Part of skull found along Minnesota River belongs to man from 8,000 years ago

A river with low water level
The Minnesota River near Shakopee, Minn.
Courtesy Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

Renville County authorities said they got quite a surprise after asking the FBI to help identify a partial skull found along the Minnesota River last summer.

The bone turned up as the water receded during last summer's drought, and was spotted by passing kayakers. Renville County Sheriff Scott Hable said his agency got the bone and turned it over to a medical examiner, and eventually to the FBI, wondering if it could be linked to a recent missing person case.

Instead, Hable said, they found something else.

“That it was human, it was that of a young man, and, most surprisingly, that it was, they thought, about 8,000 years old. It was a complete shock to us that that bone was that old,” he said.

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He said the FBI report included that the man likely ate a marine diet including maize and sorghum, and that his skull had a “defect” that was “perhaps suggestive of the cause of death.”

The county's Facebook post on the discovery drew criticism from Native Minnesotans, who said their ancestral remains shouldn't be shared online.

“We had no idea but we were alerted to the fact that that Facebook post was offensive to one or more people and so we have since taken that post down. We didn’t mean for it to be offensive whatsoever,” Hable said.

Hable said he got in touch with the state archeologist and his agency is turning the remains over to Upper Sioux Community tribal officials.

In a statement, Minnesota Indian Affairs Council Cultural Resources Specialist Dylan Goetsch said neither the council nor the state archaeologist were made aware of the discovery as required by state law.

Goetsch said Minnesota’s tribal communities learned about the discovery only after seeing the sheriff’s Facebook post, which he called “unacceptable and offensive.”

Goetsch said the post “showed a complete lack of cultural sensitivity” by failing to reference the individual as Native American and referring to the remains as “a little piece of history.”

He also noted that laws that govern the care and repatriation of Native remains have been on the books for three decades, and the council and state archaeologist regularly work with law enforcement when remains are discovered.