Contrasting the Lithic Technologies of
Mesa and Folsom

Tony Baker and Michael Kunz
April, 2003

A paper presented at the 2003 Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in the General Session -- Research on Paleoindian Subsistence and Technology


At times, the variation between lithic technologies is understood to be the result of functional requirements. At other times it is argued to be a product of cultural change. The Paleoindian traditions of Mesa and Folsom were contemporaneous and both hunted bison. However, their lithic technologies were vastly different, as was their access to lithic material. This paper will argue that the technological differences are not functional or cultural, but are the result of proximity to the lithic source. The argument will be developed with the aid of a hypothetical continuum graduated in units of effort with the Mesa and Folsom traditions at opposite ends.

The Lithic Environment of Mesa and Folsom

The remains of the Mesa people are usually found along the North Slope of the Brooks Range in Alaska. Their sites are located in the lithic-rich region that is outlined in red in Figure 1. This region extends 1040 kilometers east to west and represents 125,000 square kilometers. Along the north face of the Brooks Range (southern boundary of the outlined area) and in its northern foothills are extensive chert deposits, some of which exceed 20 meters in thickness and continually outcrop along the range's linear extent. Also, chert nodules in limestone formations and cobbles in conglomerates occur almost uninterrupted from the Canadian Border west to the Chukchi Sea. In addition to chert, sources of mudstone, siltstone, and cherty-limestone of moderate quality are also present. As a result the gravels of all of the streams (approximately 250 first order and higher streams) that drain north out of the Brooks Range and its foothills contain lithic material. Given these circumstances, lithic material is available literally everywhere within 16 kilometers of the range front. Beyond 16 kilometers the frequency begins to drop off as the distances from the primary sources increase and the streams consolidate to higher orders. However, on the average, there is nowhere within the crosshatched region where a primary or secondary lithic source is separated from the next nearest locale by more than 4 kilometers.

Figure 1. Location of Lithic-Rich Region of the North Slope
(Red Outlined Area)
In contrast, the Folsom people occupied a region that consisted predominately of the Great Plains. Figure 2 (Holen 2001:90) is a map of a large portion of this region with the major lithic sources annotated. As can be seen, "in the Plains, localized deposits of good lithic material are separated by vast areas with little or no lithic material available" (Holen 2001:89). Since the Folsom people hunted bison in both the lithic-rich and lithic-poor areas, they had to exert effort to transport their lithic material from the sources to the areas void of material. Additionally, they had to exert additional effort to continue to transport the material between camps as they moved with the animals.
Figure 2.
Location of Major Lithic Sources in the Central Plains
(from Holen 2001:90)

The Lithic Technology Continuum

Based on the proximity of the Mesa people to the lithic sources, intuitively, they had to expend less effort than the Folsom people to maintain a viable tool kit. In different words, the proximity to or the availability of lithic sources to a group's general area of operations translates into measurable effort. This effort is responsible for the variation between the lithic technologies of Mesa and Folsom and, in fact, these two technologies represent the extremes of a lithic technology continuum that is graduated in effort. Following the Processual or New Archaeology framework for the approach to lithics of "raw material procurement…, design and manufacture…, and use and maintenance" (Dibble 1995:303), there are three (3) major types of effort. In Table 1, these three (3) types are delineated and then further subdivided. The extremes of the continuum are represented by Mesa and Folsom.

Table 1 - Lithic Technology Continuum
>>>> increasing effort >>>>
Procurement Effort (raw material procurement)
     Material type used
     Biface cores
     Artifacts with cortex
High percentage
Low percentage
Reduction Effort (design and manufacture)
     Force application location (FAL)
     Hammer hardness
Refurbishing Effort (use and maintenance)
     "Frison Effect"AbsentStrongly evident

Procurement Effort

Lithic material type in this paper is classified into two categories, local and exotic. Local material is defined as coming from sources that are within 40 kilometers of the archaeological site and exotic materials from sources more than 40 kilometers distant. Naturally, the luxury of using raw material that occurs in or near one's campsite requires less effort than transporting it 40+ kilometers. Additionally, exotic material is not just transported one time to a distant camp, it is moved every time the camp is moved. The amount of exotics in an assemblage is a measure of effort associated with the technology. With the few exceptions of Folsom sites located at the sources, Folsom assemblages contain a large mass of exotics because the sites are in lithic-poor areas. Mesa assemblages contain virtually no exotics because the sites are at or very near to the source. Based on the exotics in the lithic assemblages, Folsom was a high effort technology and Mesa was a low effort technology.

