No Bone Unturned: The Adventures of a Top Smithsonian Forensic Scientist and the Legal Battle for America's Oldest Skeletons - Jeff Benedict (2003)
At five thousand feet above sea level and located just twenty miles west of the Nebraska line and not too far south of the Black Hills, Lusk was a child’s paradise. Accessible by only two roads, the remote high-plains town with barely more than 1,500 residents was a throwback to the western cowboy era. Lusk had emerged during the gold rush to the Black Hills and, thanks to the building of the Cheyenne-Deadwood stagecoach route in 1876, had become a stopping point for freights of slat pork and whiskey, armored coaches bearing gold bricks, Indians, and opportunists from miners to armed bandits. In the early 1900s, silver was discovered in the nearby hills; but by the 1950s ranching had become the town’s staple industry.
Although the stagecoach has long been supplanted by the Union Pacific Railroad, the ruts made more than one hundred years earlier still mark the ground, except for Main Street, now coated with asphalt, dotted with two stoplights, and lined with a row of storefronts. The commercial strip of local businesses includes a lumberyard, a bank, a diner, and a saloon. There are no chain stores and no fast food outlets. The Yellow Hotel, once a thriving two-story whorehouse for cowboys, and the Lusk Drive-in Theater, which abuts a corral, bookend the town. A twelve-block-square grid making up the town’s residential section surrounds Main Street, an area of modest one-story ranch-style houses with small green lawns lining streets with red fire hydrants and stop signs on each corner.
The remnants of Lusk’s past and its geographical isolation from the rest of the world made Doug Owsley’s childhood summers a never-ending series of adventures. The curly blond-haired boy and Mike Lyon, his dark-haired buddy with the crewcut, were as inseparable as the explorers Lewis and Clark. Forbidden mines, fields littered with old buffalo bones and arrowheads, and towering rock cliffs containing soil and fossils dating back thousands of years were their playground. On summer nights, you would sometimes find them sleeping outside, under the carpet of stars in the vast Wyoming sky. During the day, they would probe insect colonies, track roaming big game, and drink fresh water from underground springs.
On a summer day in 1962, Doug and Mike visited one of their favorite spots, the abandoned silver mine. Jumping off their bikes and ditching them in the bushes, the ten-year-olds scrambled up the hillside of the mine. Sand and pebbles trickled into their canvas sneakers as they climbed higher. “Let’s look here,” said Doug, poking the ground with a short stick as Mike paused, watching for the slightest movement. The dusty soil camouflaged the brown-spotted horny toads they were after.
“Let’s go up further,” Doug said, leading Mike toward the hill’s peak.
Both boys froze.
“Wow, look at that,” Doug whispered. In a sloping circular pit, hundreds of sun-bleached white bones seemed to form the rough skeletal shape of something too large to be human.
Doug jumped down into the hole amid the bones and rocks and some broken pieces of a wood gate, its rusted metal hinges hanging stiffly from the corners. “Man, this is neat,” he said, picking up bones and running his fingers over their dry, smooth surface.
“I don’t know if I’d be touchin’ those, Doug. They gotta be covered with bugs.”
Unfazed, Doug lifted the heavy, elongated skull. He put it right up to his face and peered into its empty cavities, recessed and separated by a long snout that jutted forward. The opening of the mouth had long teeth, with rows of shorter teeth on both sides of the jaws.
“That could be a horse,” said Mike. Seeing that Doug had survived the initial contact with the bones, he finally climbed down into the hole and picked one up himself.
“I wonder how it got down here,” Doug said.
“Must have fallen over the edge.”
“What a discovery!” Doug said. “This is what it must be like to be famous archaeologists.”
Mike wondered what the next step was. To Doug it was clear.
“This is a real treasure. We gotta bring this to our lab.”
“Put it back together…. You know, like the dinosaurs in museums. Come on. Let’s go get something to carry these in.”
