June 12, 2008

Human skull found near Snake River may be ancient Nez Perce


A partial human skull and bone fragments found near a site known for its American Indian petroglyphs, pictographs and ancient graves may be the remains of a Nez Perce ancestor.

Discovery of the probably Nez Perce skull was reported Sunday evening

An Oregon dentist who owns land on Snake River Road south of the eastern Washington town of Asotin, just across the river from Idaho, reported the skull, which he found on his property a week earlier. Nez Perce cultural authorities have been contacted, as has the anthropology department at Washington State University in nearby Pullman.

After detectives and archaeologists surveyed the area early this week, they concluded the remains were likely too old to have been victims of a modern-day crime. The skull was found near a place called Buffalo Eddy, known for rock art with images associated with early Nez Perce people, whose tribal headquarters are now in Lapwai, Idaho.

“All indications are we’re dealing with archaeological remains and not forensic remains,” Asotin County Coroner Ben Nichols told The Lewiston Tribune.

The dentist, whose name was not released, was at his property Memorial Day when something poking through loose soil on a steep embankment near his driveway caught his eye.

It wasn’t immediately clear why he waited a week to report his discovery.

“At first, he thought it was a shard of pottery sticking out,” Asotin County Sheriff’s Detective Jackie Nichols said. “He pulled it out and discovered it was a human skull.”

A Nez Perce tribal member and an archaeologist visited the site Monday and also viewed the fragments, which have been booked into evidence at the sheriff’s office, Nichols said.

Once the age of the remains has been positively determined, they can be returned to the Nez Perce tribe for reburial.

In another era when scientific curiosity outweighed the likelihood of offending descendants, such remains might have gone to a university such as Washington State for study.

Today, however, officials are honoring Nez Perce tribal wishes, including that the county not release any photos of the remains or the site where they were found. There’s still fear that grave robbers could disturb other valuable anthropological sites that dot the banks of the Snake River up and down the Washington-Idaho border.

“Because of the circumstances, Nez Perce tribal authorities were contacted immediately,” Nichols said.


This article first appeared in the Lewiston Tribune.

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