Biface cores are generally conceptualized in one of two models. In the finished product model, the biface passes through a number of stages on a purposeful trajectory toward becoming a finished biface or projectile point. Along this trajectory and before reaching the finished product, the biface has little purpose other than to transit through a number of smaller and more refined stages, similar to the way the modern knapper creates a projectile point. In the core model, the possibility that a biface may ultimately be reduced to a finished biface or projectile point is not important to the knapper. This model treats the biface only as a source of lithic material from which cutting-edge flakes and other tools are extracted. The authors adhere to the core model. Further, they agree with Kuhn (1994: 436) who states that: 1) "…biface technology permits an unequaled degree of control over all three linear dimensions" of the detached flake; and 2) "… bifacial reduction may be ideal for making transported artifacts simply because it allows one to most closely approach the optimal weight/utility ratios".

Kuhn's first statement concerning the control of flakes resulting from biface reduction is the reason the biface is ubiquitous through time and space. The fact that the biface was the core of choice for the Mesa people is evident in every site. Often it is the single largest category of tools in the sites. Applying the finished product model Mesa bifaces have been categorized into various stages of reduction and reported as rejects, manufacturing failures or breaks (Bever 2000, 2001; Rasic 20001). However, if the core model is applied, the Mesa bifaces exist simply for the production of flakes. With the core model, there existed a point in the reduction of a biface when the Mesa knapper decided the desired flake was easier to extract from a new lithic package. So, the biface was discarded in lieu of a new package. This behavior is viewed as flake creation by minimum effort and is only possible with an abundance of lithic material.

If the core model is correct, then one would expect Folsom to have utilized biface cores to transport their exotic material across a lithic-poor landscape. Additionally, one would initially expect that remnants of these cores would be plentiful in the Folsom assemblages. In reality, evidence of the biface core is very difficult to detect in Folsom assemblages (LeTourneau 2000:33) with the exception of those assemblages from lithic-rich areas such as the Hanson Site (Frison and Bradley 1980). The Folsom biface core was extremely valuable and possibly more valuable than any other lithic mass in the tool kit. As they were reduced for source flakes, they became thinner and their value diminished. Ultimately, their value lay only in the radial break tools that could be created by smashing the biface core. These radial break tools are generally the only remaining evidence of the biface core in a Folsom assemblage.

Cortex is the unaltered, weathered surface of rocks. The presence of cortex is usually associated with local material and its absence with exotic material. Additionally, the percentage of artifacts with cortex in an assemblage is inversely related to the distance from the lithic source. So, how does this relate to effort?

First, let us consider a Mesa knapper living in a lithic-rich region. This individual selects a package of material and begins to remove flakes. The first flake off the package will obviously be a cortical flake. The question is why did the knapper choose to create this particular flake? The answer is that it had the best, natural force-application-location (FAL) that would create the flake. As suggested above, the Mesa knapper is not reducing the package to create some predetermined tool or shape. Most of the time the individual just wants flakes so why not remove one that requires the least effort. Additionally, a cortical flake is as functional as any other flake.

The second flake removed by the knapper is also determined by effort. It is the next easiest flake that can be removed from the existing FALs. Note that the removal of the first flake usually creates a number of new FALs that add to the selection group. The removal of the third and subsequent flakes follows the same process of choosing FALs that yield the desired flakes with minimal effort. The natural outcome of this process is often a biface.

