Ancient reburial: 12,600-year-old Clovis child set to rest forever


Scientists and representatives of six tribes reburied a 12,600-year-old Clovis child in a patch of sagebrush Saturday close to the site in the Shields Valley where he was accidentally unearthed almost 50 years ago.

“Today I’m here to put this boy to rest I hope forever,” said Larson Medicinehorse, the Crow sun dance chief who led the reburial ceremony. 


Eske Willerslev, left, a Danish geneticist, talks with members of the Umatilla and Yakama tribes, including Armand Minthorn, right, who began the ceremony by ringing a bell and singing a song.


Medicinehorse and representatives from other tribes, including the Blackfeet, the Salish Kootenai, the Yakama, the Umatilla and the Yavapai-Apache, sent the boy to the other side in a ceremony that lasted two hours. Medicinehorse burned smudge, using eagle feathers to fan the smoke over the black box that served as the boy’s coffin.

The child, who was found on the land of Mel and Helen Anzick in 1968 by contractors, is an ancestor of most modern Native Americans, according to a paper published in Nature in February. The paper documented genetic testing that Sarah Anzick, a molecular biologist, and a team of researchers, including Eske Willerslev, a well known Danish geneticist, did on the boy’s bones. The sequencing of the boy’s genome and the discovery he’s related to present-day Native Americans was touted as one of the most significant ever made in early American archaeology. It adds evidence to the theory that the ancestors of Native Americans walked across a land bridge from Asia into the Americas. Researchers believe the boy was about one-and-a-half years old when he died, but have few clues as to how he died. 

The Clovis people are the earliest documented culture in North America accepted by most archaeologists. They lived at the end of the last ice age, at about the same time that several large mammals such as the woolly mammoth and the short-faced bear were going extinct. The culture got its name from the first site associated with the people, which was found near Clovis, N.M., in 1932. 

The Clovis child was found covered in red ocher in the Shields Valley along with more than 100 stone and bone tools. The artifacts remain at the Montana Historical Society Museum in Helena. In addition to reburying the Clovis child, tribal representatives and the scientists also reburied the remains of another child found near the site who lived 9,000 years ago. 

Saturday’s ceremony appears to be one of the only reburials in which scientists initiated and organized the effort. Some say Saturday’s reburial is an important step in the right direction for the relationship between Native Americans, archaeologists and other scientists. Others note that although the Clovis child was found to be related to most Native Americans, the Anzicks and the research team retained control of what happened to him.

Sarah Anzick, who was 2 years old when the Clovis child was found on her parents’ property, has led the charge to rebury the boy, saying she felt it was her moral obligation to do so. Saturday she said she was relieved and pleased with the result.

The Clovis child was buried in a small black box in a hole that was 4 feet long and 2 feet wide. It rained during most of the ceremony. Michael DeRosier, a Blackfeet elder, placed a traditional red mineral paint in the grave. The Blackfeet still use the paint in ceremonies, and it was thought it resembles the original red ocher substance the boy was found with. 

The sun came out near the end of the reburial, when onlookers were invited to put handfuls of the sandy black dirt in the grave before it was sealed with a cement plate. Eske Willerslev and Shane Doyle, the Crow consultant who has been helping the researchers, began to fill the grave with dirt. Then others took turns. When the grave was filled, someone placed a branch on top with a feather tied to it. 

Umatilla member Armand Minthorn began the ceremony by ringing a bell and singing a song. His tribe has long been involved in a dispute over the remains of the 9,000-year-old Kennewick Man, who was found on federal land in Washington in 1996. The Umatilla, along with several other tribes, sued archaeologists and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to return Kennewick man to the tribes. 

Although the legal wrangling dragged on for years, Kennewick Man remains at the Burke Museum in Seattle, Minthorn said.  

But Saturday’s reburial of the Anzick child gave him hope, he said. The Umatilla hope Kennewick Man will be repatriated in 2015.

“The biggest change, we hope, is that archaeologists, anthropologists, scientists, etc., will come to understand that the tribes are the descendants of all ancient remains found in the United States,” Minthorn said. “They are beginning to change their views.”

Francis Auld, cultural preservation officer for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, thanked the landowners, but reminded attendees of the historical trauma Native Americans have suffered at the hands of science. He said tribal languages and traditions were dying and that it would be easier to support archaeologists and other scientists if their efforts also helped Native Americans. 

“We are all in it together today,” Auld said. “There’s no turning that around. You keep that in your minds and your hearts.”

For much of the 20th century, it was common practice for archaeologists to dig up Native American graves and sell the bones to archaeologists and museums like the Smithsonian. Following the passage of national and state laws protecting Native American burial sites and remains in the 1990s, some remains were returned to tribes, but many are still housed at some of the United States’ biggest and most prestigious museums. 

There have been several other reburials in Montana, like the 1994 repatriation of Chief Pretty Eagle at Crow Agency, which Medicinehorse also conducted. Pretty Eagle, who died in 1903, was among 60 tribal members whose graves were dug up in the early 1900s by Bighorn County Sanitarian Dr. W. A Russell. Russell sold the remains he dug up, some for less than $500. Pretty Eagle’s remains ended up in the Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Saturday, all the tribal representatives thanked the landowners for reburying the boy and allowing them to hold a ceremony.

Medicinehorse said the scientific findings verified what Native Americans have long known.

“Anytime you see an Indian, it’s not just an Indian,” he said. “It’s a relative. Somehow, we’ve all been here together at one time.”


Natalie Storey may be reached at