In the wake of last month’s armed confrontation in Nevada, where rightwing militia threatened to shoot down federal BLM agents with automatic weapons, another anti-federal government showdown is coming to a head in Utah. Over in Nevada, the issue was defending deadbeat rancher Cliven Bundy’s illegal cattle grazing; now, in Utah, a county commissioner want to build an illegal road down a protected federal canyon. The larger issue is who, if anyone, owns the land.
Edward Abbey first introduced me to the canyons and mesas of Southeastern Utah 40 years ago. Soon thereafter, Recapture Canyon became my favorite place to visit the beauty of this country and pay my respects to the ancients who lived in this homeland thousands of years before European settlement. About 25 years ago, I started taking my small children down here, to a place the kids called “the lost city,” because there was a 1,000-year old Anasazi pueblo without significant signs of looting or pot hunting. I have taken many children there since, along with family and the people I love most in the world. Recapture Canyon is that special—I’ve taken probably 40 trips there, sometimes with an overnight camp. On each of these privileged descents into Recapture, we walked and climbed down. We never used a vehicle or ATV.
This magic land so loved by children is only a handful of miles southeast of Blanding, Utah, in San Juan County. This is exactly where a San Juan County commissioner plans on leading an illegal ATV “protest” ride down and through Recapture Canyon on May 8, 2014. The road they propose (we’ve witnessed illegal ATV use of the canyon throughout the past decade) would be 14.3 miles long and accessed from four trailheads.
One immediate consequence of the illegal ATV event is the cancellation of a well-planned trip for veterans co-sponsored by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Sierra Club. I was to be a partner in this invaluable veterans’ program and had intended to address the vets at Sand Island, 20 miles south of Blanding, on the day following the ATV trip. Many of the veterans are, like myself, disabled from combat, with service-related trauma both physical and psychic. Native American medicine men were to prepare sweat lodges, along with traditional healing ceremonies. Navaho war veterans, whose ancestors were forced off these lands and fought in great numbers in our country’s foreign battles, had planned to assist the veterans healing program. I was especially enthusiastic to participate in the vets program because of the Navajo and the quality of the leadership of both BLM and Sierra Club outreach personnel. One of them wrote this on April 24th:
“Due to the potential risk of an illegal ATV ride on BLM lands conflicting with our Cedar Mesa trek, we are postponing the event until October of this year. While the spiritual side of the event could be effected by the ATV ride, there is also the potential safety risk to BLM staff and trip participants due to the recent hostile atmosphere in the West surrounding these events.”
This great healing event for veterans has been pushed aside by a few ATV advocates insistent on illegally riding their silly toys. What a missed opportunity.
As for San Juan County’s claims over the land: They have no special rights. Public, BLM lands belong to you and your children, to fishermen in Florida or anyone in New York or San Francisco as much as they do residents of Blanding. We white settlers in the West often conveniently forget that we were not the first to own the land; we merely got it from others who stole it from people who never claimed to own it in the beginning.
There is another way of seeing the vast public lands of southern Utah and Cedar Mesa: that maybe they belong to no one, or to themselves, or the Ancients whose spirits so dominate this holy landscape. We don’t need to see the public lands as a giant free super-market, a cheap place to graze our cows, extract minerals, drill for oil, grow a tourist economy or commercially guide trips.
An archaeologist from Bluff, Utah, once told me Recapture Canyon was unique in Anasazi archeology, that the canyon had its own Pueblo culture. He showed me remnants of a thousand-year-old holy road for foot travel in the tradition of Chaco Canyon National Historic Park. Recapture is home to the northernmost Utah’s Great Kiva. We might ask the Native American neighbors who live along Recapture Canyon—the White Mesa Ute on the adjacent west rim and Utah Navajo to the southeast—what they would advise and recommend.
And, yes, the BLM does need help: They need more law enforcement resources to protect our public lands from violations of laws already in the books, like Antiquity laws protecting Native American archaeological sites. And the laws closing those few wild areas to motor vehicle or ATV use: Most public lands are far too open to vehicular use. We have only several, mostly small areas where we have to walk the old fashioned way. Let’s keep Recapture Canyon one of them. After all, it’s not that hard to go down there on your own two feet; my pre-school children did it a bunch of times.
We finally have a definitive answer to the timeless mystery of where the First Americans came from: They walked across the Bering Straits from Asia (and not from southwest Europe paddling kayaks across the frigid Atlantic sea, as some have claimed).