Ultimately, no suitable FALs, natural or artificially created, will remain on the package and the knapper will have to begin creating them. This requires removing flakes for the sole purpose of manufacturing an artificial FAL and takes considerably more effort. This increase in effort presents the knapper with an additional choice, which is to abandon the piece he has been reducing and begin a new package. When this choice is made, a partially reduced package of material that often has the morphology of a biface with some remaining cortex is added to the archaeological record.

Folsom people had a more complex behavior when they were at a source of lithic material. In addition to making routine flakes to use during their stay at the source, which is the same behavior as the Mesa people, they also prepared lithic material for transport into and through the lithic-poor regions. As suggested earlier by Kuhn, the biface probably was the shape of choice. A biface is constructed by removing flakes from both sides of the artifact. This automatically removes and deposits a large portion, if not all, of the cortex at the lithic source. When the Folsom people moved away from the lithic source, they now relied on the bifaces that were created at the lithic source for their flakes. Any remaining cortex on these bifaces was soon removed as these began to be consumed.

In summary, people who lived in lithic-rich regions created their every day flakes with minimal effort. This behavior created, in the archaeological record of the lithic-rich regions, a constant ratio of mass with cortex to mass without cortex. People who lived in lithic-poor regions and traveled to the lithic source exerted more effort removing cortex and left a disproportionate share of mass with cortex at the source. As a result there was less mass with cortex to be deposited on the landscape of lithic-poor regions. Therefore, the mass percentage of artifacts with cortex in an assemblage is a measure of effort.

Reduction Effort

The previous section of Procurement Effort assumed a constant lithic reduction technology that required minimal effort. It assumed flakes were initiated from off-margin locations with hard hammer impactors. In this section, the authors will discuss how the Folsom people altered this minimal effort technology in the lithic-poor-regions to extend their lithic stores and reduce their reliance on the lithic source. Again, this permitted them to extend the time they were away from the source and, therefore, exploit regions more distant from the source.

Figure 3 depicts two almost identical bifaces in profile with the FALs marked with the arrows. These bifaces are only different in that their margins (edges) near the FAL are different. On Biface B the margin has been reduced (moved) to the FAL. The FALs are essentially the same on each biface in relation to the entire biface mass, however they are different in relation to the margins. A blow struck at the FAL on Biface A represents the minimal effort technology of Mesa and is known as off-margin striking. A blow struck at the FAL on Biface B represents the greater effort intensity technology of Folsom, which is margin striking. Margin striking requires more effort because the margin has to be reduced prior to striking the blow. On both bifaces, the blow is applied at the same location in relation to the biface mass, however, its location is different in relation to the margins (Frison and Bradley 1980:18-30).Figure 3. Off-Margin/Margin Striking

Flake size is controlled in major part by the FAL. The further the FAL is from the face of the biface, the thicker and more massive the flake (Pelcin 1996:308). This statement applies to the location of the dorsal face prior to the margin being reduced. In different words, the same size flake is created with or without reducing the margin if the FAL is the same. So the FALs on Bifaces A and B will yield the same flake (less the small mass removed by the margin reduction). So why spend the time and effort of reducing the margin if it doesn't affect the size of the flake?

Reducing the margin to the FAL creates a target that can be hit precisely each time. Without a reduced margin, the knapper is trying to hit a spot on a flat face and anyone who has ever shot a gun, pitched pennies, or tossed horseshoes knows that you can't hit the target every time. You hit near and around the target, but you don't hit it every time. In knapping, hitting around the target translates into flake size variation. Striking a reduced margin then greatly reduces the flake size variation. Reduced margins give the knapper the advantage of indirect percussion, which is accurately applied force.

The timing of flake creation requires energy to be added to the core prior to the crack initiation. The more energy that is added before the crack initiates, the larger the flake can be. By the nature of their locations, off-margin FALs can absorb more energy prior to crack initiation than on-margin FALs. On-margin FALs are delicate because they are thin edges and must be strengthened by grinding. As a result, margin striking is always coupled with margin grinding.

