Debacle Over 8,000-year-old Human Skull Posted On Facebook

Believed to be about 8,000 years old, two US kayakers recovered the human skull last September in a river about 110 miles west of Minneapolis. After they spotted the unnatural shaped object on a riverbank, they paddled toward it. On realizing what it was, and suspecting it might belong to a modern murder victim, they called the Renville County Sheriff’s Office and reported the body part to Sheriff Scott Hable.

Sheriff Hable sent the skull to a medical examiner who then forwarded it to a Federal Bureau of Investigation forensic anthropologist . A report in the New York Times explained that preliminary testing determined the bone belonged to a young man who lived as many as “8,000 years ago, between 5500 and 6000 BC.”

Legacy of the Smashed-Skulled Hunter

According to a report by the Archaeology Laboratory at Augustana University , in South Dakota, the man had likely “traversed through parts of what is now Minnesota during the Archaic period in North America,” between 8000 to 1000 BC. Kathleen Blue, a professor of anthropology at Minnesota State University, said the skull might have drifted in the river “for thousands of years, or been placed in a burial site close to the water and carried away over time.”

Dr. Blue wrote that the young man would have “likely eaten a diet of plants, deer, fish, turtles and freshwater mussels in a small area, rather than following mammals and bison as they migrate for miles.” Furthermore, the FBI anthropologist identified “a severe head wound” on the skull which Sheriff Hable said was evidence of violent blunt force trauma . However, Dr. Blue noted signs of healing round the edges of the wound which suggests the blow didn’t kill the man.

The human skull has been tested and appears to have suffered blunt force trauma. (Renville County Sheriff's Office)

The human skull has been tested and appears to have suffered blunt force trauma. (Renville County Sheriff’s Office)

Skull Discovered Thanks to a Mega-Drought

The ancient skull would never have been found if a severe drought hadn’t struck Minnesota in 2021. The State Department of Natural Resources explained that persistent moisture deficits combined with above-normal temperatures across the state caused “the worst drought in over 40 years.” Sheriff Hable said parts of the Minnesota River were exposed that hadn’t been before, and this is why the pair of anonymous kayakers spotted the skull cap. But what happened next would quickly shift focus from the skull to the Sheriff.

Being caught up in the excitement of the discovery, on Wednesday afternoon, Sheriff Hable posted photographs of the skull on Facebook. Soon after, his office was contacted by the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council who said the photographs were “very offensive to Native American culture .”

Dylan Goetsch, a cultural resources specialist with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, said the sheriff’s office showed “a complete lack of cultural sensitivity by their failure to reference the individual as being Native American .” Goetsch was particularly offended because the police had failed to inform the council of the discovery before publishing it.

The human skull was discovered by kayakers after parts of the Minnesota River were exposed after a drought struck Minnesota in 2021. (Ferrer Photography / Adobe Stock)

The human skull was discovered by kayakers after parts of the Minnesota River were exposed after a drought struck Minnesota in 2021. ( Ferrer Photography / Adobe Stock)

Archaeologists, Cops and Cultural Sensitivities

Responding to Dylan Goetsch’s protest, Sheriff Hable took the post offline immediately. Dr. Blue has since confirmed that the skull “was definitely” from an ancestor of one of the Native American tribes in the area today. But in defense of Sheriff Hable, Dr. Blue stressed that if he had not suspected the skull was from a murder victim it would never have been analyzed by an FBI anthropologist. Now that it has, it will be returned to Native American tribes in the state.

Since 1990, Federal law has systemized the repatriation or respectful return of confirmed Native American human remains. Furthermore, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony must “at all times be treated with dignity and respect.” Congress also declared that artifacts and human remains removed from Federal or tribal lands belong to lineal descendants of Native Tribes.

Where Sheriff Hable went wrong was in thinking Facebook was an appropriate place to announce the discovery of the ancient skull, rather than informing the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council . Hable, hands down, broke the Federal law that states “at all times” cultural artifacts and human remains must be treated with dignity and respect.

Top image: Human skull discovered in Minnesota River in September is believed to be about 8,000 years old. Source: Renville County Sheriff’s Office

By Ashley Cowie

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