No Bone Unturned: The Adventures of a Top Smithsonian Forensic Scientist and the Legal Battle for America's Oldest Skeletons - Jeff Benedict (2003)


Wednesday, May 8, 1996

On the Metro train commute from his suburban Virginia home to the Smithsonian, Owsley, always behind on his reading, retrieved from his bag a three-day-old edition of the Washington Post. He immediately zeroed in on the headline: “Nevada Mummy Caught in Debate Over Tribal Remains.”

For half a century, the Spirit Cave man lay in a wooden box with the lid screwed down tight, unforgotten but unexamined and uncontroversial. Then last month, anthropologists at the Nevada State Museum announced that new tests show the partially mummified skeleton is nearly 10,000 years old, and everything changed. The body appears to be one of the oldest found in North America…providing a rich view of life in the post–Ice Age world.

Preliminary study strongly suggests the Spirit Cave man came from an ethnic group that long preceded the people whose descendants are the contemporary Indians of the Great Basin.

Owsley immediately wanted to see it. He figured he could solve the mystery over the mummy’s ancestry and whether it was of American Indian origin. Since arriving at the Smithsonian, Owsley had developed the world’s first comprehensive skeleton database. It contained profiles and descriptions of thousands of skeletons from scores of world populations.

Owsley got the idea for the database while teaching at LSU. One day Bill Bass called him from Tennessee and told him that the contents of the university’s Over Collection—five hundred American Indian skeletons recovered from South Dakota by archaeologist William H. Over in the 1900s—were being repatriated to South Dakota tribes for reburial. Owsley wanted to document the collection before it went back. He asked Tennessee professor Richard Jantz to help him design a database that included information on place of origin, bone and dental inventories, demographics, skeletal and dental pathology, cranial and postcranial measurements, photographs and radiographs, and taphonomic observations. From the bones, Owsley wanted to be able to discern population demography, health conditions, migration patterns, patterns of gene flow, dietary habits, and mortuary practices.

Jantz was the natural choice to help design such a complex system. A master creator of databases, Jantz taught statistics and research methods at Tennessee. He also designed his own database for collecting skull measurements, a process that helped him identify skeleton populations based on cranial features. Owsley had thrived under Jantz as a student and had asked him to oversee his doctoral dissertation. An expert in dermatoglyphics—the analysis of fingerprints—Jantz suggested that Owsley analyze the fingerprint patterns of 204 Knoxville-area children with cleft lip or cleft pallet. Since fingerprints are a product of fetal growth and development, much could be learned by comparing the prints of afflicted children with those of their unafflicted relatives. After the study, Owsley produced a 182-page paper. The conclusion was that children with cleft lip and cleft palate did not suffer from markedly different rates of embryonic growth.

Impressed, Jantz asked Owsley to help him work on various research projects. Their crowning work together was the Over Collection project. Together, they inventoried all 500 skeletons, forming the foundation of their database. Since 1985, when they finished that work, they had added more than 4,500 other skeletons from a wide variety of human populations. As the data grew, they produced formulas that allowed them to identify any skeleton’s identity by taking measurements and entering them into a complex formula of comparisons to those remains already compiled. If the Spirit Cave mummy’s information could be entered into the system, a statistical profile would emerge, verifying whether or not it was of American Indian origin.

Owsley scanned the Post story for a contact person at the Nevada museum: curator Amy Dansie.

Before noon, he had Dansie on the phone. She explained that in 1940 two archaeologists working for the Nevada State Park Commission discovered a mummy—a five-foot, two-inch male in his forties—buried in a cave outside Fallon, a small town sixty miles east of Reno. It was unusually well preserved, the result of being sheltered in a cave in Nevada’s arid climate. Based on artifacts found with the mummy, experts in the 1940s estimated it was roughly two thousand years old. Packed and stored at the Nevada State Museum, the remains received no attention until 1995, when advances in radiocarbon dating prompted the museum to have the mummy dated. The results showed he was approximately 10,650* years old. Dansie told Owsley that after the date came back, two Nevada Indian tribes—the Paiute and the Shoshone—claimed the mummy.

