Proposal to rebury Anzick site boy in time capsule is nixed

A proposal to bury the 12,600-year-old child found in the Shields Valley in a time capsule that can be reopened every 50 years by scientists hoping to further study the remains has been nixed. 

Sarah Anzick, the daughter of the family on whose land the child was found in 1968, told members of the Montana Burial Preservation Board last week that when the boy is reburied he will be laid to rest forever. 

Anzick, a molecular biologist, is part of the research team that in February published a paper in Nature documenting their sequencing of the child’s genome, which showed that he’s related to all Native Americans. 

The discovery is one of the most important ever made in early American archeology, archaeologists say, and adds evidence to the theory that the ancestors of modern day Native Americans walked across a land bridge from Asia into the Americas. In addition to remains of the 12,6000-year-old Clovis child, bone fragments belonging to a child that lived 9,000 years ago were also found at the site.

Sarah Anzick was 2 years old when the remains were found on her parents’ property just outside of Wilsall. Asking for help from the tribes, who have members that sit on the burial board, she said, “The right thing to do is rebury. Though this is one of the most important ancient skeletons in existence, I feel there’s a moral obligation to rebury the remains. This accidental find, in a sense, has been a precious gift to humanity but now it is the time to lay the children to rest and allow for tribal healing.” 

Anzick said the boy would not be reburied in a capsule. 

“When it’s in the ground, it’s in the ground,” she said.

Rumors about reburial in a time capsule came from an article published earlier this month in the Mammoth Trumpet, the magazine of Texas A & M’s Center for the First Americans, which is directed by Michael Waters, one of the authors of the Nature paper.

Anzick said the research team initially thought the idea of a time capsule might be a good idea, but feedback from Native Americans convinced them to abandon the idea. Anzick said all the members of the team had agreed to abandon the idea.

The Trumpet article quotes Shane Doyle, the Crow consultant who was enlisted to help share information with Montana tribes about the Anzick site, as saying that although scientific data would surely be lost, the boy should be put back where he was found.

“This boy is not meant to be put on somebody’s shelf and taken off when they feel like it,” the article quotes Doyle as saying.

It then goes on to counter Doyle with comments from Smithsonian scientists who said that technological advances will yield more information if scientists are still able to study the boy.

“After much discussion, a reasonable compromise was reached that showed respect for the Clovis child and Native Americans, and satisfied scientists’ desire to learn more about the past from ancient remains,” the article says.

This compromise, the article goes on, was reburial in a special time capsule to prevent degradation of the bones. 

“And every 50 years there will be an opportunity to open the time capsule and take additional samples to answer new questions with new technologies,” the article says.

But others, including several Montana archeologists and tribal members, said they were appalled by the time capsule proposal.

Larry Lahren, of the Livingston area, the first archeologist to see the site and the longtime caretaker of it, wrote several letters to the burial board decrying the idea of reburial in a time capsule. Lahren parted ways with the researchers shortly before the Nature paper was published and has since criticized their methods, saying they’ve overstated their involvement with the tribes, among other ethical issues.

Lahren, who introduced members of the team to Doyle, said he was asked to “grease the wheels in Montana with the tribes and to give the project my blessing.” 

Regarding the time capsule idea, Lahren, in his letter to the burial board, characterized it as an “arrogant, unilateral ‘bait and switch’ plan.”

Anzick, who has sought Lahren out for advice in the past, said the accusations puzzle her. She said Lahren and others she consulted had always encouraged her to complete the genetic study and publish the findings. In the 40-plus years Lahren has been advising the Anzick family about the site, he never told them to consult Montana tribes, Anzick said.

Lahren says the remains aren’t private property and can’t be owned by anyone. 

Mike Manion, the lawyer who works for the burial board, said during the meeting last week that the Montana Burial and Repatriation Act, passed in 2001, couldn’t be retroactively applied to the Anzick remains. 

Anzick described the “huge responsibility” she carried on her shoulders regarding the site and the remains, and said she lacked clear guidance from the tribes and had at times been unsure about what was the right thing to do. 

She said she felt dueling responsibilities to science and to Native Americans in Montana and ultimately to all of humanity. She stressed the need for transparency and open communication with the tribes. 

Ultimately, she felt it was her moral obligation to rebury the remains.

“If you go far back enough in time, we are all related and we should all respect human remains,” Anzick said. “I feel fortunate to have been put in this position. On the other hand, it’s been an incredible burden.” 

Dr. Ruthann Knudson, a paleo-Indian archeologist and anthropologist who first heard about the Anzick site in 1968 and who sits on the Montana Burial Preservation Board, said she’s long been concerned about the remains. 

Knudson has worked with tribes on repatriation and reburial projects and said not all archeologists treat human remains like samples.

“Many archaeologists support reburial and respect of human remains,” she said. “When Sarah first told me about the time capsule, I was appalled.”

“We don’t want that child in a time capsule,” said Robert Four Star, a member of the Fork Peck Tribes who sits on the burial preservation board. “These people are from the ground, from this land here, and they should be put back.”

Four Star said his concerns about the way the boy was going to be reburied were assuaged by Sarah Anzick’s talk about her history with the remains, the responsibility she feels toward them and how the team plans to rebury them, a perspective that was echoed by several other members of the board. 

Anzick said the children will likely be reburied in coffins that will be secured with cement so that they can’t be broken into or otherwise disturbed. A Crow medicine man will bless the remains before they are reburied, Anzick said.

Some members of the burial board asked whether the array of objects found at the site, believed by some archeologists to be funerary offerings — almost 100 priceless Clovis points, bifaces and other artifacts, stained in red ocher like the boy’s bones — could be put on display near the child, by designating the site historical or creating a monument. 

Doyle and Anzick said the final details of the reburial, which is planned for late June, had yet to be worked out. 

The Anzick family’s portion of the artifacts are currently on display at the Montana Historical Society Museum in Helena. In 2001, the Montana Burial and Repatriation Act exempted the Anzick artifacts from repatriation efforts. 

Details of the reburial have yet to be worked out, Anzick and Doyle told board members.

Members of the burial board also questioned Knudson and Anzick about the way the remains were treated in the past. The boy’s remains were reacquired by the Anzick family in 1999. Since that time, Sarah Anzick said her family has treated them respectfully. 

“I’ve always been very respectful of the remains and always very concerned that they were treated in a respectful manner,” Sarah Anzick told the board members. “I’m a mother and this is a child. It’s very important to me. It’s not a sample to me, by any means.”

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Natalie Storey may be reached at nstorey@livent.net.