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Kayakers find an 8,000-year-old human skull in Minnesota River

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/20/2022 Hannah Knowles
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The sheriff’s office suspected the brownish chunk of skull was human — perhaps the remains of a missing person. Officials sent the bone from the Minnesota River off to a medical examiner and then the FBI, hoping someone could match it to a name.

The report came back this week: no name. In fact, authorities said, the skull fragment belonged to a young man who died roughly 8,000 years ago.

“To say we were taken back is an understatement,” said Renville County Sheriff Scott Hable in an interview Thursday. “None of us were prepared for that.”

The discovery began with two kayakers. The pair were west of Minneapolis, near Sacred Heart, Minn., Hable said, when the fragment caught their eye last September. Normally, the bone would have been underwater. But a months-long drought — the state’s worst in 40 years in some places — meant waters receded.

The Renville County Sheriff’s Office is used to people contacting them to report bones, Hable said. In most cases, they are animal rather than human. But this find matched the dome of a Homo sapiens head.

Renville County had no active missing person cases, Hable said, but a neighboring county had one from a few years ago. Maybe, officials thought, this could solve the case.

Then the FBI applied a technique called carbon dating, which leverages the fact that a radioactive substance called carbon-14 absorbed by all living things decays at a predictable rate in a dead body. Based on present carbon-14 levels, scientists can figure out when an organism was alive.

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Authorities traced the river remains to Minnesota’s Archaic period, which stretches from 7,000 to 500 B.C., according to Minnesota’s state archaeologist. The skull had signs of “blunt force trauma,” the sheriff said, though it is not clear how the man died.

The earliest known people in the area lived some 13,000 years ago, when glaciers were still receding, said Austin Buhta, an archaeologist at Augustana University who co-wrote a 2017 report on the era by the university’s Archaeology Laboratory. The man from the Minnesota River lived during a later period when people roamed in small groups, hunting and foraging. Authorities say he had a “marine” diet and ate grains such as maize.

“As best as we can tell there was no farming at that time,” Buhta said. Some people hunted with small spears and wooden throwing aids called “atlatls.”

Researchers have struggled to glean information about Archaic period lives, Buhta said, especially in comparison to later humans who buried their dead in large mounds. “There just weren’t as many people on the landscape,” he said, “and it’s older, so we just don't find as much evidence.”

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Those studying old remains are also increasingly aware of the need to respect Indigenous people’s wishes, Buhta said — a tension that came to a head with the skull piece found near Sacred Heart.

Some Native Americans in Minnesota were dismayed at how the sheriff’s office broadcast the remains on social media this week. Dylan Goetsch, a cultural resources specialist with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, said in a statement that it was “unacceptable and offensive” for tribes to learn of the skull through Facebook, according to Minnesota news organization MPR News.

Goetsch, who did not respond to a request for comment Thursday evening, also criticized the social media post as culturally insensitive for not describing the remains as Native American.

Hable, the sheriff, said his office learned of the concerns hours after posting about skull. “Having no intention ever to offend anybody, we immediately took [the post] down,” he said. At the request of the state archaeologist’s office, he said, law enforcement has now released the bone fragment to the Upper Sioux Community, which comprises several hundred people and more than a thousand acres of land long home to the Dakota Indigenous people.

Minnesota’s Office of State Archaeologist and leaders of the Upper Sioux Community did not respond to inquiries Thursday evening.

Minnesota law generally forbids “willfully” disturbing or removing remains from a burial ground authenticated by the state archaeologist. For remains outside known cemeteries that appear to date back more than 50 years, state law requires the state archaeologist to determine if the burial is “Indian.”

When a “probable tribal identity” emerges, the remains must go to modern-day tribal leaders.


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