The first people to successfully colonize North America are called “Clovis,” and they made their appearance in the lower United States just prior to 13,000 years ago. The only known Clovis burial is in Montana, about forty miles north of my house on the Yellowstone River (also known as the Anzick site). Here prehistoric people buried a one and a half year old boy with about 115 stone and bone funeral offerings, all covered with sacred red ocher. The burial objects, discovered by construction workers in 1968, constitute the largest and most spectacular assemblage of Clovis artifacts ever found.
A recent analysis of the child’s DNA (Nature 2-13-2014) reveals a genome sequence showing the Montana Clovis people are direct ancestors to some 80 percent of all Native North and South Americans living today. The child’s ancestors came over in a single migration from Northeastern Asia. This data is a very big deal.
Archeologists call this report “the final shovelful of dirt” on the European hypothesis. And, yes, previous to the release of this information, a popular alternative theory argued that the sophisticated Clovis stone-flaking technology came from Southwestern Europe, from Solutrean people living in Spain and France who paddled across the ocean 18,000 years ago. That meant the Clovis child should be of European ancestry. The iconic Clovis projectile point, many of which have been found imbedded in the bones of huge animals who became extinct around 12,900 years ago, appeared suddenly and is a large, extremely well-crafted weapon. A troubling insinuation of the “Solutrean” theory is that Native Americans weren’t somehow able to invent the distinctive Clovis point on their own.
One might think that the Out-of-Europe hypothesis was, at its worst, a harmless crackpot theory--that this very terrestrial-adapted culture of the Iberian Peninsula, with no evidence of maritime technology, overcame a frigid Atlantic ocean during a time span of 5,000 years by iceberg-hopping in skin boats in order to deliver the distinctive Clovis weapon system to the Southeastern United States. But this scholarly squabble quickly grew ugly with the discovery of Kennewick Man in 1996.
Civility evaporated during the nasty eight-year legal squabble over Kennewick Man (a 9,000-year-old skeleton found in the Columbia River), and we were reminded that archaeology lingers yet as a barely disguised insult to many Native Americans. The central issue of Kennewick Man was his ancestry: Was he of European origin?
Some anthropologists thought he looked like a Caucasian actor from Star Trek. The legal maneuvering and sequestering behind the discovery of Kennewick Man was a media-fest fed by the loony assertions of white supremacists that the Aryan race discovered America. The result was increasing polarization between the white, male litigants who wanted to run tests on the bones and the local Umatilla people who wanted him reburied.
In 1999, two archeologists, Mark Papworth and Larry Lahren, and myself asked the Anzick family for permission to revisit the burial site; we would interview the surviving discoverers who found the burial back in 1968 and re-excavate the backfill of previous archeologist’s digs in order to establish the original stratigraphy of the short cliff-face, into which the burial bundle had been stuffed. I was writing an article for Outside Magazine, whose expense money helped finance the excavation. The article advocated reburying the child and, in this, it failed. Inadvertently, the press coverage advertised the burial items for wealthy artifact collectors and as a gold mine for academically connected archeologists.
The Iberian versus Siberian debate followed the archeological gold trail from Kennewick back to Montana. Solutrean advocates said the Anzick child’s bones were buried completely apart from the 115 artifacts and at a different time. Furthermore, the Clovis-Out-of-Europe school argued, even if they were interred at the same time, the boy’s DNA would indicate a European origin.
Well, the February article in Nature proves definitively that the Clovis child’s ancestry is Asian, not European. It’s solid science. The Solutrean fans are out of luck. This should be the biggest American archeological news in decades. That is, if archeology could let it stand without spinning the hard facts to fit an ambitious pre-conceived political agenda.
The Washington Times once called North American archaeology “one of the nastier academic communities on the planet” and in that tradition these obvious conclusions surrounding the Montana burial now sag with the baggage of dogma. There is an additional theory of the origins of Clovis, which not coincidentally is the brainchild of the article’s senior author Michael Waters who initiated the DNA study of the Anzick burial. That theory, call it “Texas First,” argues that pre-Clovis folk lived on Buttermilk Creek in central in Texas starting at 15,000 years ago, a period which “provides ample time for people to settle into the environments of North America, colonize South America … develop the Clovis tool kit and create a base population through which Clovis technology could spread.” The credibility of the site is controversial: No radiocarbon dates are provided and, of the claimed 15,528 artifacts, less than one-half of a single percent (56) of the “artifacts” appear to be tools, and they don’t look much like Clovis. In fact, to a layperson like myself, this tool complex looks like what you’d get if you threw chunks of chert on the driveway and drove your pickup truck over them for two years. Nonetheless, the popular press received Water’s unfiltered claims with a unanimous embrace.
