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


Late April 1998
Portland, Oregon

“These things grow over a period of time.”

The doctor’s explanation hardly comforted Paula Barran and her husband, Richard. They had gone to see the doctor to discuss the biopsy results from a tumor detected on Richard’s colon.

“What’s going on?” Barran asked.

“Well, it’s not frankly malignant,” the physician responded.

“What does that mean?”

The physician explained that the tumor didn’t appear to be malignant but nonetheless needed to be removed at once. It was six inches long and wrapped around Richard’s colon. Surgery was scheduled for May 28th.

After leaving the doctor’s office, Barran checked her office calendar. The judge had scheduled the hearing on the disappearing femurs for May 28. She had an obligation to make oral arguments in federal court at the same time her husband had to undergo cancer surgery. She had an important decision to make.

May 27, 1998
Carson City, Nevada

Owsley followed artist Sharon Long into her studio. Paint, brushes, plaster, rubber compound, and sculpting tools cluttered the top of a wooden counter with a wall mirror above it. On the table was a plaster skull covered in clay molded to the shape of the Spirit Cave mummy’s cranium and face, mounted atop an eight-inch-high wooden stand.

“OK, here’s what we have,” Long said, pointing to thirty-three tiny pegs—skin tissue thickness markers made of eraser—protruding from the clay. To figure out the skin thickness of the Spirit Cave mummy, Long relied on a study performed by scientists who measured skin thickness on hundreds of cadavers housed in metropolitan morgues around the United States. Long’s eraser pegs marked thirty-three different thickness points on the human face. “Here’s point one,” she said, pulling a peg from the clay face.

“How many times did you check that tissue thickness?” asked Owsley, familiar with the study that Long had relied on.

Long said she had triple-checked all the thickness measurements. “Tissue thickness markers don’t lie,” she said. “They are based on averages.”

“Well, the averages are for people today,” Owsley pointed out. “And taking into consideration the fact that cadavers are lying flat and flesh falls back when the body is in the prone position, let’s take a couple millimeters off here,” Owsley said, pointing to the cheek area.

His thoroughness caught her off guard.

Long reached for a sculpting tool. As she thinned out the face, Owsley talked her through a visual image of the face, supporting the image with some photographs of modern-day Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan. To prepare for the facial reconstruction of the Spirit Cave man, Owsley had examined Ainu skeletons at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and at UCLA. He had studied a half dozen Ainu altogether, confirming Jantz’s initial statistical study revealing that the Spirit Cave mummy most resembled the Ainu. Looking at other Ainu had given Owsley a better understanding of their skull size and shape.

Using the wire loop end of the tool to peel away clay, Long narrowed the face as if peeling an apple, listening intently to Owsley. Native Americans have a particular appearance, he pointed out. And people in northern Asia today—Siberians and so forth—look just like that: broad faced with broad crania. “You can see the connection between these people and modern Native Americans,” Owsley said.

But the Spirit Cave mummy looked totally different. Owsley insisted that he and Jantz could draw a connection—a line between Spirit Cave and modern Ainu, some nine thousand years—that shows a closer continuity between the Old World and the New World over a broad time span than you can in the same continent through time.

Long didn’t doubt Owsley’s description of the Spirit Cave mummy. She glanced at Owsley through the mirror, his bushy hair uncombed and his shirt collar wrinkled and open. As if in a large college auditorium, he lectured to an audience of one. She hated to interrupt.

“When you can take a break,” she said, “look at this and see if that’s enough.”

“Hmm, let’s see.” Owsley examined the entire face. “Well, take a little more. Let’s narrow his face down a little bit. Thin him out a little more.”

“Where do you want me to take it down?”

“Try taking a few millimeters off the fullness of the cheek. Remember, these people were hunter-gatherers.”

“They weren’t eating baked goods,” Long joked, shaving more off the cheeks. “OK. Check this.”

“There. That’s it. You got it. That’s it. Now let’s start aging him.”

Long reached for a dental pick with a fine-pointed tip.

Slowly she made incisions in the skin, forming wrinkle lines. When she reached the lips, Owsley stopped her.

He wanted her to make the lips more lined and not so smooth looking, like somebody that sits behind a desk all the time. “Make his lips look like they are real dried out from the weather,” he said. “These people were in the weather all the time. Their lips and skin would have looked a lot more lined.”

Long accentuated the lines in the lips. While she worked, Owsley discussed the Spirit Cave mummy and his lifestyle. This guy was probably forty-five when he died. He had many injuries. He had arthritis. He had deterioration in his spine.

Long asked about the mummy’s habitat.

“There were marshes around here,” Owsley said. “And they were fishermen. They had nets.”

“What do you think, Doug?”

“Deeper,” he said, looking at the wrinkles around the mouth region. “There would be deeper wrinkles around the mouth. He was forty to forty-five years old. But you have to make him look like somebody in our time period that is fifty to fifty-five. These people were in weather all the time, like ranchers in Wyoming, out in the wind rounding up cattle.”

For the next three days and evenings, Owsley and Long sat in her studio, meticulously going over every millimeter of the facial reconstruction. When she finished the shaping and aging, Long turned on a tiny air compressor hooked up to an airbrush. Holding the brush like a pen, she sprayed flesh-colored acrylic paint evenly over the face.

While it dried, Long asked Owsley about eyelash and hair color. She had ordered a variety of false eyelashes and wigs. “What should we do about the hair?” Long asked. “How long should it be?”

There’s an image of what these ancient people looked like, Owsley explained, a Siberian type of person running around with a spear taking on this big flailing mammoth or mastodon. “That’s the image you see in the textbooks or in murals,” he said.

Long agreed.

“But that look isn’t the look,” said Owsley, explaining that the Ainu, despite being an Asian population, are very different from the so-called Mongoloid peoples like the Japanese and Chinese and Koreans. They have wavy hair, very hairy full beards. They have more of a Caucasian type of appearance. “They’re Asian in their origins but it is unclear whether they are an early Caucasoid group that got in there and got isolated,” Owsley said.

Long wondered whether she should make his hair dark or light.

Owsley suggested a less descriptive color, something in between, in order to fend off critics who might argue that they had tried to make the mummy appear as if it belonged to a certain race.

Long selected a brown, wavy-haired wig and placed it on the Spirit Cave man’s head.

Owsley nodded.

These early people were going into Asia and into Europe, he explained. Drawing an ancient European-Asian connection was natural, they’re quite similar because they’re coming out of the same ancestral population. They were running into archaic Homo sapiens in Asia and Europe that were there before the Neanderthals. Owsley felt that the Ainu, as newcomers to the area, were more sophisticated culturally and replaced the existing primitive population over time. Later, however, early Japanese rice farmers drove the Ainu to the fringes of Japan. The farmers had large families, while the Ainu had small families. By 1800 or thereabouts, the original distribution of the Ainu was greatly restricted to the northern Hokkaido Island area.

“What about eye color?” Long asked.

“He should have dark eyes,” Owsley said.

Once Long set the hair, eyes, and eyelashes, the Spirit Cave man appeared complete.

“That’s the look,” Owsley said, admiring Long’s talent. “You have captured him.”