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
Thirty-five miles north of my home, just outside Livingston, Montana, the Rocky Mountains yield to a vast valley that drains south into the Yellowstone River. Known as the Shields Valley, this remote land is encased by the snow-corniced Bridger Mountains to the west and, to the east, the high, glacially sculpted peaks of the Crazy Mountains. Blue-green forests of pine and juniper cling to the slopes of the surrounding mountain flanks, and fingers of dark timber stands trace watercourses that run out into the open valley, where a rolling sea of yellow prairie grasses bears the same contours that it probably did shortly after the glaciers receded some 14,000 years ago.
About a day's walk upstream from the confluence of the Shields and Yellowstone rivers, a sandstone bluff looms above the willow bottomland. The highest point in the valley, this sloping ridge rises a hundred feet above the floodplain, then runs gently up to a second summit that drops off abruptly. From the north the isolated hill looks remarkably like the head of an elephant.
Ancient people came here for as long as the valley formed by the Shields River teemed with mammoth. On the eastern side of the bluff, the bones of extinct species of bison attest that the promontory was once used as a buffalo jump. In recent centuries, the area was a crossroads for various tribes, including the Blackfeet and the Kootenai; Shoshoni and Crow people left tepee rings of river stones that still decorate the hilltop. The bluff is the kind of place you might pick to leave an offering in honor of the Serengeti-like abundance of game, or to bury someone important. And apparently, some 11,000 years ago, that's exactly what happened.
Standing on this elephant-head bluff, I often think about what it must have been like in the last days of the Ice Age. You'd see the blue ice of glaciers capping the mountains and receding into the passes, then the slow movement of distant herds feeding on the steppes below: now-extinct species of camel, long-horned bison, tapir, deer, giant sloth, and horse. You wouldn't see them at first, but sabertooth tigers, gigantic short-faced bears, and dire wolves prowl the land, stalking the grazers. The valley is wet, the high benches are pocked with pothole lakes, springs, and ponds, and mastodons browse along a braided watercourse snaking across the bottomland at the foot of the cliff.
And you'd see people. A wisp of smoke curls up from a tiny fire. A man wearing a bearskin robe squats, mixing pulverized iron oxide with his own blood on a flat rock. He prepares red ocher, the most holy of pigments, a token of life. A child has died. At the foot of the bluff, the band mourns the child who represented its future. The bluff faces north, the sacred direction from which their ancestors came, where the declining herds of great mammoths still roam.
The shaman rises; the red ocher is ready. A section of mammoth hide lies on the ground next to a shelter dug out of the soft gray clay at the foot of the bluff. Spread out on the hide are dozens of exquisitely flaked stone tools of different colors. These huge spear points, knives, and mammoth-ivory implements possess power; they are alive. The shaman carefully paints the child red, sprinkling the remaining ocher over the tools and weapons. The hide bundle is drawn taut with sinew and placed inside the shelter with the body. Large flat stones are placed over the burial to keep animals out. The people turn away, facing into the frigid wind that pours down from the mountains to the north.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As it happened, I'd recently renewed an old acquaintance with an eminent archaeologist friend from my past. He was a retired professor named Mark Papworth, and he had been my first mentor and a major formative influence.
I grew up in Michigan, trailing after my father, who organized Boy Scout troops in the northern part of the Lower Peninsula. One day, when I was still too young for the Scouts, I was wandering through the woods on my own and found an arrowhead in a blowout on a sand ridge. An entire other world opened to me. At 14, I experienced the thrill of my young life when, tramping along a ridge in the farm country outside Saginaw, I found a 3,700-year-old skeleton that had been stained with red ocher and buried with a bundle of copper tools. I quit there, and called the anthropology department at the University of Michigan. Papworth, a grad student at the time, was the archaeologist they sent to assess the site. Later, in the early sixties, I took an archaeology class from him at the University of Michigan. He was a fabulous teacher, and something of a maverick; once, when he was running low on cash, he sold me his beloved 12-gauge Ithaca LeFever shotgun.
But then we lost touch. Three decades had passed since we last spoke when out of the blue I received a letter from my old professor. Apparently he'd read my book, Grizzly Years, in which I described taking vengeance on a malfunctioning rural phone booth. "I bet that was my shotgun you used to shoot that phone booth," the letter said. Enclosed was a business card: "Mark Papworth, Ph.D., Chief Deputy Coroner, Thurston County, Special Deputy-Homicide, Thurston County Sheriff's Office. Member of the Faculty, Evergreen State College."
I wrote back, "Dear Dr. P.: I shot that sucker six times with great satisfaction using your shotgun." And so our friendship resumed.
