AdventureExploration & Survival

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

No one is happier about the work than Lahren. He believes that all the doubts about the association between the Clovis artifacts and the skeleton are going to be laid to rest, and that we'll finally establish the original stratigraphy and orientation of the Anzick burial site. "I don't feel like I have to prove anything to anybody now," he says. "We can pinpoint exactly where it was located within those layers. You know, I wouldn't doubt if their shaman didn't have a medicine lodge right there at the base of the cliff. That might have been the first church."

Of course, invoking the subject of prehistoric religious belief points to the urgent question that preoccupied us throughout the fall: What is the proper way to handle further testing of the human remains that were found at the Anzick site? We all feel comfortable conducting relatively non-invasive tests such as radiocarbon dating, which has already established that the the ocher-stained bones average 10,680 years old, and chemical comparisons that have indicated that the ocher on the Clovis child's bones matches the ocher on the tools found with them.

But one of the reasons for our renewed excitement about the Anzick site is that recent advances in the DNA testing of ancient human bones have made it possible to determine the genetic origin of a long-dead person. Scientists have been able to determine with some certainty whether the ancestors of someone who died thousands of years ago came from Asia or Europe, for example. However, DNA tests often require that the bones be shaved and a core sample be taken—a destructive process that is, by almost any standard, a desecration of human remains. None of us is prepared to go forward with DNA testing without consulting the Native Americans living in the area, particularly the Crow tribe, who consider the Shields Valley to be a part of their traditional territory.

In the mid-1990s, Mel and Helen Anzick had begun asking Mark Taylor, Dee Taylor's son, who is an anthropologist at Northern Arizona University, to return the human bones that his late father had collected from the Anzick site, and in December 1998 Taylor
sent the skeletal remains to the Anzicks. One of the Anzicks' five children, their 33-year-old daughter Sarah, is better qualified than most to consider the ramifications of DNA testing: She has worked as a molecular biologist since 1994 at the cancer genetics branch of the National Institutes of Health's human genome project in Bethesda, Maryland.

"Because the results could shed light onto patterns of human migration," Sarah wrote to Lahren and me last September, "the results could have profound significance for the Native American community. The Native Americans have been intensely concerned about all genetic testing, so the [National Human Genome Research Institute] has been working very hard to build a bridge with this community. Given this, we have a moral obligation to communicate with the Native Americans and to be sensitive to their concerns regarding the genetic testing of the Anzick site remains."

Such considerations arise against the historical backdrop of our nation's disgraceful record of looting Indian graves. According to one estimate, American museums collected as many as 200,000 skeletal remains of Native Americans. In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and the long process of returning the bones of their ancestors to the tribes is slowly getting under way. But some prominent archaeologists argue that skeletons like that of the Clovis child found at the Anzick site, which predate known tribal affiliations, should not fall under that law. No one involved with the Anzick site wants to trigger the kind of rancorous wrangling that followed the July 1996 discovery of an 8,800-year-old body near Kennewick, Washington. After the federal government ordered that the remains be handed over to the Umatilla tribe, eight renowned anthropologists filed a lawsuit, which is still pending, demanding access to the skeleton in order to conduct DNA tests. Initial speculation that Kennewick Man's skull had some European characteristics hasn't helped matters.

Preliminary negotiations with the Crow will begin this winter, and it is far from certain that the Indians will ever accede to DNA testing of the bones from the Anzick site. But if the testing is done, Papworth has a prediction about the ancestry of the Clovis child. "It will be North Asian," he says. "If it's not North Asian, then hooray—we'll have a real puzzle. But I bet it will be."

Meanwhile, there is another uncertainty: In recent months, as dealers continue to offer substantial sums for the Clovis artifacts he owns, Mel Anzick has apparently developed a new ambivalence about the potential wealth the artifacts represent. "It's like finding oil on your place," he said last fall. Despite the temptation, however, he still seems inclined to resist the entreaties of private collectors."They put them in vaults, and they don't do anything for knowledge," he declared. "The chances are pretty slim of us selling."

Our mission to inspire readers to get outside has never been more critical. In recent years, Outside Online has reported on groundbreaking research linking time in nature to improved mental and physical health, and we’ve kept you informed about the unprecedented threats to America’s public lands. Our rigorous coverage helps spark important debates about wellness and travel and adventure, and it provides readers an accessible gateway to new outdoor passions. Time outside is essential—and we can help you make the most of it. Making a financial contribution to Outside Online only takes a few minutes and will ensure we can continue supplying the trailblazing, informative journalism that readers like you depend on. We hope you’ll support us. Thank you.
Contribute to Outside
From Outside Magazine, Feb 2000
Filed To: ScienceMontana
More Adventure