An hour later, they returned with their red metal wagons and filled them with armloads of the bones. After a series of trips to and from Mike’s house, they had deposited the entire skeleton in their self-made science laboratory, a converted pigeon coop off of the Lyons’ carport. Caged by gray chicken wire, the lab sported a scarred wood table and rickety shelves with glass jars holding frogs and insects. Some jars had masking tape on them, the words “For Scientific Research” scribbled on the strips.
A year earlier, they had made their first big discovery in the lab. Doug had dissected a frog and removed its thimble-size lungs for observation. Peering through the lens of Mike’s microscope, Doug detected tiny worms working their way into the organs. It marked the first time they had seen live parasites.
The horse skeleton, however, took them to a new level of intrigue. Doug was sure he and Mike could reconstruct it. He spread the bones out on the table, sorting and matching those that looked like they fit together. He was prepared to spend the remainder of the summer, if need be, to assemble the skeleton.
The wooden sign staked in the ground proclaimed GAME WARDEN STATION and held a blue-and-yellow insignia of an antelope accompanied by the words “Wyoming Game and Fish.” Behind the sign sat a cozy ranch-style redbrick house with a narrow concrete driveway. Inside, thirty-five-year-old Norma Lou Owsley wore an apron as she prepared dinner at the kitchen counter. In the adjacent living room, the brass pendulum on the wall clock swung, its gentle ticking a sound that Norma Lou had grown accustomed to since moving into the house on South Lynn Street in 1958. That year, her husband, Bill, had become a Wyoming game warden. For monitoring all hunting and fishing in the county, as well as counting herds and feeding elk in the Yellowstone area in the winter, Bill Owsley was paid $195 a month. The state also provided him with a home for $10 a month. The Owsleys lived conservatively, and they did not smoke or drink, yet they never made it past the third week of the month before running out of money. It was Norma Lou’s job to make the food stretch. She did it by making lots of casseroles, including Doug’s favorite: diced onions and celery with ground beef and cream of mushroom soup over rice.
Bill practically lived in his pickup truck, his game warden duties keeping him away from home from dawn until dark. That left Norma Lou to help Doug with his homework every night, usher him to Cub Scouts once a week, and take him to church on Sundays. When it came to schoolwork, she never had to prod Doug. Bill promised him a quarter for every A. The challenge stoked Doug’s competitive nature, motivating him to study, which consistently put him at the top of his class. He treated scouting as a competition too. He always earned the most badges, found the most bugs, and identified the most types of leaves. He grew insatiably curious. During recess his Sunday school teacher would often find him crouched over, his elbows on his knees, searching for insects in the churchyard grass and observing their actions while the other children played games.
Unlike some game warden residences, the walls of the Owsley home did not display the stuffed heads of wild bear, coyote, or deer mounted on wooden plaques. Bill rarely hunted and disapproved of making trophies of animals. And Norma Lou, an accomplished artist, preferred her paintings and cut glass. The Owsleys instilled in Doug a respect for animals. Yet he looked at animals in a different light—they were specimens whose anatomy and biology held a deep fascination for him.
When he was nine years old, he began experimenting in the basement with a chemistry set, a Christmas gift from his parents. Combining chemicals from the kit with bathroom solvents, he developed an anesthetic to knock out frogs by applying the compound to their nose with a cloth. One day, with a frog unconscious, Doug slit open its belly to observe its heart and other organs. The burgundy red heart no bigger than a pencil eraser pulsed while the pink, porous lungs expanded and contracted. Fascinated, he took notes, then stitched the frog up with one of his mother’s sewing needles. When it revived, Doug palmed it in his hand and headed up the basement steps and through the living room en route to its home, a nearby pond, where he planned to release it. Emerging from the kitchen, Doug’s mother intercepted him.
“What are you doing?” she asked, suspecting he was up to something.
Knowing his mom would disapprove, Doug dropped his hand to his side. But the frog poked its head out between his thumb and index finger.
“What do you have?” she asked.
“It’s a frog I’m taking outside.” The less said, the better, Doug thought.
Overhearing the conversation, Bill rose from his chair in the living room and approached. “Let me see it.”
