8,000-year-old human skull found in Minnesota River


“I don’t think anyone was anticipating the news to come.”

In an undated image provided by the Renville County Sheriff’s Office, part of a skull, thought to be around 8,000 years old, found in the Minnesota River in September 2021. Found by two kayakers on a drought-depleted river , the skull most likely belonged to a young man who lived around 5500 to 6000 BC. AD, authorities said. Renville County Sheriff’s Office via The New York Times

Two kayakers were enjoying the last glow of summer on the Minnesota River last September when they spotted a strange brown lump along the shore. They paddled over to him and took a closer look. It seemed like a bone, so they called the Renville County Sheriff’s Office.

When Sheriff Scott Hable was informed of the discovery of the kayakers near the town of Sacred Heart, about 110 miles west of Minneapolis, his mind raced to the first possible explanation: perhaps it was there remains of a missing person from a neighboring county?

“I don’t think anyone was anticipating the news to come,” Hable said.

The sheriff’s office sent the bone to a medical examiner and then to an FBI forensic anthropologist, who was unable to identify an identity but made a startling discovery on May 17 through dating to carbon. The bone was part of a skull and most likely came from a young man who lived 8,000 years ago, between 5,500 and 6,000 BC. AD, Hable said, citing the anthropologist’s findings.

“We’ve got this kind of weird report that it’s old,” Hable said by phone last week.

The young man had likely passed through parts of what is Minnesota during the Archaic Period in North America, Hable said, when people ate mostly nuts and seeds before the days of subsistence farming, according to a report from the Archeology Laboratory at Augustana University in South Dakota.

Kathleen Blue, a professor of anthropology at Minnesota State University, said last week that the young man likely ate a diet of plants, deer, fish, turtles and freshwater mussels in a small area, rather than following mammals and bison on their migration. For miles.

“There probably weren’t many people at that time wandering Minnesota 8,000 years ago because, as I said, the glaciers only retreated a few thousand years ago,” Blue said. “This period, we don’t know much.”

Minnesota has three other remains from this period that have been studied, she said, adding that it is rare for Native American tribes in the state to allow the bones of their ancestors to be examined for archaeological purposes.

The FBI anthropologist had examined a depression on the skull and determined that the man had suffered a severe head injury, which Hable said was evidence of “blunt force trauma”. It is not known if this is how the young man died.

Blue noted that the edges of the wound appeared smooth and rounded on the skull in the photos, indicating that it had healed and was not the cause of his death.

“It would have been something he would have survived,” Blue said. “Bone has an incredible ability to try to repair himself after a traumatic injury.”

She said the skull could have drifted in the river for thousands of years or been placed in a burial site near the water and washed away over time.

On May 18, when the Renville County Sheriff’s Office issued a press release about the skull and photos of it, Hable said, his office was contacted by various Native American groups in the state, including the Indian Council of Minnesota. They informed the sheriff’s office that posting pictures of the skull was “very offensive to Native American culture,” he said.

“Because there’s a chance the bones belong to someone with Native American heritage, we’ll just honor their request,” Hable said, adding that the post was deleted the same afternoon.

Dylan Goetsch, cultural resources specialist with the Minnesota Council of Indian Affairs, said in a statement Thursday that the sheriff’s office “showed a complete lack of cultural sensitivity in not referring to the individual as Native American, in dealing the individual as a piece of history and their lack of tribal consultation.

He added that the council was not made aware of the discovery until they saw the Facebook post.

“To see Native American ancestors on display and treated like a piece of history is traumatic for many Native Americans because for centuries Native American graves have been looted, vandalized and destroyed,” Goetsch said.

Blue said the skull was definitely from an ancestor of one of the tribes in the area today.

“The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and others are very protective of any remnants,” she said. “Usually there would be no kind of invasive scanning and photos are not allowed.”

Minnesota Private Cemetery Law makes it a crime to “willfully disturb a cemetery.” Had the sheriff not sent the skull to the medical examiner’s office — thinking it may have been from a recent murder victim — the skull likely never would have been analyzed by an anthropologist, Blue said.

The skull should be returned to Native American tribes in the state, Hable said.

Environmental circumstances played a role in the discovery of the skull. A severe drought hit the state last year, with above-normal temperatures depleting rivers and exposing typically flooded banks, according to a report from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

“In parts of the state, the drought was as bad as anything in more than 40 years,” the report said, “although for most of the state it is of the worst drought in 10 to 30 years”.

Global warming increases the likelihood of drought. Climate change may also affect precipitation patterns around the world, making drylands drier.

Hable said parts of the Minnesota River “were exposed like never before” due to the drought.

“Of course, in a kayak, they’re right there, and they spotted it by chance,” he said of the people who found the skull. The sheriff’s office did not release their names.

Similarly, a drought exacerbated by climate change in the Southwest has caused water levels to plummet in Nevada’s Lake Mead, exposing this month a metal barrel containing the remains of a person killed there. about four decades, according to the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

Officials had said the lower water level could lead to the discovery of more bodies at the edge of the lake.

But Hable said he didn’t expect any more skulls, let alone one from another millennium, to be discovered in his area anytime soon.

“That,” he said, “is extremely rare.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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