For a parsimonious Folsom knapper, who was located far from a lithic source, reduced-margin striking was the individual's rock saw. If the individual needed a certain size flake for a particular task, then producing one that was too small was a waste of material. On the other hand the individual didn't want to remove a flake that was too large because although it would do the job, it would also be a waste of material. Like Goldilocks, the individual wanted a flake that was "just right". To produce the flake that was just right, the Folsom knapper spent the extra effort to reduce the margin and then grind it.

Hammer hardness is another measure of effort. Hard hammers, such as rocks, require little effort. There is no initial investment other than finding one on the ground and there is virtually zero maintenance. Soft hammers made of ivory, antler, bone, or wood require significantly more effort. Besides the greater effort in acquiring the material, they also have to be fabricated and then constantly maintained throughout their use life.

Hard or soft hammers work equally well when performing off-margin striking. Other than leaving a different signature at the FAL, the flakes produced by either type of hammer are the same. Because of the extra effort associated with the soft hammer, there is no incentive to use a soft hammer when doing off-margin striking and the Mesa knappers did not. Their percussion technology was hard hammer, off-margin striking.

Soft hammers have two definite advantages over hard hammers when performing margin striking. First, they do not destroy the FAL prior to adding sufficient energy to the core. Second, the FAL imbeds in the soft hammer. This imbedding is an advantage because it permits the knapper to vary the angle of blow over a much larger range than is possible when striking a flat surface, which is off-margin striking. In other words, margin striking with soft hammer uncouples the angle of blow from the platform angle. This gave the Folsom knapper considerably more control over the flake creation.

To summarize the differences between Mesa and Folsom reduction techniques, Mesa used hard hammer and performed off-margin striking. Folsom used soft hammer and performed margin striking. Mesa's technology was low effort and resulted in flakes with large variation in size around the desired product. Folsom's technology was high effort and it yielded a smaller variation in flake size around the desired product. Smaller variation meant longer stays in the lithic-poor regions for the Folsom knapper.

Refurbishing Effort

The "Frison Effect" (Jelinek 1976), or the refurbishing of tools for reuse, is the last strong difference between the Mesa and Folsom assemblages. Dibble (1995:315) writes, "…the Frison Effect basically suggests … that certain characteristics of tools are not always clear reflections of their original design, but may reflect also the degree or intensity to which they were used and recycled." The Frison Effect is an effort to retain a mass of lithic material in the tool kit.

Projectiles are the classic example of the Frison Effect and their resharpening has been recognized in the literature for many years. However, projectiles are not the subjects of this paper and the reason they are not is because they were refurbished for a different reason than most of the other tools in the assemblage. They were refurbished because the knappers had more effort invested in the hafting of the projectile than the making of the projectile. As a result, Mesa refurbished their projectiles as intensively as Folsom and the availability of the lithic material was not a consideration.

The availability of material does, however, affect the refurbishing of the non-projectile artifacts. To explain this it is necessary to discuss the different perspectives of the splitters and lumpers.

The splitter's perspective of the non-projectile artifacts is that each artifact was a unique tool that can be categorized into a regiment of types as in the Handbook of Paleolithic Typology Volume One: Middle Paleolithic of Europe (Debénath and Dibble 1994). With this perspective, the Mesa assemblages are interpreted to contain a meager amount of different tool types compared to Folsom. The splitter sees little refurbishing in either of the Mesa or Folsom assemblages. Instead, the interpretation is that Folsom compared to Mesa had a greater variety of tools and, therefore, performed a greater variety of tasks in their daily lives.

The lumper's perspective is that there are only three basic tool types, which are cutting edges, scraping edges, and perforating points. Instead of the splitter's perspective that each artifact is a single tool, the lumper sees each artifact as a combination of these three basic tool types. With this perspective, the Mesa artifacts represent as many different tool types as the Folsom artifacts. The difference is that a Mesa artifact represents only a single tool, as compared to a Folsom artifact that can represent numerous tools. Since there are more tools on the Folsom artifact, more of the perimeter is utilized. This can be measured. Additionally, the tools on the Folsom artifacts have been rejuvenated or replaced by other tools, so the artifact edges are thicker than those of the Mesa artifacts. This, too, can be measured. In different words, the Folsom tools are heavily curated (Binford 1977:33) or intensively utilized (Dibble 1995:332).

