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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    One morning in June 1968, two local construction workers drove a front-loader and a dump truck out to the base of the elephant-head bluff. Mel Anzick had given the men permission to dig up fill for the local high school, and after Ben Hargis filled a dump truck, Calvin Sarver drove the first load into town.

Hargis continued working. He began punching into the scree at the base of the cliff with the bucket of the front-loader, and as he backed away with a full load, something fell down into the bucket, catching his eye. Bright red powder cascaded down the cliff from the place the object had fallen. Sarver returned to find Hargis excited: He'd found a very old and impressive-looking flaked tool.

That evening after work, Sarver and Hargis returned with their wives to explore the cliffside. They began digging with their hands, and almost immediately a huge chert blade, stained red, fell out. It was flaked on both sides, the sort of tool called a biface. Then another, and another—one made of yellow chalcedony, the next of red jasper. Dozens of big bifaces and spearheads spilled down the slope. Mixed in with the artifacts were fragments of a small human skeleton covered with red ocher; all the stone implements and bone tools were stained with it too. "We were up to our armpits in that red stuff," Sarver recalled recently. Faye Hargis remembers that they took the tools home and tried to scrub them clean—a task that left the kitchen sink stained red for a week.

Lahren, then a graduate student at Montana State University, in Bozeman, heard about the find and asked to see the points, expecting to see weapons from a buffalo kill site, the sort that are common in these parts. He got his first look at the collection in Sarver's kitchen. There was some small talk, Lahren said, and then Sarver and Hargis went out and returned carrying ten five-gallon buckets full of artifacts into the house.

"I was speechless," Lahren told me. "I thought I was going to have a heart attack." He realized the two men may have found important evidence that could help solve the mystery of the identity of the first Americans.

Lahren told Dee Taylor, a professor from the University of Montana, about the discovery, and after identifying the points as Clovis, Taylor presided over a two-week dig in the summer of 1968. But the enterprise was troubled from the start. Without knowing the mischief they had caused, Sarver and Hargis had seriously compromised the integrity of the site by partially excavating it, removing so much evidence without documenting anything first, and then piling dirt back onto the place they'd found the cache. The concept of "association" is crucial to the science of archaeology. Taylor felt that he needed to show that the skeleton and the tools had come from a single layer of sediment, thus proving that they were associated, but he went away disappointed; things had simply been moved around too much. "It is almost enough to make strong men weep," he wrote later. The amateur diggers had "succeeded in taking almost everything that was there 'in situ.'"

Taylor's dismissal of the Anzick site established the attitude that remains prevalent in archaeological circles to this day. Artifacts from the Anzick site appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1979, but the site was only mentioned briefly in the accompanying story about early Americans. A 1991 paper about the Anzick site—one of the few scientific articles written on the subject—asserts that "given the circumstances under which the assemblage was discovered, the exact provenance of the artifacts and the potential association with the human remains cannot be determined."

Yet Lahren has remained convinced that Sarver and Hargis stumbled onto something significant. In 1971, Anzick gave permission for another dig, and this time put Lahren, now a University of Calgary Ph.D. candidate, in charge. "Since I was a local, I think he trusted me," Lahren said. Lahren enlisted the aid of another graduate student, Robson Bonnichsen, who was researching stone tool technology at the University of Calgary.

"We excavated the area right next to where Taylor had worked," he continued. "Carefully cleaning as we went, we located a recessed area against the cliff and located a zone of red ocher that we believed was part of the burial site." Sticking out of the wall was red bone—the clavicle of a human child. They carefully photographed and removed it. Using the clavicle and other bones in Dee Taylor's custody, it was later estimated that the child, whose sex is unknown, was between one and a half and two and a half years old when it died.

 

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