Today, guest historian Cathy Patterson looks at an unlikely anthropologist. The
University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
George McJunkin, an African American cowboy born in slavery,
lies buried in a lonely grave in Folsom, New Mexico. Aleš Hrdlicka, a trained
academic, has his bust in the Smithsonian Institution and a biography in the
Encyclopedia Britannica. Both played roles in finding the key to
understanding the early human presence in North America.
Both were interested in bones. Hrdlicka had a medical degree and advanced study in
anthropology. He traveled Europe and the American West to study the bones of both
living and ancient humans. In 1910 he became curator of the Smithsonian Institution's
new physical anthropology division.
McJunkin lived far from academic circles and expert anthropologists. After the Emancipation,
he moved from Texas to New Mexico, where, perhaps, he found it easier to live freely. He
learned to read and to play the violin. He had a voracious intellectual curiosity, read
widely in geology and natural history, and became a respected ranch manager.
In 1908, a torrential rain fell on Folsom. The destructive flood carved out fourteen feet
of soil in Dead Horse Arroyo. As McJunkin rode by after the flood, he found an exposed group
of bison bones. His self-trained eye quickly recognized something exciting. The bones were
down too deep and were too big to be modern buffalo. He also found pieces of flint, seemingly
worked by human hands. These bones, he thought, must be incredibly old. Early humans had
hunted and killed the animals.
McJunkin tried to bring his discovery to the attention of sci-entists. He contacted people
across the Southwest with an interest in bones, but none would come to the site. By the time
McJunkin died in 1922, his discovery still rested in obscurity.
But, in 1926, some of McJunkin's bones finally found their way to the Colorado Museum of Natural
History. The Director, Jesse Figgins, recognized their significance. He declared that the bones
offered clear evidence of humans in North America as much as 10,000 years ago.
Enter Aleš Hrdlicka. Following then-current thinking, he vigorously refuted all claims for any
human presence over 4,000 years old in New World. The New Mexico find, he argued, must be false.
Hrdlicka tried to crush dissent from his view. When research from the Folsom site was published
in 1928, in Scientific American, the journal printed a disclaimer of all responsibility
for the claims.
Of course, Hrdlicka was proved completely wrong, and McJunkin right. Hrdlicka is remembered for
his tenacious defense of a wrong-headed view. George McJunkin, whose curiosity helped establish
proof for the antiquity of humans in North America, was not even mentioned in any of the
publications that stemmed from the discovery of "Folsom Man."
Scientific discovery can be a messy process. Experts often cling to ideas that turn out to be
wrong, while new discoveries are ignored. What a shame this ex-slave cowboy amateur never knew
that his explanation of those old bones would trump the world's experts.
I'm Cathy Patterson, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Cathy Patterson is Associate Professor of History and Associate Dean of the College of Liberal
Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Houston. She is author of Urban Patronage in
Early modern England: Corporate Boroughs, the Landed Elite, and the Crown, 1580-1640 (Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1999)
T. Hillerman, Othello in Union County. The Great Taos Bank Robbery and Other True Stories of the
Southwest (New York: Perennial [Harper Collins], 2001); (first published 1973 by University of
New Mexico Press), pp. 111-127.
D. Preston, Fossils and the Folsom Cowboy -- George McJunkin dug out bones that led to questions
on the New World's notions of human antiquity. Natural History, Vol. 106 (February 1997).
Several websites include details, photos, and background. The last of these is a paper by Figgins
written the year before the Scientific American paper. It includes the photo from the Folsom site
shown below, showing what came to be called Clovis points.
Sangres.com web site
Archeology Southwest article
A page on the Ales Hrdlicka Prize
J. D. Figgins article.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H.