, 1908, when McJunkin was supervisor of the Crowfoot Ranch, an unusually sturdy summer season thunderstorm dropped 13 inches of rain on Johnson Mesa, a number of miles northwest and upstream of what we now name the Folsom website. A flash flood swept by means of the area, wreaking havoc and downcutting arroyos.

They understood why McJunkin had been excited: The bones had been enormous and in contrast to these of any trendy animals.After the storm, McJunkin ventured out to restore damaged fence traces. He seen giant bones protruding from the newly eroded base of Wild Horse Arroyo. Together with his information of animals and pure historical past, McJunkin decided the bones belonged to bison a lot bigger than any trendy bison he had encountered. He collected some bones and took them again to his cabin, the place they took satisfaction of place on a mantle.

From then till his dying, a interval of almost 14 years, McJunkin tried to get pals and associates out to see the location. However none got here. The journey required an arduous two-day horseback experience that the majority had been unwilling to endure, and few, if any, folks within the area had a automobile.

Then in 1922, Carl Schwachheim—a blacksmith and beginner naturalist from Raton, New Mexico, whom McJunkin had instructed concerning the bones—satisfied banker and automobile proprietor Fred Howarth to make the journey. On December 10, 1922, almost a yr after McJunkin’s dying, the 2 drove to the Folsom website. They instantly understood why McJunkin had been so excited: The bones had been enormous and in contrast to these of any trendy animals.

To be taught extra concerning the bones, on January 25, 1926, Schwachheim and Howarth met with Jesse Dade Figgins, the director of the Colorado Museum of Pure Historical past (CMNH) in Denver. A number of weeks later, CMNH honorary Curator of Paleontology Howard Cook dinner confirmed the bones had been these of Bison antiquus, an extinct ice age bison. Figgins instantly dedicated his museum (now the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, my present employer) to additional work on the website.

Excavation on the Folsom website started in Might of 1926. Everybody concerned initially believed it was a paleontological dig—not an archaeological dig looking for human-made artifacts. The staff’s cost was to search for fairly full and intact skeletons of ice age mammals for show on the museum.

That stated, Figgins had lengthy been within the scientific drawback of historic people in North America, and he instructed Howarth and Schwachheim to maintain their eyes open for the opportunity of discovering stone instruments. Nevertheless, it was solely that: a risk.

Learn extra: “The Knotty Query of When People Made the Americas Residence

On July 14, 1926, the staff unexpectedly discovered a stone spear level. It was in contrast to another then identified. However as a result of they discovered it in a pile of excavated filth and never in its authentic burial context, Figgins knew the archaeological institution wouldn’t settle for it as proof that people lived with ice age animals in North America.

The museum carried out a second excavation season in 1927. On August 29, the staff found one other stone spear level, this time embedded within the ribs of a bison. They left it in place, contacted outstanding archaeologists by way of telegram, and waited for them to go to the Folsom website to verify the invention in individual.

As I identified in a earlier column, this was not essentially a “eureka!” second. But it surely did finally result in scientific and public acceptance of the concept that Native Individuals had been current in North America far sooner than these teams beforehand believed. It additionally appeared to verify what Native Individuals had been saying all alongside—that they’ve been right here since “time immemorial.”

To appropriate among the public narrative: George McJunkin couldn’t have identified the location he discovered would revolutionize science. For 14 years, he knew he had found an attention-grabbing scientific locality based mostly on the weird bison bones, however he wasn’t conscious it contained stone instruments, and due to this fact proof of historic people. Affirmation of that discovering occurred greater than 5 years after his dying.

It is unclear whether or not Schwachheim or Howarth ever talked about George McJunkin to Figgins or Cook dinner; neither of the latter males acknowledged McJunkin of their scholarly articles. (Figgins was a registered member of the Ku Klux Klan within the Nineteen Twenties. It due to this fact appears unlikely he would have given McJunkin credit score even when Schwachheim or Howarth had instructed it to him.)

It is necessary to have fun how McJunkin’s preliminary discovery and advocacy for the location set in movement the later work that led to the brand new historical past of people who lived through the ice age in North America. And it’s admirable {that a} broader public is now celebrating somewhat than hiding the contributions made by individuals who too usually have been disregarded of historical past books. However someplace alongside the way in which, for some motive, McJunkin’s preliminary discover morphed into the next scientific breakthrough.

The earliest scholarly point out I can discover concerning McJunkin’s Folsom website work is College of New Mexico archaeologist Frank C. Hibben’s 1946 e book The Misplaced Individuals, during which he provides McJunkin credit score, with out citing proof, for locating arrowheads on the Folsom website in 1925 (three years after McJunkin’s dying), an apparent discrepancy. Archaeologist George Agogino printed “The McJunkin Controversy,” a brief article in New Mexico Journal supposed to deal with, by means of systematic analysis, what McJunkin really did on the Folsom website.

A dark-brown skeleton of a buffalo, of the type George McJunkin found, stands upright with the help of two support poles in a museum display in front of rocks and short grasses.

A skeleton of Bison antiquus, the ice age species George McJunkin discovered on the Folsom website, is on show on the Carnegie Museum of Pure Historical past. James St. John/Wikimedia Commons

In that article, Agogino evaluations findings based mostly on archival analysis and oral histories collected by Adrienne Anderson, Mary Edmonston, Gail Egan, and Mary Doherty within the late Nineteen Sixties. They confirmed that McJunkin found what later grew to become often called the Folsom website. Agogino acknowledged emphatically that McJunkin didn’t know about artifacts on the website: “[None of the archives] has a single sentence suggesting that McJunkin discovered, and even thought-about, the hand of man within the destruction of the bison.”

On the following web page, nonetheless, Agogino concludes with a sweeping, dramatic, and ambiguous assertion: “[George McJunkin’s] discovery at Wild Horse Arroyo was the beginning of a brand new and thrilling chapter in American prehistory, the story of the Paleoindian who entered the New World by the use of the Bering Strait properly over 12,000 years in the past.”

To summarize, Hibben opened the door in 1946 to the concept that McJunkin discovered artifacts and bison bones on the Folsom website. Agogino appeared to shut that door in 1971 however reopened it with a scientifically imprecise conclusion. In so doing, he inadvertently set off one other half century of uncertainty.

Histories get rewritten on a regular basis, often when new data involves gentle. As a naturalist and collector dedicated to uncovering hidden histories himself, I wish to assume McJunkin would need his personal story rewritten in order that it may be instructed precisely. In any case, George McJunkin may be celebrated as a unprecedented man whose inquiring thoughts, intrepid spirit, and perseverance instigated finds that may remodel archaeology. 



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