Listening to Dansie, Owsley’s mind began churning. He and Jantz had just finished analyzing a series of skeletons housed at Brigham Young University and at the Utah Museum of Natural History. They had found that Utah Indian populations, from a skeletal standpoint, are quite different from Plains Indians. Unlike Plains Indians, who tend to be quite big, the Utah American Indians are much smaller in physical stature.

Dansie doubted that the mummy found in Spirit Cave had any affiliation to either the Paiute or the Shoshone.

Owsley assured her that by coming out and taking some standard measurements, he could confirm whether the Spirit Cave mummy was a descendant of the Paiute or the Shoshone, or whether he was unrelated. So, it was decided; he would visit Dansie sometime in July.

Owsley could not wait to get to Nevada. Studying prehistoric skeletons contrasted sharply with the work he performed on fresh bodies from modern crime scenes and mass disasters. All of it was part of his job, but the historic remains were less like work than the modern ones.

Whenever a law enforcement agency called Owsley, the news was bad. He never got called when people died naturally. His cases were always ones in which humans had been so badly disfigured or decomposed that traditional forms of identification were inadequate. On the other hand, good news and a sense of excitement and intrigue accompanied the discovery of older remains. The bones of the distant past had no fresh sense of death, nor any mourning relatives. Owsley saw these skeletons as a chance to learn and enlighten the future.

Given a choice, Owsley had no preference, however. He viewed the modern cases as a challenge where science could trump evil. By identifying a maimed or dismembered body, he could deprive a killer of his design to obscure a victim’s identity. Also, Owsley could lend solace to the survivors and evidence to assist law enforcement officials in the prosecution of perpetrators. These were the tangible payoffs to his forensic work.

Conversely, the study of historic skeletons was simply knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Few people in the world appreciated skeletons as Owsley did. Since bones were like books to him, Owsley’s encounters with ancient skeletons were akin to a contemporary playwright stepping into a time machine and spending a day with Shakespeare. Only Owsley had the luxury of getting into the time machine over and over again.

Nonetheless, he felt obligated not to confine his work to historic remains. That would be selfish. He knew he possessed an innate ability to perform a valuable service after tragic deaths. Besides his scientific skills, he had trained himself to numb his mind to the horrific scenes before his eyes. He could work on Branch Davidians and sleep at night. His dreams, which were often in elaborate color, never involved the skeletons he worked on. Yet he recognized he could never be a full-time medical examiner, confined to handling recent death cases all the time. He needed to see the older ones. To him, they had stories to tell, stories that could only be interpreted through their bones.

Carson City, Nevada
July 15, 1996

Tall, with bushy graying hair, sideburns, and glasses, fifty-three-year-old Richard Jantz stood over the wooden observation table with Owsley. They watched as Smithsonian photographer Chip Clark placed an index card with black bold letters that read SPIRIT CAVE. Clark set it on a white cloth sheet in front of a wickerlike matting made of intricately handwoven reeds. A small hole in the matting revealed a section of the Spirit Cave mummy’s articulated spinal column. Clark rubbed his thick black beard and adjusted his glasses. “I’m ready,” he said, camera strap around his neck. As the morning progressed, he would shoot the black-and-white film to be archived at the Smithsonian, where it was expected to endure for centuries. The color slides he took would be scanned into a digitized computer database, available for publications and classroom presentations. Together, the two photographs assured a permanent visual record of the oldest mummy in North America.

Curator Amy Dansie, her graying hair pulled back in a ponytail, gently drew back the reed matting, revealing a second layer of diamond-plaited matting, intricately hand-stitched and sturdy. The sight of diamonds from over ten thousand years ago gripped everyone. Owsley, Jantz, and their assistants looked on silently from the opposite side of the table.