Dreading a stern lecture, Doug opened his hand slowly. The frog was on its back, and Bill immediately noticed the stitches running up the frog’s belly.
“No more of that,” he said, a man of few words. “That’s cruel.”
Deflated, Doug left the house. His parents just didn’t understand. He wasn’t trying to be cruel; he just wanted to know how the frog’s vital organs worked. It was all for science!
From that day forward, as far as his parents were concerned, at least, he stopped dissecting living frogs in his basement. That was also when he moved his laboratory to Mike Lyon’s pigeon coop.
It was the last week of summer. For two months Doug, with Mike’s help, had been rebuilding the horse skeleton they had discovered. Without the aid of a textbook or diagrams, Doug had paired bones of similar sizes and shapes, then fit them together to form a partially articulated skeleton. To him, the bones were a giant jigsaw puzzle. The more he worked on it, the more the animal became whole. Mike stood by him every step of the way. It was the coolest thing, being real-life archaeologists.
“When we’re scientists someday,” Doug said later, when the horse skeleton was complete except for a few odd or missing bones, “I’ll bet we could be in National Geographic.”
Eleven years later,
two hundred miles away
A twenty-one-year-old senior at the University of Wyoming, Doug climbed into the passenger side of a brown 1971 Ford pickup truck. It belonged to his anthropology professor, George Gill. Ten years older than Doug and a Vietnam veteran, Gill looked like a cross between the Marlboro Man and Robert Redford. He wore a cowboy hat over his dark bushy hair, and a sleeveless khaki field shirt that displayed a suntanned, muscular chest and chiseled biceps. Gill’s empty gun rack rattled against the rear window as he and Doug drove off, headed toward Pitchfork Cave in the Absaroka Range. Weeks earlier one of Gill’s students had been rock climbing in that region and spotted what looked like a human skull. Gill reported the discovery to the Wyoming State Archaeologist’s office, and they in turn gave him authorization to recover it.
Gill had become a mentor to Doug after meeting him just one year earlier in his Introduction to Anthropology course. On the first day of class Gill could not help but notice the young man. Many of his students had long hair, wore tie-dyed shirts, avoided the front row, and never asked questions. Doug wore dress slacks and a collared shirt, and his hair was neatly trimmed above his ears. He sat in the center seat of the first row, where he regularly asked questions that sometimes elicited snickers from his classmates. Snicker as they might, Doug was the only student who earned a perfect score on the first exam. In fact, he would go on to ace every exam Gill offered that semester, finishing far ahead of his peers. Curious, Gill checked the student records and discovered that through Doug’s first three years of college, he had a 4.0 grade point average. According to the files, he was premed, on track to go to medical school and become a physician.
As the semester wore on, Doug started spending his spare time in Gill’s lab, one wall of which contained shelves lined with bones, skulls, and casts of skulls. Each of the four shelves was dedicated to one of the stages of human evolution: Australopithecine (earliest definite hominids, believed in existence in regions of Africa between 4 million and 1 million years ago); Homo erectus (hominids from Java, China, and Kenya, dating back between 1 million and 500,000 years ago); Neanderthal (hominids found in Europe and western Asia, dating back between 200,000 and 40,000 years ago); and modern Homo sapiens (early modern human, which first surfaced 100,000 years ago).
By semester’s end, Gill could remove any bone or skull from a shelf and Doug could tell him which period it came from, based on its shape and features. Gill encouraged him to take a couple of graduate-level courses during his senior year, human evolution and osteology, a skeletal-biology class. Doug would go on to finish first in both classes, outperforming the graduate students. Gill was taken with him. The kid was a natural. But Gill didn’t want to push him into anthropology. Doug needed to realize it on his own.
Before the end of his osteology class, Doug submitted to Gill a handwritten thirty-page paper entitled “The Criteria for Siding Hand Bones.” He told Gill he had done it for extra credit.
Gill flipped through the pages. Doug had spent weeks handling and comparing tiny carpal bones and had produced a text on how to distinguish left-hand bones from right-hand bones.
