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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     Later that year, Lahren and Bonnichsen displayed a number of Anzick implements and presented their findings at a meeting of the Society of American Archaeology, establishing that all the Anzick artifacts were Clovis, and not a random assortment of tools from different eras.

Bonnichsen is now a professor at Oregon State University, but Lahren decided that he wasn't cut out for life in academia. After earning his doctorate in 1976, he became a contract archaeologist, performing cultural-resource assessments for government agencies, mining companies, and other clients. By the 1980s, Lahren had pretty much given up hope that the Anzick site would ever be given its professional due. As the years passed, Lahren did his best to keep track of the Anzick artifacts, and in 1989 he succeeded in reuniting almost all of the collection in a permanent display at the Montana Historical Society Museum in Helena.

Early on, after Sarver and Hargis told Mel Anzick of their find, the men had agreed to divide the artifacts, with half going to the Anzick family and the other half split between the two working men. The three men also made a pact, sealed with a handshake, that their collections would never be sold, that they would be kept in Montana and intact. Hargis died in 1979, and his widow continued to honor the pact, although several collectors came around with offers. Finally, in the late eighties, Lahren convinced the three families to put the collection someplace safe. "I know I'm being a nativist," Lahren told me, recalling the argument he used, "but shouldn't the stuff be kept at a public institution here in Montana? Who else should have it? Some private collector? What's amazing is that it's all still together. They loaned it to the Historical Society on the condition that it always be on display."

When I later went to see the Anzick exhibit in Helena, I encountered a breathtaking array: the stone tools in all stages of production, foot-long rods of bone and ivory, probably mammoth foreshanks for hafting spear points. Flaked out of lithic materials quarried south of the Missouri River, the enormous spear points radiate an aloof beauty.

As Lahren and I sat that evening in the Murray Lounge, as I listened to this strange archaeological saga, I realized how passionate Lahren still was about the Anzick site, and I found myself catching Clovis fever—a new outbreak of the enthusiasm I've had for archaeology since I was a boy. I envied the people who lived in that valley 11,000 years ago. I couldn't help thinking that the supreme American adventure had been the first one. When the first humans reached our shores, America was the greatest unexplored frontier on earth. Lahren seemed to feel the same way, I did, and he clearly had unfinished business out in the Shields Valley.

And so I wasn't really surprised about what happened next. The bar was getting noisier, but we sat silently for a few minutes, and then Lahren said, "I'd love to get back in there with a crew and dig this the right way."

Those were the magic words.

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