The Texas First agenda plays a major role in the interpretation of the Anzick child burial. Waters’ theory depends on when the boy was buried; here, a bit of technical detail is necessary. For Clovis technology to originate in Texas and spread upriver to the boonies of Montana would take a long time, hundreds of years, and the iconic Clovis projectile point would arrive at the very end of the Clovis culture, which bloomed explosively and only lasted from about 13,100 to 12,800 years ago. The Waters team has chosen 12,600 years ago, from a wide range of available carbon-14 dates on the Anzick skeleton that stretches from 12,680 (in 1983) to 13,550 (in 1997). The same investigator and co-author analyzed both samples and now rejects the older date. There are other radiocarbon dates on the child’s bones. But why pick one carbon-14 date on the child’s bones over another? Or why does a single investigator get to choose which of several carbon-14 dates is best? This might be the time for archeologists to cut each other some slack when it comes to shaving radiocarbon dates into 100-year slices. For example, the 900-year discrepancy might be due to human contamination: Starting in 1968, every scientist who visited the Anzick site ran off with samples of the child’s skeleton and his bones were handled by dozens of curious bystanders. Could modern human DNA contamination affect the resultant radiocarbon date? Now, I know next to squat about the complexities of accelerator mass spectrometry or XAD-collagen analysis. But others do and we have a problem here. You can’t radiocarbon date stone tools but you can bone. Among the artifacts are elk antler “foreshafts” that were presumably used to bind the Clovis projectile points to a detachable rod. In 2006, independent archeologists dated two Anzick elk antler foreshafts; the results were uncannily identical and convincing—both dated 13,040 years old. Most all investigators accept these radiocarbon dates on the elk antlers as rock solid.
So, 400 years, that’s the problem. Either the child was buried at the same time the elk antler tools were made or 400 years later. The most obvious choice is that the Clovis boy was buried at the time the foreshaft tools were made and the radiocarbon dates on child’s bones are so far inaccurate. But that wasn’t good enough for the DNA team who felt obliged to spin the results. Michael Waters explains, without serious evidence, that elk was “a rare animal in the plains at that time.” The difference in age between the skeleton and the 400 year-old heirloom antler tools, he explains, suggest the elk antler tools were "very special ritual objects passed down for generations."
The fact is that elk run in herds; they’re either grazing in your valley or not, but they are never rare, just absent. When elk are present, they drop their antlers in late winter. You can find hundreds of pounds of elk antlers in a few hours walking the spring hills in nearby Yellowstone Park. That date of 13,040 years ago also marks the first known appearance of elk in the lower-48. Humans in central Alaska hunted elk around 13,300 years ago. Elk only arrived in North America from Siberia at the very end of the last Ice Age, after the onset of global warming 14,700 years ago, and had to wait in Alaska for the Ice Free Corridor (IFC) to melt open in order to get down to Montana. If you can find dropped antlers and make an elk ivory foreshaft in a few hours, why haul this hefty stuff around for 400 years, a time span most archaeologists believe exceeds the entire life of the Clovis culture?
The reason is that lugging these tools--made from common, abundant and heavy raw material--around for 400 years fits the Texas First agenda. If the origins of Clovis technology lie in Texas or other southern states, it would imply two pre-conditions: First, that it took these southern pre-Clovis people about 400 years to make the trip north, up from Buttermilk Creek to remote Montana and, secondly, according to the Texas hypothesis Clovis would have arrived at the Anzick Site from the south, and not from Alaska, trekking southward down the IFC.
By not accepting at face value the solution to the mystery Clovis origins, the First American DNA team open a very wide door into which the “Solutrean” hypothesis advocates will certainly stick their European-theory feet. Why didn’t the Anzick genetic team simply say the burial is Clovis and the child is of Asian ancestry? But that wasn’t the case. They had to infect the perfectly adequate data with the totally improbable idea of a 400 year-old heirloom elk antler tool.
The lead advocates for the Solutrean hypothesis wrote in 2012 (Across Atlantic Ice): “It may be that they (the child’s bones) were not associated with the Clovis Cache but were incidentally buried nearby and the red ochre staining the toddler’s bones is purely coincidental.” That far-fetched claim means that even if the child’s DNA is Asian, that doesn’t matter because he is not associated with the artifacts and therefore not Clovis, whose ancestors must be European. This whacko assertion has yet to be seriously refuted by establishment archaeologists.
