The mystery over the identity of the human remains found Monday in Haines continues.Employees at the American Bald Eagle Foundation found a skull in a pile of dirt delivered from 6.5-mile Haines Highway. The skull is now at the State Medical Examiner’s office in Anchorage. It will be at least a week before the artifact is released for a proper burial and the site can be excavated to see if there are more bones.
We don’t know much more about the large piece of skull uncovered last week, but answers are on the way. The State Medical Examiner’s Office decided late last week that photographs of the specimen weren’t good enough, so the skull was mailed to Anchorage. And until more is known about the cause of death and how old the remnant is, excavation at the original site and the dirt pile where it was found is on hold.
Archeologist Anastasia Wiley visited the site up the highway, but she’s waiting for approval from Anchorage before getting her hands dirty.
“In a state this large, a lot of times photographs will suffice, they can look at it and see that it’s not a modern homicide victim, for instance making it a crime scene,” she said. “In this case the skull had absorbed the minerals from the soil surrounding it so it’s very, very dark. You can see that it’s a skull, but it’s hard to see the detail that the medical examiner would want to look at.”
Once the skull is determined to be of a certain age and the site where it was found is deemed not a crime scene, it will be returned to local tribal organizations for a traditional burial.
Wiley says she deduced right away that it was a female because of the small size of the skull. But then again, it could have been a petite man.
“Her brow ridges were rather extended, a little more massive, and that’s normally a Native American trait,” she explained.
Another telling factor was the fused skull plates, which is an indication of an older person.
So, Wiley says, it’s likely a middle-aged or older Native American woman. As for what century the person lived, Wiley thinks it could have been as far back to or before the 1500s. She says starting in the 16th Century there is evidence that the Tlingit people cremated their deceased.
“What possibly could have been associated with this lady – I’m very anxious to screen the materials in the various areas and see what else is there.”
The site is a gravel pit owned by Jack Smith, Jr. with one small corner made up of sand from an old river bed. That’s where the skull was found. Just 200 yards or so up the highway is the site of a Tlingit summer camp.
Harriett Brouillette is the tribal administrator for the Chilkoot Indian Association. She says, with a village site just up the road, it would make sense that people would have been buried close by.
“My reaction was my chest tightened and my first reaction was ‘are there more? Are there more people buried in that spot?’ It’s a complicated issue because you’re dealing with a private land owner who is trying to make a living and you’re also dealing with what may be our ancestor,” Brouillette said.
DNA testing and carbon dating are a possibility to find out more information, but those tests are expensive and they settle curiosity more than provide cultural significance, Brouillette says.
“We also need to be in contact and cooperating with Klukwan because our people moved back and forth in the valley so the person could be from Chilkoot or Chilkat, you know, being at 7-mile.”
She says Wiley’s theory that the person lived before the 1500s is plausible. But she says, even when Tlingit people practiced cremation, medicine men were never cremated. And it could very well be a man.
But the association has started referring to the deceased as Shaawát (Shu waat), or woman.
“I think it’s important to know how to honor our ancestor and to make sure that what we’re doing is the honorable thing. Is it more honorable just to rebury the fragment, or not?” Brouillette said.
Brouillette says another challenge is that they don’t know what clan the person was affiliated with to give the proper ceremony.
Both Wiley and Brouillette agreed that the feeling of cooperation between all involved in the discovery has been encouraging, but that locals should steer clear of the site both for its cultural significance and because it’s private property.