CODY - The chance discovery near here of human remains that may date to 1,000 years ago has triggered a process under federal law that will involve consulting with nearby Indian tribes to determine what happens next.
Two friends were heading out to go rabbit hunting Sunday on public land administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management when they noticed what they thought was an animal bone partially exposed in the dirt.
"We cleared out around it and realized it was a skull," said construction worker Mark Buhler, 28.
"It freaked me out. I jumped about 15 feet backwards when I saw teeth," Buhler said.
"Once we saw the molars, we stopped and knew exactly what to do," said Jud Seiver, 33, who works for a monumental sculpture company.
Seiver had previously found a partial skull in the Sunlight Basin area and knew this time to cover the bones and contact the Park County Sheriff's Office. The rabbit hunting trip never got started amid the excitement of the discovery.
Together, the Sheriff's Office, Park County Coroner Tim Power and BLM archaeologist Kierson Crume determined the remains were not recent, Crume said.
Buhler said it was impossible to know without excavating the entire site, but the skull appears to be part of what may be a complete skeleton.
May be 1,000 years old
Crume said any guess about the age of the remains would be speculation, but that wear patterns on the teeth were consistent with a diet eaten by Indians in the area around 1,000 years ago.
Buhler said the molars were worn smooth and ground away considerably.
Crume said he was unable to determine gender from viewing only part of the skull, or whether it was that of an adult or child.
No artifacts were found on the surface around the site, Crume said. He asked that specific details of the site's location not be released, to protect the remains against theft or vandalism.
Sherry Hutt, program manager for the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, said the law protecting such finds is strong. Destroying, removing or attempting to sell such remains or related artifacts could bring a number of criminal or civil penalties, ranging from fines up to $150,000 and between 2 and 15 years in prison.
Under the act, such finds on public lands obligate federal management agencies to consult with tribal groups about what, if anything, should be done with the remains, Crume said.
Crume said he had notified the Northern Arapahoe, Northern Cheyenne, Eastern Shoshone and Crow tribes, but that other groups may also be contacted, and BLM would welcome input from any interested parties.
"If groups do express an interest, we would be able to provide additional information or arrange for a site visit," he said.
Emma Hansen, curator of the Plains Indian Museum at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, said there have been similar finds across the region.
"This area was heavily populated by people that are now called Shoshone," she said. "It could very likely be from these pre-Shoshone people."
"There were different tribal ceremonies concerning burial, but it would not have been unusual if he or she had been buried," Hansen said.
She said that generally, an individual would have been clothed when buried, but whether other objects would have been interred as well would depend on factors like the person's role in the tribe.
"Generally, the Shoshone people tried to find crevices or caves, and that's where they would typically bury someone," said Reed Tidzump, a member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe and head of its historical preservation office on the Wind River Indian Reservation.
Tidzump said that if the remains date to 1,000 years ago, they are likely to be culturally affiliated with modern Eastern Shoshone people rather than tribes that came more recently to the area.
Pre-Shoshone people from that era followed seasonal migration routes throughout the region, and ate wild vegetables, roots and ground seeds, along with dried meats from local game animals, he said, accounting for dental wear on the remains.
Tidzump said he would consult with tribal leaders and contact Crume about the remains found Sunday.
"The only thing we don't like them to do is to dig them up and remove them," Tidzump said. "Generally, our elders will tell them they want them kept in the same spot.
"Our people have a strong belief that we don't mess around with the bones of dead people," he said.
Crume said the discovery is the fourth of its kind he has been involved with during a decade of working in Wyoming for BLM.
"We encourage the folks recreating on public lands to be forthcoming with encounters of prehistoric or historic significance, and to report them to the appropriate authority or landowner," he said.
"There are a lot of people that get out into the hills and discover stuff and they're fearful" of reporting it, Seiver said.
"Mark and I are trying to show everybody there's a lot of education that can come from something like this," he said.
Crume said that if the discovery had been made in a permitted use area, activity would be temporarily halted there during consultation with tribes.
By the numbers
U.S. Department of the Interior statistics through November 2006 show that federal lands have yielded:
31,995 sets of human remains
669,554 associated funerary objects
3,584 sacred objects
Contact Ruffin Prevost at rprevostbillingsgazette.com or 307-527-7250.