In summary, Dibble (1995:332) argues "with an abundance of available raw material, … there is simply less need to squeeze the maximum potential from every…" piece of lithic material. The authors strongly agree with Dibble, and the Mesa assemblages support this position. Mesa tool manufacturing effort was extremely expedient and minimal. A required tool was manufactured on the spot from a new flake. Unlike the Folsom knapper, there was no need for a Mesa knapper to search through his tool kit to locate the one artifact that was most expendable and on which the required tool could be manufactured. Flakes were essentially everywhere like sand on the beach.

Summary and Conclusion

This paper discussed and contrasted Paleoindian lithic technologies of Mesa and Folsom via a lithic continuum. This continuum is artificial and was presented to illustrate the technological differences that can occur between groups operating in lithic-rich and lithic-poor regions. The continuum is not graduated in time and it should not be. Instead, the concept of effort was chosen as the graduation because, in the authors' opinion, it was the most descriptive. However, other graduations could have been used. Planning, conservation and skill are three possibilities.

At the lithic source, the Folsom knappers planned the sizes and number of lithic packages they would transport when they left the source. This planning was based on a balance between mass and mobility. Obviously, the more mass they transported, the less mobile they were, but the longer they could remain away for the source. The Mesa knappers were not required to plan and create packages for transport. If they needed a tool, it could be created with the abundant material that was almost always at their feet. Minimum skill could be employed because failure was of no consequence. The Mesa knapper had only to pick up another chunk of rock and try again.

Away from the lithic source, conservation of material became an important concern for the Folsom knapper. The more the knappers could conserve their material, the longer they could remain away from the source. Conservation occurred in both biface reduction and tool refurbishing. For example, selecting whether to create a new tool from a new flake or modifying an existing tool is conservation and planning. If the choice was to create the new tool from a new flake, then the new flake had certain size and shape specifications. Any deviation from those specifications would be wasteful. To achieve the desired specifications, the knapper had to plan the flake removal, create the correct FAL, and then apply the correct blow with the correct impactor. These actions required planning and skill.

If the Folsom knapper chose to modify an existing tool, this was usually performed with pressure. However, planning, conservation and skill were still employed. The knapper conserved by removing only the minimal amount of mass necessary to create the new tool.

The Mesa knapper was not concerned with conservation. Therefore, there was no decision about whether to create a new flake or modify an existing tool. It was almost always easier to create a new flake in the most expedient manner of off-margin striking with a hard hammer. The planning and skill that the Folsom knapper applied to achieve the flake of perfect specifications was not necessary and was not employed. This doesn't imply that the Mesa knapper was not capable of employing the planning and skill of the Folsom knapper, it means that it was not necessary and, therefore, it was not done.

In closing, this paper suggests the availability of high quality lithic material strongly influenced the lithic technology of Mesa and Folsom. Straus (1991) argued a similar case for the differences between the French and Spanish Solutrean. A blatantly obvious example of this concept is the large exquisite blades from conical cores found in the Upper Paleolithic of Southern France. They would not have been possible if the local material had been small nodules of quartzite. Diffusion, or the lack of it, is often used to explain similarities and differences in lithic technologies that may be simply the result of lithic quality and availability.

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2000   Paleoindian Lithic Technology and Landscape Use in Late Pleistocene Alaska: A Study of the Mesa Complex. Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas. University Microfilms, Ann Arbor.
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1. In the Rasic reference, Prehistoric Lithic Technology at the Tuluaq Hill Site, the projectiles are reported as similar to "Sluiceway" points named after those found at the Irwin-Sluiceway Site. The authors believe that Sluiceway and Mesa represent the same lithic technology and, in fact, are one and the same.

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