“It’s just amazing,” Gill said.
Gill smiled. “Doug, you certainly don’t need ten extra points. You’ve got the highest grade average in the class.”
“This stuff is more exciting than medicine,” Doug said. “I think maybe this is the field I should be in.”
Gill was thrilled. Doug had rare abilities and gifts. As an undergraduate he was making observations and deductions that matched those of Gill and his colleagues. His thirst for knowledge was unquenchable, and he had a phenomenal rate of retention. “You would do extremely well in this field,” Gill said.
Doug seemed doubtful though. After all, he was a premed major.
“Let me tell you something, Doug. I was a zoology major and heading down the premed route myself. Heck, half of us physical anthropologists were premed majors.” Gill told him that the best premed students often desert medicine for physical anthropology, a field that offers the freedom to travel and learn.
Doug’s enthusiasm prompted Gill to bring Doug to Pitchfork Cave, providing an opportunity for him to discover and handle his first human skeleton.
Gill slowed his truck to a stop beneath the cave high up in the face of a cliff. After stepping out of the vehicle and surveying the precipice, Gill and Doug pulled up the extension ladder and secured it against the rock wall. Doug trailed Gill up the ladder. Cresting the ledge, he came to a dead stop.
Just feet away, a face peered back at him from out of the rocks. Speechless, Doug stared at the skull. Immediately, his mind began racing, wondering who that person once was.
“Wow, this is fantastic,” Gill said after he pulled himself up onto the rock ledge. Unlike most people, anthropologists are excited by the appearance of a skeleton, welcome it in fact. For them it is a mystery waiting to be solved, a window into the distant past.
Gill told Doug to get the tools from the truck. Doug hustled down the ladder and came back moments later with hand trowels, dental picks, small paintbrushes, whisk brooms, and storage bags. Gill was already taking photographs. Doug gently put down the tools, as if in a sacred place, and approached the small stack of limestone rocks surrounding the skull. Squatting beside it, he saw its lower jawbone and teeth, visible as before through a gap in the rock pile. The left side of its face was completely skeletonized.
Carefully, Gill pulled away the rocks, and the rest of the skull gradually came into view. Doug was astonished at how well preserved it was. The right side of the face still held skin tissue. Two round, flat copper earrings hung from the still-intact right ear, while braided black hair ran down each side of the head. The hair on the back of the head was loose but matted.
Following Gill’s lead, Doug used a paintbrush to gently brush back dirt, exposing the torso, ribs, and a leg. Suddenly they spotted a second skeleton—this one without a skull. Gill stressed to Doug the need to fully expose the skeletons, and the importance of then photographing and documenting their position.
Mirroring Gill, Doug used a trowel to remove sections of the grave where the dirt was compacted, then returned to using a brush to remove the windblown soil that covered the majority of the skeleton. It took less than two hours to uncover the burial.
Both skeletons were wrapped in buffalo robes, lying face up in a shallow grave that stretched ten feet in length and no more than two inches in depth. The grave had previously been disturbed, leaving portions of the skeletons exposed and missing. Most of the limbs of the first skeleton and the skull of the second one were gone.
The missing skull nagged Doug. “Where is that other skull?” he asked.
Given the height of the cave’s opening, Gill figured an eagle or some other large bird had probably dislodged it from the grave.
The more Doug thought about it, the more it bothered him. He dug around the cave looking for it, then climbed back down the ladder and hunted around beneath the cave. No luck. He wanted to keep searching, but Gill suggested they deal with the bones at hand, pointing out to Doug the need to identify both skeletons.
Gill took a five-by-eleven-inch card, marked it “PITCHFORK Burial #1A,” and propped it against the skeleton with a skull. He put one marked “PITCHFORK Burial #1B” next to the skeleton without a skull. After taking slide pictures of the grave and the positioning of the skeletons, he examined the specimens more closely.
“What do you think the sex is?” Gill asked.
