What was supposed to be a simple day of kayaking for two Minnesota residents turned into more than they bargained for when they happened upon what turned out to be an 8,000-year-old human skull.
The kayakers discovered a large fragment of a skull in September along the Minnesota River, amid a drought. They turned the skull over to the Renville County sheriff’s office, which thought it could have been a clue in a missing persons case. They sent it to the medical examiner and then an FBI forensic anthropologist, who couldn’t determine the identity and instead made a startling discovery.
The sheriff’s office told Minnesota news station KEYC News Now that carbon-14 dating (a way of determining the age of artifacts) led analysts to determine the skull belonged to a young male that was alive between 5,500 and 6,000 B.C. This means the skull could be around 8,000 years old.
The news station tweeted about the finding, along with an image of the skull fragment, on May 18:
Two kayakers in Renville County have uncovered human remains dating back to before the Common Era (BCE). https://t.co/vXPE1xeNGo
— KEYC News Now (@KEYCNewsNow) May 18, 2022
Sheriff Scott Hable told Minnesota Public Radio that, according to the FBI report, the man likely ate a diet consisting of maize and sorghum, and that his skull had an impression that was “perhaps suggestive of the cause of death.” The man likely traveled through parts of what is now Minnesota during the Archaic period in North America.
Kathleen Blue, a professor of anthropology at Minnesota State University, told The New York Times that the skull may have drifted in the river for thousands of years, or it could have been placed in a burial site close to the water and then simply carried away.
“There’s probably not that many people at that time wandering around Minnesota 8,000 years ago, because, like I said, the glaciers have only retreated a few thousand years before that,” Blue said. “That period, we don’t know much about it.”
Austin Buhta, an archaeologist at Augustana University who has written about the Archaic era for the state of Minnesota, told the Washington Post that the researcher community knows more about humans in later eras who buried their dead in large mounds.
“There just weren’t as many people on the landscape, and it’s older, so we just don’t find as much evidence,” Buhta told the Post.
What little evidence does emerge often isn’t analyzed in a lab because archaeologists are trying to respect the wishes of local Native Americans concerning their ancestors’ remains — and comply with the law.
Blue says this skull fragment was from an ancestor of one of the Native American tribes in the area today. Because of the Private Cemeteries Act in Minnesota, which states that it is a felony to disturb a burial ground, the skull would have never been analyzed if the sheriff had not sent it to the medical examiner’s office believing it may have been from a recent murder victim. The skull is now expected to be returned to Native American tribes in the state.
After the sheriff’s office posted photos of the skull fragment on social media, several Native American groups expressed alarm that they had not been notified first and were dismayed with how the photos were shared. The post was taken down.
“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,” Dylan Goetsch, of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, said in a statement to the New York Times.
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