Human Skull Found by Minnesota Kayakers Dates Back 8,000 Years

The skull fragment will be turned over to Upper Sioux Community tribal officials

A river and trees
Minnesota River from Gifford Lake Unit, Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area McGhiever via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 2.5

When two kayakers on the Minnesota River, about 100 miles west of Minneapolis, discovered a human skull last year, they had little idea of the find’s importance.

Drought conditions on the river had made the brown bone, spotted along the riverbank, easier to see. The kayakers alerted the Renville County Sheriff’s Office, reports the New York Times’ Eduardo Medina.

Officials sent the skull to the FBI, thinking it might be a missing person or murder victim, per the Associated Press. Instead, a forensic anthropologist determined that they were the remains of a young man who had lived in the area between 6000 and 5500 B.C.E. These results were announced eight months after the initial find.

“To say we were taken back is an understatement,” Renville County Sheriff Scott Hable tells the Washington Post’s Hannah Knowles. “None of us were prepared for that.”

The skull had evidence of blunt force trauma, though it appeared the wound had healed, and may not have been the cause of death, reports the Times. A forensic anthropologist at the FBI used carbon dating to find the age of the skull.

Experts say the man would have lived during Minnesota’s Archaic period, which began about 7,000 B.C. and ended in 300 B.C. He likely ate a marine-heavy diet along with plants like maize, per the Post.

“As best as we can tell there was no farming at that time,” Austin Buhta, an archaeologist at Augustana University tells the Post. “Some people hunted with small spears and wooden throwing aids called ‘atlatls.’”

Archaeologists have only studied three other human remains from that period in Minnesota per the Times, because it is rare for Indigenous communities to allow them to be examined.

It is this relationship between Native Americans and local authorities, that showed fractures in the aftermath of the discovery. The sheriff’s office posted the finding on social media, along with photos of the skull fragment. This post was met with criticism from local Native American groups, who say they weren’t notified of the discovery as required by state law, reports Minnesota Public Radio’s Tim Nelson and Matt Sepic. Instead, they found out through Facebook, which Dylan Goetsch, a cultural resources specialist with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, tells MPR is “unacceptable and offensive.”

“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,” Goetsch said in a statement.

The council is protective of remains, and normally there “would not be any sort of invasive analysis and photos are not allowed,” Kathleen Blue, a professor of anthropology at Minnesota State University tells the Times.

The sheriff’s office removed the post, and the skull will be turned over to the Upper Sioux Community tribal officials, reports MPR.