Doug studied the heavy brow ridges and the cranium. It seemed obvious to him. “Male,” Doug said, glancing up at Gill.
“That’s right. And the race?”
Both skeletons were big and robust. The nose shape on the one skull was distinctive, like an upside-down heart. It had a very long mid face and very prominent, large cheekbones. “Indian.”
Gill nodded, impressed but not surprised. They next turned their attention to the necklaces made of hundreds of glass beads—red, purple, white, blue, and black. Some had come loose, but most of the beads were still on a thin brown sinew, made from animal tissue. Gill handed Doug a couple of small paper bags and small plastic vials with snap-on tops. “It’s important to keep these intact when you place them in the bags,” he said. The patterns and stitching held clues to tribal affiliation.
Doug used his fingers and a dental pick to pick up beads, meticulous in his attempt to preserve them in the precise order in which they appeared in the grave. When he finished, he crouched beside Gill, who was peeling back the clothing over one skeleton’s chest. It had on several layers of robe that appeared made of deer or buffalo hides. The edges were decayed. Gill told Doug to note how many layers they went through.
Beneath the robes, the skeleton had on a faded red military coat with a blue lining, metallic trim, and brass buttons. “Looks like an old U.S. Cavalry jacket or something,” Gill said.
The chest was still held together by ligaments, Doug observed. The hand bones had some cartilage as well.
Gill stopped to explain. Anytime a skeleton retains some type of soft tissue it can be classified as a mummy, or at least partially mummified. These skeletons had been well preserved, as a body can completely skeletonize, without any sign of skin, internal organs, or even brain tissue. Brain tissue is usually one of the last things to go because it can tan itself as it shrinks. It is often reduced to a little leathery piece of material rattling around inside a skull.
Feverishly scribbling notes, Doug looked up as Gill pointed to an area of the skeletons where soft tissue was visible. A skeleton inside of clothing, he explained, will preserve better. Gill pointed to the ear with the earrings, the hair behind the head, and the skin around the skull and the torso. The line that divides a skeleton from a mummy is not a real clear one, Gill explained. They had found a partially mummified skeleton.
Doug also noticed tiny, empty insect casings around the mummy portion of the skeleton. They were casings that fly pupae shed, Gill explained. They were a clue to what time of year the two men were buried. These bodies had to have been interred at a time when the flies were out, ruling out certain months of the year.
After completing the recovery, Doug helped Gill put the remains in boxes and load them into the truck for safe transport to the state archaeologist’s office. Doug wondered out loud if any Indian wars had taken place in the region. Gill said that folklore and some historical documents suggested that there had been a number of battles around Pitchfork Ranch between the Blackfeet, Crow, and Shoshone Indians.
The mystery surrounding both men captivated Doug’s thoughts for weeks afterward. What were two Indians doing up in a cave, dressed in military uniforms? Did both men die simultaneously? And how did they die? Neither skeleton showed signs of trauma. It irked him that he didn’t have time to pursue the questions.
Stirred by what he saw, he yearned to know more about American Indians, their lifestyle and history. Inevitably, he lost interest in medical school and accepted a teaching assistantship to study under Dr. William Bass, recognized as the country’s top forensic anthropologist. It was too good an opportunity for Doug to turn down. Prior to becoming chair of the University of Tennessee’s anthropology department, Bass had personally recovered more American Indian remains than any other anthropologist in the United States.
After World War II, the federal government had initiated a vast public works program that included nationwide dam construction along the country’s major rivers. Prior and during construction the Interior Department conducted archaeological surveys in the river regions. The Smithsonian Institution and the National Park Service worked together to salvage archaeological sites detected in the surveys. The Smithsonian asked Bass to assist in the Missouri Basin Project—a massive retrieval of artifacts and human remains sure to be exposed with the construction of four reservoirs along the Missouri River in North and South Dakota. With the river dammed in four locations, water buildup caused wave action and subsequent erosion, washing out old Indian villages and burial grounds.
