Archaeologist, indigenous skills teacher explain Shields Valley artifact site

2014-02-09T00:00:00Z 2014-02-21T20:09:48Z Archaeologist, indigenous skills teacher explain Shields Valley artifact siteBy BRETT FRENCH The Billings Gazette

Why would a 2-year-old child’s body be dusted with red ocher, left with a variety of sharpened stone points — including one the size of a man’s forearm — and then buried in a hillside?

“This was a gift to the child to say, ‘This is what it takes to be a mammoth hunter,’” said Bill McConnell, founder of the Bozeman-based PAST Skills Wilderness School, tools for the hunt in the afterlife.

McConnell has been fascinated with the Anzick burial site in the Shields River Valley, named after the family who owned the property just south of Wilsall, since he was a boy growing up in the 1970s and read about it in National Geographic magazine.

“I’ve carried that cover with me ever since,” he said. “And as anyone knows, all roads lead to Dr. Lahren if you get into Anzick.”

Larry Lahren, a Livingston-born archaeologist, was the first to investigate the controversial Anzick burial site. It was accidentally unearthed in 1968 by a landowner who was using a tractor to excavate talus for a drain field.

Lahren and McConnell gave a talk about the site, its artifacts and the history of the ancient mammoth hunting culture in Montana at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman recently. The talk was one of the Extreme History Project’s “Voices from the Field” lecture series, which continues with a talk each month.

Unique site

Since the burial site’s discovery, the child’s remains have been dated to about 10,700 years before present. That makes the site the largest and most complete Clovis-era burial site in the western hemisphere. Clovis is the name given to people who designed unique fluted projectile points that were dated to 11,000 to 11,500 years ago. The name comes from the artifacts’ discovery in 1932 at a site near Clovis, N.M., where the points were unearthed amid mammoth and extinct bison remains.

After spending much of his professional career defending the Anzick site as a ritual burial and not a cache, Lahren sees the area in very personal terms. In his book, “Homeland,” Lahren said the Anzick site is “one of the single most important Clovis sites in the New World.”

Why clans of ancient hunters would have been living in what is now Montana’s Park County — what Lahren has dubbed the “Valley of the Mammoth” — thousands of years ago is explained by several factors, Lahren said.

He points to the theory that the Cordilleran and Laurentide ice sheets were spaced far enough apart in what is now Canada about 13,000 years ago to allow travelers to migrate from Asia on the Bering land bridge into North America. The gap would have funneled ancient people along the east side of the Rocky Mountains directly into Montana. After crossing the Missouri River, the first place they would have arrived that contained excellent flint and chert material for dart, knife, scraper and spear points was the Shields River Valley, Lahren said.

“It was definitely on the top of the list” for quality places to live, Lahren said.

As those ice sheets receded, the Shields River Valley would have looked more like today’s Alaska — steppe and tundra land. The Shields River, now small, would have been comparable in size to the Yellowstone River, fed by large creeks that watered the grassland basin. Roaming the basin would have been species like huge woolly mammoths, bison antiquus, giant short-faced bears, the sabertooth tiger and dire wolf. All of those animals disappeared from Earth about 8,000 years ago for reasons still being debated.

One of the reasons so few Clovis sites have been found in Montana, Lahren said, is that they have been buried so deeply. One mammoth bone bed, located about 15 miles south of the Anzick site, was buried 30 feet below ground.

“We’re 90 percent sure this mammoth was killed about the same time as the Anzick site,” he said.

Understanding the tools

McConnell’s interest in writing a book on flint knapping — the ancient technique for chipping rock into projectile points — prompted him to attempt to re-create the Anzick artifacts from native material.

Initial reports had some of the 115 Anzick points sourced to rock from Nevada and Wyoming, “which is a little unheard of considering you have to carry everything with you all the time” in the Clovis era, McConnell said.

“With the Anzick artifacts, you see impeccable material selection,” McConnell said. They took the good stuff, much of which he found sources for within 20 to 100 miles.

McConnell said he thinks a large rock, about 18 inches wide, was a mammoth hide scraper.

“We see some really large bifaces in this collection,” he said. “Could they be funerary offerings? No. They were functioning mammoth-hunting tools.”

As the large rocks were sharpened, the resulting flakes also provided a source for smaller points.


The discovery of long narrow pieces of bone at the Anzick site that were beveled on each end initially confused archaeologists. Some thought they were spear points. But McConnell said they were used as foreshafts, a link between darts thrown with an atlatl and the projectile points on the end of the darts.

Atlatls were levers used to throw long, arrow-like shafts. The levers enabled hunters to throw the darts faster and farther than a spear. McConnell, who has used the old technology to take bighorn sheep, deer, elk and bison, said projectile penetration of at least 9 inches was needed for ancient hunters to fatally wound an animal as big as a woolly mammoth.

McConnell compared an atlatl to a tennis ball throwing lever used by dog owners to throw “gooey wet” balls for their pups.

“A lot of people believe they don’t work at all, which amazes me because we had them in use right up until modern contact,” he said.

The bow was not developed until later. Bows were considered an advancement since the hunter could stay concealed when shooting, whereas atlatl throwers had to stand and expose themselves.

Not only would the atlatl foreshafts provide a smooth transition from the point to the dart shaft to enable deeper penetration, they also created a way for the foreshaft to break off from the point while allowing the point to remain in the animal. Then the dart could be recovered and reused.

“Whether you find the mammoth or not, all you’ve lost is the point,” McConnell said, calling the projectile the “throwaway” part of the setup that could easily be reproduced. “They were very good at making points.”

Lahren called the foreshafts part of a “rapid loading system.”

In perspective

Before the discovery of the Anzick site, there were few clues to early human occupation in Montana. One was the 1959 discovery by Otho Mack of three broken Clovis-era obsidian projectile points unearthed while digging footings for the Gardiner post office.

“Without Anzick, this is all we would know about the Clovis people in Montana,” Lahren said.

Since the find, though, Anzick “… has given us a totally different perspective about the ways of life of these people” by adding “a complex and mysterious religious dimension to the Clovis story,” Lahren wrote.

“You’d be overwhelmed to look at the collection,” Lahren said of the artifacts. “I think Bill McConnell sees these in his dreams.”

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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