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

That's the scene that comes to mind when I think about the small body that was laid to rest here. We know almost nothing about this child. In fact, little is known of these shadowy early people we call Clovis, who ranged across the continent at the end of the Ice Age. Beyond the unmistakable beauty and menace reflected in their mastery of tool manufacturing, this vanished culture is cloaked in conjecture and controversy. Only one partial Clovis skeleton has ever been unearthed—this child who was buried in the bluff near the Shields River—and the secrets locked within those bones could provide answers that have eluded archaeologists since the first Clovis artifacts were discovered in the Southwest 70 years ago.

Where did these people come from? Are they the ancestors of modern Native Americans? Why did their culture disappear?

The Clovis grave may be the oldest religious site in North America. Surprisingly, however, it has never been thoroughly excavated, even though it is the largest Clovis cache ever found. Since its discovery by construction workers in 1968 on a 75-acre parcel of land owned by Mel and Helen Anzick, more than 100 artifacts and several dozen human bone fragments have been recovered. The official story is that nothing new can be discovered at the Shields Valley bluff location: In his recent book Exploring Ancient Native America: An Archaeological Guide, the scholar David Hurst Thomas writes of the Anzick site, "There is nothing to visit today because it was inadvertently destroyed by gravel operations—an accident, but an irrevocable loss just the same."

Yet not everyone is convinced that the Anzick site has given up all of its secrets. Last summer, I joined two archaeologists who, along with a band of friends and volunteers, set about restoring and reinvestigating this special place. My own interest was less in science than in the long-term preservation of a sacred landmark, and I also wanted to see the Anzick site get the respect and attention it deserves. With Mel and Helen's permission, we began a new excavation where a child's body had been buried with such protective care long ago.

Yet controversies and moral dilemmas still swirl around the Anzick site. By striving to revive interest in the Anzick treasures, we may inadvertently drive some of these Clovis artifacts, none of which has ever been sold, into the increasingly lucrative antiquities market, where our collective history can disappear into private collections. The solution to one of the greatest mysteries in North American archaeology—Clovis ancestry—may lie in the bones discovered at Anzick, but unlocking this secret requires DNA analysis, a process to which many contemporary Native Americans strongly object. My hope is that our work might somehow become a model for a new ethical approach uniting amateurs and professionals, Indians and the scientists who study those Indians' ancestors.

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From Outside Magazine, Feb 2000
Filed To: ScienceMontana
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