The two kayakers were enjoying the last glimpse of summer on the Minnesota River last September when they spotted a strange brown patch along the bank. They paddled toward it and looked closer. It turned out to be a bot, so they called the Renville County Sheriff’s Office.
When Sheriff Scott Hable learned of the kayakers’ discovery near the town of Sacred Heart, about 180 miles west of Minneapolis, his mind flashed to the first possible explanation: Perhaps it was the remains of a missing person from a nearby county. ?
“I don’t think anyone expected the news,” Sheriff Hable said.
The sheriff’s office sent the bone to a medical examiner and then to an FBI forensic anthropologist, who couldn’t identify it but made a surprising discovery Tuesday via radiocarbon dating. The bone was part of a skull and most likely came from a young man who lived as many as 8,000 years ago, between 5500 and 6000 B.C., Sheriff Hable said, citing the anthropologist’s findings.
“We have some kind of bizarre report that it’s old,” Sheriff Hable said by phone on Wednesday.
The young man likely had traveled through parts of what is now Minnesota during the Archaic Period in North America, Sheriff Hable said, when people ate mostly nuts and seeds before the days of subsistence farming, according to a report by the Augustana Archaeological Laboratory. University, in South Dakota.
Kathleen Blue, a professor of anthropology at Minnesota State University, said Wednesday the young man would have likely eaten a diet of plants, deer, fish, turtles and freshwater mussels in a small area, rather than following mammals and bison as they migrate for miles.
“There probably weren’t that many people wandering through Minnesota 8,000 years ago at the time because, as I said, the glaciers only retreated a few thousand years before that,” said Dr. blue. “We don’t know much about that period.”
Minnesota has three other remains from that period that have been studied, she said, adding that it’s rare for Native American tribes in the state to have their ancestors’ bones examined for archaeological purposes.
The FBI anthropologist had examined a depression on the skull and determined that the man had suffered a serious head injury, which Sheriff Hable said was evidence of “blunt trauma.” It is not clear whether the young man died that way.
dr. Blue noted that the edges of the wound appear smooth and rounded on the skull in photos, suggesting that the wound had healed and was not his cause of death.
“It would have been something that he actually survived,” said Dr. blue. “Bone has an amazing ability to try and repair itself after there has been a traumatic injury.”
She said the skull may have been floating in the river for thousands of years, or placed in a cemetery close to the water and carried away over time.
When the Renville County Sheriff’s Office posted a press release about the skull and photos of it to Facebook on Wednesday, Sheriff Hable said his office was approached by several Native American groups in the state, including the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. They told the sheriff’s office that publishing photos of the skull “was deeply offensive to Native American culture,” he said.
“Since there’s a chance the bones belong to someone of Native American descent, we’re just going to comply with their request,” Sheriff Hable said, adding that the post was removed Wednesday afternoon.
Dylan Goetsch, a cultural resource specialist with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, said in a statement Thursday that the sheriff’s office showed “a complete lack of cultural sensitivity through the failure to consider the individual as Native American, their treatment of the individual as a piece of history and their lack of tribal consultation.”
He added that the municipality had not been made aware of the discovery until it saw the Facebook post.
“It is traumatic for many Native Americans to see Native American ancestry portrayed and treated as a piece of history as Native American graves have been looted, vandalized and destroyed for centuries,” said Mr. Goetsch.
dr. Blue said the skull certainly came from an ancestor of one of the tribes in the area today.
“The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and others are very protective of all remains,” she said. “Normally there would be no invasive analysis of any kind and photographs are not allowed.”
The Private Cemeteries Act in Minnesota states that it is a felony “to intentionally disturb a cemetery.” If the sheriff hadn’t sent the skull to the coroner’s office — believing it belonged to a recent murder victim — the skull most likely never would have been analyzed by an anthropologist, said Dr. blue.
The skull is expected to be returned to Native American tribes in the state, Sheriff Hable said.
Environmental conditions played a role in the skull’s discovery. A severe drought struck the state last year, with above-normal temperatures depleting rivers and exposing riverbanks that are typically inundated, according to a report from Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources.
“In some parts of the state, the drought was as severe as anything in more than 40 years,” the report said, “although for most of the state, it was the worst drought in 10 to 30 years.”
Global warming is increasing the risk of drought. Climate change can also affect precipitation patterns around the world, causing arid regions to become drier.
Sheriff Hable said parts of the Minnesota River were “exposed that hadn’t been before” because of the drought.
“Of course, in a kayak, they’re there, and they happened to see it,” he said of the people who found the skull. The sheriff’s office has not released their names.
Similarly, a drought exacerbated by climate change in the Southwest had lowered water levels in Nevada’s Lake Mead, exposing this month a metal vessel containing the remains of a person killed about four decades ago, according to the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
Officials there had said the drop in water levels could lead to other bodies being found near the lake.
But Sheriff Hable said he didn’t expect more skulls, let alone one from another millennium, to be unearthed in his area anytime soon.
“This,” he said, “is extremely rare.”