Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2010:
GEORGE McJUNKIN & ALEŠ HRDLICKA

John H. Lienhard presents guest Catherine Patterson

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 work.

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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.


Figgins' photos of Clovis points

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H. Lienhard.