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

Chapter 33. GOING DEEP

February 1999
Museum of Natural History
Washington, D.C.

Good science is often too broad to fit through narrow minds. The more Dennis Stanford studied the traditional Clovis model—the New World was first populated by people who came from northern Asia over the land bridge and migrated down to present-day America, ultimately giving rise to Native Americans—the more he concluded the traditional thinking was far too simplified. Since archaeologists first uncovered the original Clovis site in New Mexico, roughly forty others had surfaced in North America. Stanford had visited every one. What he found convinced him that Clovis people did not come from northern Asia and didn’t enter the New World over the land bridge. The age and location of the sites seemed to confirm his conviction.

The oldest Clovis site, outside Nashville, Tennessee, dates back 14,000 years. The next oldest site is located near Dallas, Texas, and is 13,500 years old. These two, like the others in the eastern half of the United States, predate the original Clovis site in New Mexico and the subsequent ones found in the western states and Mexico. This suggests that the Clovis people started in the East and pushed westward, not the other way around. Also, no Clovis sites have surfaced in Canada, casting more doubt on the likelihood that Clovis people migrated down from Alaska. There are no Clovis sites between the Bering Strait and the modern-day United States.

Stanford also looked at the style of stone tools and projectile points turning up consistently at Clovis sites. They were inconsistent with those being produced in northern Asia at the time the land bridge was open. Rather, the artifacts matched those being produced in northwestern Spain as far back as eighteen thousand years ago. Stanford believed the Clovis people were not the first ones to populate the New World, but instead developed from a preexisting culture, one that had ties to the Solutrean, a prehistoric culture from Europe. Unwilling to deny that there might have been some gene flow from Clovis people to modern Native Americans, Stanford remained unsure how or if Clovis related to American Indians. He was convinced, however, that Clovis people were not alone in the New World.

Owsley agreed. Kennewick Man, the Spirit Cave mummy, and other recently examined skeletons in the West were producing a profile of other human populations, possibly from the Asian rim. Yet these people were not quite old enough to have crossed the land bridge at the Bering Strait, as the closing of the bridge predated the age of Kennewick Man. Did Clovis people look more like modern-day Native Americans or like the Pacific rim populations that seemed to be reflected in Kennewick Man and the Spirit Cave mummy?

The answer was elusive. The missing element in all the Clovis sites was human remains. No skeletons of the Clovis people had ever turned up. But shortly after Kennewick Man, Stanford got an idea. Back in 1973 he had examined the largest cache of Clovis artifacts ever found. They came from a site in Wilsall, Montana, a small town situated in an intermountain basin between the Crazy Mountains and the Bridger Mountains. The site was called the Anzick site, after the Anzicks, a family that owned the property on which the artifacts were found.

He decided to tell Owsley about the site and fill him in on the background.

In 1968 a construction worker operating a front-end loader was removing soil from a sandstone outcrop on the Anzick property when he spotted a stone tool. The worker discontinued digging and entered the excavated area, approximately eight feet belowground. He and some friends found a three-foot-by-three-foot pit containing stone tools and projectile points stacked like a deck of cards. Human bones were buried beneath the artifacts. In all, the workers recovered roughly 125 stone tools, fluted projectiles, a half dozen bone tools, nonhuman bones, and a few human bones, including skull fragments.

Shortly after the discovery, a University of Montana archaeologist examined the site and the cache it contained. In a report published in 1969, the archaeologist confirmed that the artifacts were consistent with the Clovis culture, but lamented the inability to link the human remains to the artifacts. “Had it been possible to make a definite association of the human bones with Clovis materials,” the report read, “it would have given archaeologists their first glimpse of the actual bones of one of these ancient hunters.”

At that time, molecular-level radiocarbon-dating techniques were not available. Nor could archaeologists date the remains by the fact that they were recovered with the Clovis artifacts. The amateur methods of recovery used by the construction worker and his associates made it impossible to tell whether the bones and the artifacts were deposited at the same depth beneath the earth’s surface.

After the discovery, the cache, including the human remains, were kept by a collector. Larry Lahen, a graduate student at the University of Montana at the time of the discovery who reinvestigated the discovery site in 1971, kept tabs on the cache’s whereabouts over the decades that followed. He eventually gathered the materials together on loan and had them displayed at the Montana Historical Society Museum. Then in 1997, the human bones were finally radiocarbon-dated with the most up-to-date technology. The skull fragments turned out to be slightly over 12,600 years old.

If the bones were indeed the remains of a Clovis person, they would help date the time that Clovis people were in the Montana region as roughly 1,400 years after they were in the Tennessee area. This would support Stanford’s hypothesis that Clovis people migrated westward.

After talking with Stanford, Owsley wanted to see the bones at once. He contacted Larry Lahen, who informed him that the skeletal fragments seemed to represent two individuals. But a lot of confusion surrounded their identity. In the thirty-plus years since the discovery, no osteologist had examined the remains. Owsley made arrangements to fly to Montana and examine them.

Most of the bone fragments were cranial pieces. Owsley confirmed that they came from two individuals. One was an infant less than two years old. The other was approximately seven years old. The remains of the infant consisted of twenty-eight skull fragments, and portions of the clavicle and three ribs. All of the infant bones were stained with red ocher, a mineral oxide of iron found in sandy clay soil. The tools from the cache were also ocher-stained, suggesting that the infant and the cache were buried simultaneously.

The skull fragments from the seven-year-old did not have red ocher stain. And further radiocarbon-dating confirmed that the fragments from the seven-year-old were two thousand years more recent. Interviews with the original discoverers revealed that the remains of the seven-year-old were not found in the same pit as the Clovis cache, but surfaced nearby in a subsequent visit to the site while the discoverers searched for more artifacts.

With so few bones from either child remaining, Owsley could draw no conclusion as to their cause of death. The skull fragments of the seven-year-old were also too sparse to measure or draw conclusions from. But the infant cranium was more complete. Owsley held the cranial vault in his hand and observed that it was very different from the scores of infant crania of Native Americans he had studied over the years. Rather than a short, round cranium, the Clovis infant had a long, narrow vault.

Owsley was not ready to say which prehistoric human population the Anzick infant belonged to. But Stanford confirmed that the artifacts buried with it were from the tradition of those found in Europe, not northern Asia. The Clovis people might not be related to Native Americans, or to the human populations that Kennewick Man and the Spirit Cave mummy derived from. The questions were tantalizing. But both Stanford and Owsley agreed: the evidence was building that a host of different human populations were getting into the New World earlier than previously suggested and through multiple routes.