Hoping to salvage the sites on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution, Bass spent fourteen summers from 1956 to 1970 excavating and recovering human remains along the Missouri River. With the aid of local tribes, he found approximately five thousand Plains Indian skeletons. One of the locations he dug was the Larson site, a fortified village in South Dakota that was home to the Arikara Indians prior to 1780. The site contained earth lodges—domed huts with sod roofs that were supported by timbers—and a tribal burial ground. He excavated approximately seven hundred burials at the cemetery and also acquired sixty-five individuals’ remains in and around the village homes.
Shortly after Doug started graduate school, Bass directed him to construct a demographic profile of the Arikara. While studying forensic anthropology under Bass, Owsley determined the age and sex of 762 Arikara skeletons. He found that 40 percent of the individuals were newborn babies who had died at birth or shortly after. He also discovered many skeletons of females between the ages of fifteen and nineteen, indicating an earlier average age of death for females than males. The data became the basis for Owsley’s master’s thesis: a comparison between the mortality rates of males and females in the Arikara Indians at Larson Village, and an attempt to explain the discrepancy.
After completing his research, Doug met with Bass to discuss his findings. He had discovered that the skeletons recovered from the village had never been formally buried; rather, they were found scattered on the house floors and in surrounding areas. The lodges had simply caved in on top of the remains. Many of those skeletons were males and older women. The village contained relatively few children and young adult women.
On the other hand, the skeletons recovered from the cemetery had generally been formally interred in the flex or fetal position. These skeletons contained a higher proportion of young adult women and infants.
Statistically, the age and sex distributions of the skeletons at the cemetery differed from those in the village. Owsley wondered why. Bass figured a catastrophic event—most likely a smallpox epidemic—had struck the village. Historical accounts from fur traders in the Missouri Basin referred to the practice of abandoning smallpox victims in their homes and deserting the village in order to prevent the spread of disease. Some villages were even burned. The Larson Village seemed to fit the profile. One Arikara home in the village contained forty-four individuals. It and other homes had also been burned, as some skeletons showed signs of charring.
Doug had also found that skeletons buried in the cemetery were of individuals who had not all died instantly, but had been buried over the course of a few decades. This could be explained by Bass’s belief that smallpox had killed those in the village, preventing them from receiving a formal burial.
With the thesis complete, Bass asked Doug to help him teach his Introduction to Physical Anthropology class. Early in the semester, Bass brought in a box of nine skulls, planning to use them as teaching aids when going over the anatomy of the skull. Some of the skulls were from the Larson site that Doug had studied for his thesis.
As Bass lectured, Doug sat at the table on which the box of skulls rested. His mind wandering, he found himself staring at them, then noticed a fine incision on the front of one of the skulls. He picked it up and examined it more closely. Another incision ran along the side of the skull. Cut marks, he thought.
Recognizing the skull as one from the Larson Village collection, Doug looked in the box for others. There were three more. Doug quietly lifted the other three Larson skulls from the box. All three had similar cut marks around the tops of the cranium. They looked as if they had been scalped.
Doug had just completed a term paper for his archaeology class on evidence of scalping in the southeastern United States. In researching how Indian tribes scalped enemies—removing the hair and soft tissue on the top and back of the head with a blade—Doug had read scholarly studies that detailed the process. One scholar reported: “They with one hand twisted in the hair, extend it as far as they can [and] with the other hand…speedily draw their long sharp-pointed scalping knife, give a slash round the top of the skull and with a few dexterous scoops soon strip it off.”
Prior to European contact, tribes had used sharp reeds, shells, and flint knives for scalping. The method became more efficient after Europeans introduced steel-blade knives to the plains, enabling Indians to complete a scalping with only two cuts to the occipital bone. To learn what scalping cuts looked like, Doug had traveled to Vanderbilt University and examined scalping victims’ skulls recovered from prehistoric Indian burials in Tennessee. The skulls contained cuts like the ones Doug saw on the Larson Village skulls. He wondered how he and Bass had not previously detected the cut marks.
As soon as Bass finished his lecture, Doug hustled up to him.
