The Voices of Bones

The skeleton of a child who died 11,000 years ago may hold answers to the mystery of man's earliest adventure in America—but the past has a way of hiding the truth

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      I first heard about the Clovis Skeleton on a cold November day in 1998. The Livingston Natural History Exhibit Hall was sponsoring a tour through Paradise Valley, just north of Yellowstone National Park, and it was conducted by a gruff, bearded, 55-year-old archaeologist, outfitter, and guide named Larry Lahren. Our group explored ancient bison-kill sites along limestone cliff faces and examined red-ocher pictographs that marked the entrance to a canyon just south of town. In passing, Lahren happened to mention a site he had studied north of Livingston, on veterinarian Mel Anzick's ranch—a place that held special significance for him. Intrigued, I invited Lahren to join me at the Murray Hotel Lounge for a drink.

Lahren has a reputation that matches his imposing physical presence; he's built like a football player, thick and hard, with a bit of a middle-age belly that belies the strength and quickness he once used to sweep three drunken cowboys off a Livingston bar. My friend the poet Jim Harrison had warned me, half joking, that it was OK to have two beers with Lahren, but that I should leave before he finished the third. We were on number two when Lahren started getting fired up about the importance of the Anzick site.

"It produced the only Clovis skeleton—period!" Lahren exclaimed. "But nobody in the archaeology establishment wants to hear it. I know it's true. The Anzick bones carbon-dated at 10,680 years ago, so the burial occurred toward the end of the Clovis age. And that's good enough for me."

Named after the town in New Mexico where their tools were first discovered in 1932, the Clovis people were long thought to be the first Americans, arriving from Asia about 11,500 years ago. According to the long-dominant theory, Clovis people crossed the Bering Strait during a time when lower ocean levels rendered the Strait a land bridge. Upon reaching Canada, they either walked or paddled south along the Pacific Coast or headed east across Canada, then south via a pathway between gigantic glaciers known as the Ice Free Corridor, after which they spread throughout the entire continent with amazing rapidity. But as DNA fingerprinting and other forensic technologies have developed, this storyline has been challenged. An important pre-Clovis site in Chile dates from 12,500 years ago (another site nearby may be much older), suggesting either an alternative route of migration or a date of first settlement more ancient than previously thought possible. Many archaeologists now believe that the Americas were in fact settled in successive waves by seafaring peoples from Central Asia, and perhaps even from Europe.

Whether or not the Clovis culture turns out to represent the first Americans, they were the first people on this continent to develop weaponry that allowed them to go one-on-one against big, dangerous game. Armed with tools and weapons like the Anzick artifacts, the Clovis people became the greatest hunters on earth, thriving for more than a millennium, until their tools simply vanish from the archaeological record. One possible explanation for this disappearance is climatic change that reduced their food supply; some believe the Clovis hunted their chief prey into extinction.

Hundreds of exquisitely crafted Clovis weapons are discovered every year, from Florida to California, from Alberta to Arizona. Some collections of spear points, Lahren told me, have fetched many thousands of dollars and, as a result, some unscrupulous dealers have tried to pass off counterfeit Clovis points as the real thing.

Given the importance and value of Clovis artifacts, it seemed amazing that the only Clovis burial assemblage in the world had been found just a few miles away, and yet remained uncelebrated and almost unknown outside the professional literature. As Lahren continued his remarkable tale, however, I realized that when it comes to the Anzick site, missed opportunities abound.

 

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