Those advocating the Solutrean theory can now claim that the 12,600 year old date on the child’s bones is far too young to be Clovis, a culture that major archaeologists believe marched into the sunset along with the extinction of the American megafauna (mammoths, sabertooths, etc.) at the time of the Younger Dryas cooling event at about 12,800 years ago.
On these muddied waters, another possibility for the origins of Clovis looms: The oldest theory of all, that Clovis progenitors came down the IFC from Alaska, ran into mammoth and invented a projectile point big enough to kill elephants. The first evidence of elk south of the ice sheets at the Clovis burial site in Montana is a good example of Late Pleistocene migrations. The habitat requirements of elk and their speed of migration are probably the same today as at the end of the Pleistocene. That would have meant a fully re-vegetated (that is, lush with elk food) ice-free corridor. Any elk habitat expert, modern hunters as well as biologists, might take a stab at the time required for elk to make that journey. I would guess—Yukon to Anzick--perhaps at least a couple-hundred years.
The elk antler foreshafts provide evidence for the use of the ice-free corridor and when that route was available for human passage. If modern elk first came down the corridor at least 13,300 years ago, humans could have made the same trip earlier: People wouldn’t have required a completely recovered habitat in terms of flora and fauna. Humans, with their dogs for hauling sleds and as emergency food, packs full of pemmican and waterfowl hunting skills for the melt-water corridor lakes, could have used the same passage earlier than the elk and made it down to Montana in a few years instead of centuries.
That could push back the date for earliest possible human travel down the IFC back to around 13,500 years ago—contrary to both the Texas First and Solutrean theories. An interesting question is why did potential ancestral Clovis people, who inhabited the Yukon River drainage 13,300 years ago and hunted elk, wait until around 13,100 years ago to make the journey southward? Maybe they were afraid of something (like the gigantic Short-faced Bear in the south).
One thing is clear: DNA analysis of human bone is a destructive process and the Anzick child has contributed more than enough to Western science. It’s time we all cooperated to find him an earthly home. A repatriation ceremony would help bury the ignominious squabbles of the past. Natives from all over the New World could host a great celebration to honor their oldest ancestor.
© Copyright 2014. Reprints allowed with permission of Doug Peacock
For additional reading see:
“The genome of a Late Pleistocene human from a Clovis burial site in western Montana” Nature 506, 225-229 (13 February 2014)
Peacock, Doug. In the Shadow of the Sabertooth: Global Warming, the Origins of the First Americans and the Terrible Beasts of the Pleistocene. Oakland; AK Press 2014
The battle lines are being drawn again by archaeologists and Native Americans over the re-interment of America’s oldest burial, a one and a half year-old boy who was laid to rest 13,000 years ago accompanied by the largest and most spectacular collection of Clovis burial artifacts ever discovered (also known as the Anzick Site). Tribal members in Montana and elsewhere want the child re-buried with reverence and ceremony while invested scientists want to keep on studying the human remains using DNA and Radiocarbon testing—techniques which destroy samples of what’s left of the child’s bones.
During the nasty legal squabble over Kennewick Man (a 9,000-year-old skeleton found in the Columbia River in 1996), we were reminded that archaeology lingers yet as a barely disguised insult to many Native Americans. The maneuvering and sequestering behind the discovery of Kennewick Man was a media circus fed by assertions of white supremacists that the Aryan race discovered America. Whatever the intent of the anthropologists, the result was increasing polarization between the scientists and the local Umatilla people.
The central issue of Kennewick Man was his ancestry: Was he of European origin? Some anthropologists thought he looked like a Caucasian actor from Star Trek. Why should Native Americans care about where he came from or from whom? To explain the Native American position, one California professor wrote this condescending note:
“…for the present system of incentives and rewards in which they operate depends on the constant assertion of Indian victimhood and white guilt. Such assertions would not be helped if it turned out the Indians weren’t the first Americans after all; that Europeans may have been here before them; or that Indians, like the Europeans who followed, may have come to America as colonizers to find a racially different aboriginal population, which they eventually replaced. For them it is better that as little as possible be known about Kennewick Man, or about any other ancient skeletal material for that matter.”
The Kennewick Man controversy, with white male scientists lined up on one side and Indians on the other, quickly grew ugly.