“Dr. Bass, I have to show you this,” he said, pulling skulls from the box.
He pointed to the cuts on the skulls.
Bass looked closely at the incisions. He and several of his doctoral students had been handling the Larson skeletons for more than a decade and had never noticed the cuts. They hadn’t been looking for incisions, but instead had been taking measurements.
“I’ve seen examples of this,” Doug continued, reporting on his term paper.
“Well, Doug, you need to document all of this,” Bass said, encouraging him to reexamine the entire Larson collection for evidence of cut marks on other skulls.
This time, instead of looking for indicators of age and sex, Doug looked for evidence of trauma and mutilation. The more he looked, the more he doubted the conclusion he had reached in his thesis paper, that an infectious disease such as smallpox had decimated the Arikara. Virtually every skull recovered from the village area contained scalping cuts. The only skeletons from the village that didn’t show signs of scalping were ones that had been burned or decapitated. On the ones that had been decapitated, Doug found cut marks on the vertebrae of the neck.
The trauma explained why skeletons were found randomly scattered around the village area and inside the houses, rather than buried with the ones in the cemetery. The Arikara village had been violently attacked. The catastrophe that instantly wiped them out was physical violence, not disease. In addition, their homes had been burned by the invaders, a conclusion that helped explain why Doug found so few young adult women in the village as compared to the cemetery. After killing the Arikara men, the enemy likely took captive the young adult women, while leaving behind the older women and young children. Doug attributed the violence to an enemy tribe. Dated between the late 1600s and 1750, Larson Village predated European contact in the South Dakota region.
Bass was so impressed with Doug’s discovery that he sent him to present his research to a group of professional archaeologists and university professors at an archaeology conference in Lincoln, Nebraska. Doug had never presented at a professional conference and had virtually no experience with public speaking. Facing two hundred people, he used an array of slides while telling a chilling tale of how another tribe butchered the Arikara.
Most of the skulls, he explained, were scalped, even though some of them were also burned. “There were three or four males that had neck vertebrae that were decapitated.” On the slide projector, he put up a slide showing an example. “You’ll note the obvious cut marks on the higher cervical vertebrae,” he said, applying his pointer to the screen.
He put up another slide, then turned to his audience. “Basically, they cut from ear to ear,” he said, demonstrating by moving his thumb in a quick jerking motion from his right ear, across his neck to his left ear. “And deeply into the bone.” With his right hand, Doug reached up and grabbed a handful of his hair and yanked his scalp back. “Then they pulled the head back so forcefully that it snapped the second cervical vertebrae, causing the head to pop off.”
As he spoke Doug noticed that the audience remained silent. He wondered if they were captivated, or bored.
He put up another slide. “This one is of a young woman,” he said, his speech speeding up. “She has been dismembered, obviously. They cut across her radius and ulna.” Doug held up his left arm. Using his right hand, he sliced across his left wrist, as if he were cutting with a knife. “And then they grabbed the hand and pushed it back so forcefully,” he continued, pulling his left wrist backward, “that it was taken off.”
People in the audience winced. “In the literature it is clear that not only heads or scalps were taken as trophies, but so were hands.”
Doug shut off the slide projector and turned on the lights. Silence stifled the room. The largely academic audience was unaccustomed to such graphic evidence of violence. “We see what we are trained to see,” Doug concluded softly, admitting to his audience that he had originally assumed that the Arikara village had been wiped out by smallpox. He had approached his master’s thesis research to fit that conclusion. “We have to be able to step back and open our eyes more broadly and focus on greater details. We have to make the conclusion fit the data, not the other way around.”
The professors broke into applause, as if listening to a distinguished colleague. Yet Doug was the youngest presenter at the conference and had not completed his Ph.D. When he returned to Knoxville and reported on the conference, Bass grinned.
Doug had one question. “Do you think I’ll be able to find a job when I’m through with my degree?”
Bass smiled. He had never taught anyone as driven or talented as Doug. He had a feeling that Doug Owsley was going places.