Lying on his right side, the mummy had his right arm flexed at the elbow, his wrist resting under his chin. The left arm was extended in front of the pelvis. Some joints contained dried cartilage. Ligaments were attached to bones covered by desiccated skin. The spinal column wound toward a robust set of hips, above which rested portions of the large intestine and colon. Both legs were slightly flexed. A pair of leather moccasins covered the feet.

“How could something so old be so well preserved?” marveled Jantz.

“Wow,” Owsley whispered, zeroing in on the mummy’s skull, mostly covered in desiccated, leathery brown skin and scalp tissue, from which clung brownish red hair that hung down the sides of the head. Two patches of hair dotted the top of the skull. Visible through a small opening in the cheek, brown-stained teeth sat firmly in the jaw. Recessed and round, both eye orbits had eye tissue and muscle attached.

Owsley bent down and cocked his head, his eyes level with the mummy’s face. “Well, look at that,” he said, peering through the empty eye cavities into the skull. Strands of tissue resembling spiderwebs traversed the interior cranium.

Slowly, Owsley stood back up. “He has a short, narrow face,” said Owsley, thinking privately that the mummy seemed very different from the characteristics he was used to seeing in American Indians. They typically have wide faces. “And the nose and chin jut forward,” he continued, thinking that those features were also atypical.

Owsley began inventorying the bones. He stood over a circular halogen lamp and, through a magnifying lens, looked at the skull.

“He’s got a skull fracture…a depression fracture right here on the side of his head,” Owsley said, using a dental pick to point to a depression in the left temporal area behind the mummy’s left eye. He figured the man had been hit with a rock or a blunt weapon, with sufficient force to leave a dent in the skull the size of a quarter. Owsley rotated the skull in his hands. Crooked fracture lines traveled away from the depression, one going up and the other going down. The bone around the depression was slightly darker in color, indicating that he had been in the process of healing when he died.

He felt the man’s long strands of wavy brown hair with reddish tones. In this instance he felt confident red was not this person’s natural hair color. After death, hair color can lose its pigment if exposed to natural light. Owsley figured the man’s natural hair color was darker. Using his fingers, Owsley worked through the coarse hair, searching for nits and head lice. He found none.

Next Owsley looked at the spinal column. “He’s got thirteen thoracics,” he said. “That’s an anomaly.” The human anatomy typically has twelve vertebrae, not thirteen, a rarity passed on genetically. “And see, this is a fatigue fracture,” he said, pointing to a fracture line in the spine. He explained that the fatigue was the result of chronic strain to the back, potentially caused by constant bending over to hunt or find food. Years of stress on the lower back ultimately fractured one of the vertebrae.

“There is some intestinal content,” Doug said, pointing to a portion of the large intestine that remained intact and stretched to the colon. It held dried feces, a potential gold mine of information that would reveal the mummy’s last meal.

When Owsley finished with the skull, Jantz set it on a cushioned, doughnut-shaped ring that was suspended six inches above the table by a metal rod. Once the skull was secure, Dansie reached her fingertips gingerly under the brittle skin. Peeling back small areas covering specific landmarks on the skull, she gently exposed the bone surface.

For the next two hours, Jantz took more than fifty skull measurements, capturing the facial forwardness, vault breadth, facial breadth, and facial height. It was clear that the skull had a long, narrow vault, very atypical of Native Americans. It was not a skull with a vault morphology that he would expect to see in modern people in the area. It was very uncommon for what one might find in the Great Basin or in any Indian in the past three thousand years.

Jantz handed the skull to Dansie. Owsley and Jantz gathered around her as she returned the skull to the mummy’s other bones.

“This is very interesting,” Owsley said, taking a final look at the Spirit Cave man before Dansie covered him back up in his diamond-studded matting. “This guy is so fascinating, so different. He doesn’t look like anybody alive today.”

He could hardly wait for Jantz to run Spirit Cave mummy’s cranial measurements through his computer program that would compare him to other human populations.