Bones in the Highway

The scenario was right out of an archeologist’s nightmare––the road repair crew in hurry, inadvertently turning up, then disturbing, a find of the greatest importance.

But it wasn’t just a bad dream. It happened three miles north of Pelican Rapids, on what is now Trunk Highway 59.

It was June 16, 1931 and the crew out of the Highway Department’s Detroit Lakes Regional Office was at work leveling what engineers had labeled "frost boil five" when the grader blade suddenly bit into soft earth. Crew member Carl Steffen, who was following the machine, thought he saw something odd. Stooping for a closer look, he was shocked to see empty eye sockets of a human skull peering up at him.

Steffen tells it best. "We had this tough old guy who came over and said, ’this won’t take long!’ and jammed his shovel into the ground. But I warned him away from it. ’We’ll make a man out of it,’ I said."

Today, such an unintentional discovery of human remains would stop a project cold, while experts were hustled in to make a thorough evaluation of the undisturbed site and lawyers set to work on a flurry of paperwork. But this was sixty–odd years ago. Steffen indeed tried to "make a man out of it," by exhuming the bones, and laying them out in anatomical order in the ditch, along with a conch shell pendant and a elkhorn dagger found nearby. Interestingly enough, the bones lay there overnight until retrieved by the district supervisor who eventually got them A. E. Jenks from the University of Minnesota––while the roadwork continued.

It did not take Jenks and his colleagues long to realize they had a find of immense importance. The pelvis immediately identified it as a mature female, but young enough to never have borne children. From Steffen’s description of how the bones lay, experts reasoned they had not been ritualistically buried, so an accidental death was suspected. Though the crew had effectively destroyed the site, Steffen had noted the bones had been covered with a layer of deteriorated clam or mussel shells.

That layer of shells proved extremely troublesome––an inconvenient piece in the scientific puzzle––for it indicated death by drowning. And there had been no water there for a least 10,000 years, when glacial Lake Pelican included all the lakes in the Pelican River Chain, and covered considerable high ground, as well.

Prior to 1926, most scientists believed human beings’ appearance in North America dated from about a thousand years before Christ. The first hints to the contrary came that year with the discovery in New Mexico of a primitive tool alongside the bones of a species of bison known to have become extinct about 5000 BC. The discovery of what was to become known as "The Minnesota Man" pushed the date even beyond that, back further than many were willing to concede.

But eventually, the evidence became irrefutable. Science now recognizes the girl as a "proto–Indian," a member of a race who lived virtually in the shadow of glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age. Her forebears had come from east–central Asia, perhaps by walking across the Bering Straights on ice, perhaps on a "land bridge" exposed by lower sea levels. Retreating glaciers left a band of rich alluvial soil at their bases, upon which grew lush grasses to feed great herds of bison, elk, perhaps wooly mammoths, as well. And wherever there was game, there were bands of pre–historic hunter–gathers. The girl either drowned after falling though thin ice or by falling from a primitive raft into the chilly waters of glacial Lake Pelican.

Though scientists may have argued long and windily about the significance of the find, Minnesota Feminists had no such doubts: It was outrageous that remains clearly identified as female should be known as a man. In March of 1976, the legislature, besieged with requests for redress, boldly and officially renamed the find "The Minnesota Woman."

Sixty six years later, those old bones found just beneath U.S. 59 remain an enigma––a rock in the shoe of science, a drowning victim in the middle of a highway, bones of an Indian before there were Indians, bones of an ancient, yet young girl––a girl known for years as a man.

~Roger Pinckney