In Montana, however, the Clovis child’s ancestry is now clear: the boy’s people came from Siberia and his family is ancestral to 70 percent of all Native North and South Americans. He is America’s First Child. Clovis people no doubt came down from Alaska through the ice-free corridor between the two North American ice sheets and the origins of Clovis technology probable arise in Montana somewhere south of the Missouri River. All these claims can be verified by material found in the child’s burial.
A formal paper will soon be released in the scientific publication Nature. We know the genetic details from the recently released DNA results of the child’s skeletal remains. This is a very big archaeological deal, perhaps the biggest news so far in North American archaeology.
Thus the popular Solutrean theory, whereby Europeans from Spain and France paddled across the Atlantic Ocean to introduce Clovis technology to America, is dead. Clovis people were among the first wave of Americans who came over from Asia. The science so sacred to archaeologist has been completed; we have radiocarbon dates and DNA studies from the First Child’s skeletal remains and burial goods. It’s time for repatriation. Now, only the reburial of the bones remains.
Sadly, but predictably, the authors of this soon-to-be-published paper state are against reburial. Here is their statement as of November 1, 2013:
"The Anzick burial site was discovered on private land and the remains recovered have not been in control of a federally funded museum or federal agency, and thus the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) does not apply. Under Montana state law, unmarked human burials are not considered abandoned. Advice provided to the project by members of the Montana State Burial Board, however, confirmed that since no claimant has been made a request for the remains, the human remains from the Anzick burial site remain under the control of the landowners, the Anzick family."
In other words, the lead archaeologist considers the child’s skeletal remains the “private property” of the landowners, so he can go test the bones (DNA analysis is a particularly destructive process). The authors’ claims of informing Native American groups of their work are at least disingenuous.
An enrolled member of the Crow Tribe, an instructor at Montana State University in Bozeman, has recently presented the idea of reburial to Montana’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officers in Helena. Nothing was resolved as to how, when of even if the First Child would be repatriated.
I would point out that Montana’s Native Americans have no more claim to the Anzick child skeletal remains and grave offerings than do other tribes throughout North and South America, from New York to Baja, from the Alaskan Coast to Florida and all through South and Central America. The First Child’s people are Grandfather and Grandmother to all.
If you or your friends are Native Americans, the odds are that the Anzick child is your ancestor. Please call the Montana State Burial Preservation Board and ask to become a claimant to the child’s remains.
Montana State Burial Preservation Board phone: (406) 444-2460
For more about the history of the Anzick site, see In the Shadow of the Sabertooth: A Renegade Naturalist Considers Global Warming, the First Americans and the Terrible Beasts of the Pleistocene (AK Press, 2013).
My book, In the Shadow of the Sabertooth, was released last week, and among the many modern controversies it raises is the issue of repatriation of our oldest Native American burial.
In brief, in 1968, just north of the Yellowstone River, workers unearthed about 110 stone and bone artifacts that accompanied a child's burial. The funeral offerings were consecrated with sacred red ochre. These grave offerings constitute the Anzick Burial Site, the largest and most spectacular collection of Clovis tools ever found (the Clovis culture dates about 13,000 years ago). The one and a half year-old child is the oldest skeleton ever found in the Americas and the only known Clovis burial.
In the last decade, archaeologists from all over the world have jetted up to Montana for a piece of the child’s skeleton, which they ship to Denmark for DNA analysis or Colorado (or elsewhere) for carbon-14 dating.
The archaeologists, none of whom have ever contacted a Native American community, contend that the bones are privately owned by the landowner and not subject to Native American Graves and Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) laws. When asked, one says: “To date, we are unaware of claims of affiliation or requests for repatriation made by any Native American group in the 37 years since the Anzick site was discovered.” These same exact tired words have been repeated many times in the past 15 years.
I should mention that the daughter of the landowner and myself have separately tried to contact tribal members of the Cheyenne and Crow nations in the past decade but never heard back.
And how should any Native American group even know of that Clovis find? This site was unnoticed until Outside magazine wrote up re-excavation efforts in 2000. 1968 seems a long time ago. Now, the site is an apparent archaeological gold mine. The child’s story lives on, but it’s time he found an earthly home. This is a matter of simple respect. It's everyone's business.
Please pass this notice on to any Native American who would like to see the child’s remains repatriated.
Download an open letter to share (pdf)
History and details (pdf)
Blog post Respect for the Dead (pdf)
Read The Voices of Bones by Doug Peacock, Outside, February 2000
Learn more about Archeology and Ethics