Imagine a day out kayaking along the Minnesota River. It is a nice summer’s day, the birds are singing, the insects chirping, it is all idyllic… until you discover a partial skull. This is what happened to two kayakers last summer on a drought-depleted section of the river, around 180 kilometers (110 miles) west of Minneapolis. It turns out the skull is 8,000 years old and is now set to be handed over to Native American officials, to whom the remains most likely belong.
Renville county sheriff, Scott Hable, received this skull, and fearing it was related to a missing person case or murder, shared it with a medical examiner and then the FBI. These experts were not able to pinpoint an identity, but through carbon dating, a forensic anthropologist determined that this skull was likely to be of a young man who lived between 5500 and 6000 BCE.
There was a depression in the skull that may be “blunt force trauma”, but this was not the cause of death as it was healed. Currently, the cause of death is unknown. This skull may have been placed in a burial site along the water’s edge which eroded away, or the skull could have been drifting in the river for thousands of years.
A professor of anthropology at Minnesota, Kathleen Blue, told the New York Times that the individual was definitely an ancestor of one of the tribes still living in the area. “There’s probably not that many people at that time wandering around Minnesota 8,000 years ago, because... the glaciers have only retreated a few thousands years before that,” she said.
They probably ate a diet of freshwater mussels, plants, deer, turtles, and fish, Blue added, but “That period, we don’t know much about it.”
That time period is relatively unknown as it is rare for Native American tribes to allow their ancestors’ bones to undergo archaeological examinations or be displayed at all, and it is against the law in Minnesota to willfully disturb historic burial grounds, including 12,000 known Indigenous burial mounds.
So, when the sheriff posted the discovery and the remains with the saying “a little bit of history” the office was heavily criticized by several Native American groups and the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, as it is offensive to their culture to publish photos of ancestral remains.
Dylan Goetsch, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council cultural response specialist, said that the council had not been made aware of the discovery until seeing the Facebook post and that “Seeing Native American ancestors being displayed and treated as a piece of history is traumatic for many Native Americans as, for centuries, Native American burials were looted, vandalized and destroyed,”.
The post has now been removed and the remains will be given to Upper Sioux Community tribal officials.
“We had no idea but we were alerted to the fact that the Facebook post was offensive to one or more people and so we have since taken that post down. We didn’t mean for it to be offensive whatsoever,” Hable told MPR news.
The skull was revealed by the drought that overtook Minnesota in 2021, which for some parts was the worst seen in 10-30 years. This is not the first time drought has revealed bodies – just this year human corpses were revealed on Nevada's receding Lake Mead, with more expected to come thanks to climate change.