Volume 104, Number 29 - July 19, 2007
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An update on bones found near Pinedale
Here it is mid July, I am off to the field in Mongolia until September 1st. As a significant project that literally sprang out of the ground here in Pinedale, I have been working on sorting and ordering the collection of skeletal remains that came out of excavations at the Morell homesite along the New Fork River this spring. A number of people have asked me about them, in the post office, Faler’s or just in passing, over the past couple months. I thought it would be appropriate to submit a quick overview of the project and my assessment of it at this point, and where we go with it from here.
By the time this hits the press I will be in a field van headed to the desert. I direct teams of graduate students digging Bronze and Iron Age archaeological features in the North Gobi Steppe country in a summer Smithsonian/National Geographic project organized by a colleague of mine, now at Yale. We are studying early state formation and military horse use by the nomadic peoples who periodically came out of that region (Tamarlane, Attilla, and Genghis Khan, to name a few) to conquer and enslave the sedentary societies in the fertile farmlands to the west and south. It is fascinating work.
To return to the New Fork skeletons, on the 10th of May I received a phone call from K.C. Lehr of the Sublette Co. Sheriff’s Office advising me of the discovery of some quantity of human bone at a home building site near Pinedale along the New Fork River. K.C. said he suspected it was archaeological in nature, and may not be of any current forensic or medicolegal significance, but asked if I would look it over for confirmation.
The time was late, so I held off till the following day, drove to Pinedale, as I was in Jackson at the time with kids in school, and met K. C. at the Courthouse. Looking over some of the bone contained in the several evidence boxes he’d carefully packed it in, I was struck by the very good state of preservation of this material. In examining some of the recovered skull and dental material, it was evident these were the remains of American Indian people, although from which time period was not immediately evident.
We quickly looked through the recovered remains and, based on the duplication of parts, as well as size and age related morphological discrepancies, set the number of people represented by the recovered skeletal remains at six. Three are adults, three are young juveniles, babies really.
K. C. explained the skeletons had turned up in the course of excavating a septic drain field for the house under construction, and that the excavator operator hadn’t noticed the bone coming out of the trenching operation until it was all in the back dirt pile. At the point we came on site work had been halted, the exposed material recovered, andinvestigators notified. Several, including County Coroner Don Schooley, and Clint Gilchrist, representing the Historic Preservation board, were doing some surface survey, picking up a few still exposed bits and pieces. I agreed to take the material and a lead role in the investigation of it, as a site that turns up the remains of a half dozen individuals in an area of the country we believe to have been pretty sparsely inhabited in prehistory, is indeed significant.
Over the next few days Bill Current, of Current Archaeology in Rock Springs, who does a lot of contract work in the county, was good enough to send up a team of archaeologists for a day. They screened through most of the back dirt pile to try and get anything that had been missed. In the meantime I took the available material home, set up an exam table, sorted and did some preliminary cleaning, and sent back a list of what, in terms of larger skeletal elements (legs, arms, etc), was missing. Within a couple days they had recovered most of what was on my “shopping” list. In addition to the human material, small hand-wrought bone beads had been turning up periodically, as well as numerous small bones representing burrowing rodents such as gophers and mice. Finally a piece of the
stock, probably a rabbit tibia with one bead still in the filing stages, was recovered. This cultural aspect of the site, part of these people’s lives involved adorning themselves, is telling on the personal level and brings us closer to these folks as living, breathing individuals. Were rabbits sacred in a way, as they may have represented a regular food source, or were they perhaps admired for their speed and agility?
One of the big questions coming out of this site as we found more material, always in the disturbed soil, was that of time frame. What period in time do these people come from? Were they people who died during an epidemic at an early Rendezvous, from microbes brought by the white man? Were they older than that, from the Late Prehistoric period, when buffalo hunters came through periodically, or maybe were they crossing over, traveling to or from the Great Basin? Maybe they were older than that, from the Archaic period, like the old woman in the pit house on the Mesa, at 7500 ybp the oldest human remains recovered in Wyoming to date. Could they be Paleo-Indian?
Even though the bone had been taken out of it’s original resting context by the excavator, it still had some of the original bedding soil adhering to it. In the trench walls of the excavation was a profile of the soil layering through the area the bone had come from. At the very top was the ground /topsoil level (horizon, in archaeological terms)- about a foot and a half thick, below that a layer of leached calcite deposit, one to two feet in depth. Under that is a level of duff colored fine soil, possibly a wind-borne dust type of level, a couple feet in depth, and below that was the bottom of the excavated area, the floor. Pretty simple layering, or stratigraphy. Clint dug a level below that and presents a stream flow wash out area.