I knew that Papworth, now 67, would be tempted by Lahren's scheme, and indeed he was. He agreed to join the team, saying, "It will be a last great adventure for this old man." For the rest of the winter and into spring, the three of us talked and schemed and brainstormed. In May, we visited Mel and Helen Anzick at their home near Livingston and asked for permission to resume the work that had come to a halt in the 1970s. To our delight, they said yes. Our hope was that we could work steadily at the site for five summers running.
Perhaps the Anzick site was finally going to get its due. If not, we would at least have a hell of a lot of fun.
July 7, 1999, 8 a.m. A warm, sunny morning, and our 11-person crew—the 1999 Anzick Excavation Team—is crowded around the sandstone outcrop, sipping morning coffee from paper cups. The ground rules include "no poking around" (because this is a consecrated burial site) and no beer until 5 p.m., quitting time. We've planned two short digs for this summer, squeezed in between Lahren's paying job for a mining company as a contract archaeologist and Papworth's family obligations. Standing at the base of the bluff, we see that a giant bite has been taken out of the slope by previous digs. We will clear this area back to the cliff and down to the bedrock, revealing the original layers. Although Papworth believes the unexcavated areas may contain multiple burials, for now we will avoid digging in undisturbed dirt.
Lahren and Papworth will call the shots; the rest of the all-volunteer team, including a geologist, an anthropologist, and some students and friends of Lahren's, will do the grunt work, cleaning away rocks and debris and getting the site ready for further study.
And so we work, hauling rocks away in wheelbarrows and sifting sand through screens, making sure we don't miss anything.
On the evening of the first day, as the sun begins to cast a soft golden glow on the cliff face, we welcome an invited guest: The codiscoverer of the site, Calvin Sarver, now 60, has just arrived from town to tell us about that bizarre day 30 years ago when the cliff seemed to rain Clovis artifacts. He walks to the cliff and points at a spot on the wall six feet higher and 15 feet east of the place where both Taylor and Lahren had previously dug.
"It was right here," Sarver says. "Just about this high."
Lahren is stunned. "You're sure about that?" Sarver seems certain, although he grants that it's been 30 years.
Unlike Taylor, who died in 1991, Lahren now has a chance to set the record straight. "You know, I just assumed Taylor excavated the right place," he says. "I can't believe it. We just sifted through his leavings. Well, I guess we better re-do this grid."
The digging is ploddingly slow, the weather hot. It takes us two more days to clear the site and grid it, using Sarver's information. With our grid in place, we begin removing soil a section at a time, an inch at a time, and screen it through table-size sieves. We save bits of old bone—most likely bison and deer—in one paper bag, and place fragments of rock that look as though they may have been worked by humans into another. On the evening of the fifth day we break our encampment and agree to reconvene in a few weeks for a second round of digging.
Then it's late July, and after another week's work, we're done for this year. At last we have chipped and scrubbed our way down to the bedrock. The shaved and sculpted outcrop now looks the way our Clovis family saw it.
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."
On the evening of our second-to-last day working at the Anzick site, after the others leave, I climb to the top of the sacred elephant head and breathe in the immense space under the vault of the Montana sky, the landscape wild and free since the Pleistocene. I pray it will stay this way.
The next morning, the final day of the dig, Lahren shows us a single, huge, four-pound obsidian point he has borrowed from Larry Edwards, a local bird hunter who discovered it along a nearby creek three years ago. It's a Clovis biface that shows the same serrated-edge flaking technique used to produce the Anzick burial tools. This is odd because, even though obsidian is a common lithic material here, none of the Anzick artifacts is made of it. The biface looks as if it hasn't lain out in the sun long; there's no patina, the edges are still sharp, no cow has stepped on it. On the other hand, Lahren points out that the faces show wear, as if the piece had been carried around in a pack. Lahren says, "I bet this eroded out of another cache."
The three of us decide to go check out the area. We climb into my truck and head to the hillside where our friend found the biface, bouncing along a dusty track following a small creek. We park in the draw where the hunter's dog first jumped a small covey of Hungarian partridge.
A few cottonwoods grow along the little gully where deer and range cattle have cut trails down to the water. I look for a place to cross the thick willow-bottomed creek. I hear a gurgle of water and know there's a beaver dam nearby. In the pool above the tiny dam, small trout dart and rise to insects. The three of us assemble on the rocky hillside on the far bank, where the giant biface was found, no doubt washed out of a fissure or overhang from the sandstone cliff just above. You could probably find where it came from if you wanted.
From the top of the hill we can see the distant elephant head of the bluff above the Anzick site. As we walk, conversation turns to how to protect the site and return the layers of rock that belong to the Clovis back to them. Maybe we could restore the land to its original contours, I suggest. We could consult with the Lakota, Crow, and Blackfeet tribes and consecrate it with an appropriate solemn ceremony.
"When all this science is over," I say quietly to my two friends, "we should rebury the child."