BLM Archaeologist Dave Vlcek suggested this may have come from the end of the Pleistocene, when the glaciers all melted off and there was a lot of water flowing around the country. Vlcek suggested the calcite deposit, on the duff windblown material, probably represented some 1500 years or so of accumulation. The duff would likely have been several thousand years in being deposited. This fits very well with the accepted geological history of the general region, suggesting that after the glaciers melted off there was a long drying period, called the altithermal, that basically represented about a 5-7,000 year dust bowl when there wasn’t a lot going on, out on the northern plains.
Now, if those parameters are legitimate, we have a time frame, geologically defined, that could tell us something about when these folks come from. At one time on site I got some containers and took samples from each of the three major layers. Since the coarse gravel layer was never really dug into, it is a bracket on the deep end of the time frame, but other than that is of little significance, since we know they came from above it. In my comparisons of the soil on the bone with the soil from the trench wall, it looks like they came from about the point where the calcite deposits and the fine wind blown duff intersect. Now, the calcite deposits are probably leaching into the windblown duff, from a macroscopic or eyeball view of it, and this may suggest a time frame somewhere in the last four or five thousand years. So, based on this tenuous string of evidence, which is very often what we have to go by in archaeology, our people from the New Fork probably date to the Archaic period.
We know that in the Archaic Period lifeways of people, when we find them, often involved foraging about for a wide range of available plants and animals, and that rabbits fall easily into that range. They hunted probably for some larger game such as deer, but by then the days of the Paleo-Indian big game hunters were past. People wouldn’t come back to seriously harvesting bison until the Late Prehistoric, when they would develop the jump kill, stampeding a herd off a cliff, or traps made in a box canyon such as at the Wardell Site near Big Piney.
What of the people themselves? From an examination of the skeletons we know two of the three adults were female, one comparatively young, at about 17-20 years of age at the time of death, the other was probably 35-45 years old when she died. The other individual was male, 16 –19 years at the time of death. The three juveniles were about 2, 2-3, and around 4-5 years old when they died. The adult male may have died at a different time than the others. In recovering some of the soil clods the bone was lumped into, it was noted that some of the broken skull or cranial material also had other bone in the same clump- fingers, pelvis, etc- that shouldn’t occur in the same anatomical area of the body. In addition, soil is packed into the hip joint of his pelvis, while in the other adult hip joints there is a clear indentation where the head of the thigh bone would have been in an articulated position. A couple reasons come to mind for why this may have been, both of them involving him dying at a different time, probably earlier, than some of the others. One is that he may have died and been allowed to decompose to bone before being collected and tied together in what archaeologists call a “bundle” burial, or secondary interment. A second possibility is that in burying one of the other individuals, his burial may have been disturbed, and the skeleton jumbled around in the process of the other burial. Both possibilities invoke the idea that these people used this area regularly, probably in a seasonal manner, coming here during the summer months when the weather would have been more pleasant.
Were they maybe related, as in, was it a family unit or part of one? We don’t know, although a colleague of mine at the University of Indiana, who specializes in Ancient DNA, is interested in working up a mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) profile each of them, which would give us a wealth of new information regarding maternal relationships. mtDNA is only passed by the mom, so that may give some order to the distribution of ages we get from the site. We may as well get what we call Lineage information, which would place them in the broader context of people coming across from Asia, as well as be comparable to profiles of folks known from Archaic and Late Prehistoric time frames. In addition to this I have contacted a couple of dating labs, who can test bone samples to get a date within fifty or a hundred years, of when these folks died. That will provide the solid shot of where they are in time.
A logical question at this time is simply, why do all this? In prehistory the area we now know as Wyoming, high sparse desert, dry with long cold winters and short warm summers, was pretty sparsely populated. People would orbit through in the summer, following game, ripening plant resources, etc, then move on as they well knew how unforgiving it would get to be in a short couple of months. This, in any event, has always been the scenario we consider most likely.
The discovery of the pit house village on the mesa with the 7500 year old remains in one of the house floors, then this, plus material recovered near LaBarge dating from the Archaic period suggests there may be a good deal to learn about this relatively little known period in Plains Prehistory. Much of the cultural chronology of the high desert could be re-assessed from an examination of the materials from these sites in Sublette County.
So, where is the project at this point in time? As I have to leave, the bones are packed up and stored for the next couple months until I return from the Gobi. In the meantime, we have a Smithsonian number (48SU6440), a nationwide State, County and Site Number designation system in common use in the US. Clint is looking into some support for the dating and DNA testing we are looking to do, and I am drafting out site reports and description templates for the recovered individuals. When I get back from Mongolia I will organize the formal loan process with the University, finish cleaning and sorting the material, get samples for dating and genetics collected and labeled and send them off. I plan to put more in the paper and keep the community updated as the project continues.
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