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A Paleoindian Grave

painting of Horn Shelter burial scene by Frank Weir
Burial ceremony at Horn Shelter, about 11,000 years ago. A group leader wearing a badger headdress shakes turtle shell and deer antler rattles as members of the funeral party place special items within the grave of the man and child. Although many aspects of this scene are based on actual archeological evidence recovered from the site, it is not intended to to be an exact reconstruction of the event, but rather one plausible interpretation of what took place in the past. Painting by Frank Weir. View full scene and details.

Some 11,000 years ago, the bodies of a man and a child were laid together in a shallow pit beneath the broad overhang of Horn Shelter.  How many members of the burial party were present to attend to the dead and what sort of ceremony may have marked their passing is unknown.

What is certain is that the deceased were arranged in the grave with great care, their bodies placed closely together and aligned to face the direction of the setting sun. With them were laid an array of offerings, both artistic and mundane, representing creatures of the natural world as well as reminders of the people themselves, their crafts, and livelihood. The man was accorded special treatment with items made of shell, canine teeth and claws, turtle shells, and other materials which may have marked his high status or special power in the group. After the offerings had been placed, large slabs of flat stone were laid over the bodies, covering all but their heads.

Layers of sediment and fine cave dust from the ceiling eventually covered the grave completely.  Over the millennia, dozens of other groups camped in the shelter, building fires, cooking food, and making tools. In the process, they unwittingly left their camp debris over the grave far below.

Buried deeply within Horn Shelter, the ancient grave was lost to history until its fortuitous discovery in 1970 by Albert Redder and Frank Watt.  Carefully excavated and documented by the men, the double grave is providing researchers a rare window into the prehistoric world at the end of the last Ice Age in North America. Analysis of the human remains by physical anthropologists is answering more questions about these early peoples.  In the section below, we look at some of these findings.

Positioning of the Dead

As shown in the drawing and photograph at right, excavators uncovered the skeletal remains from a shallow, rock-covered, pit in the center of the shelter.  Both lay in flexed position on their left sides, with heads at the south end of the grave and feet to the north.  The adult faced the back of the shelter (westward), and the juvenile faced the back of the adult, with head positioned slightly forward. The arms of both individuals were drawn up, their hands apparently placed near, or in front of, their faces.

Nineteen limestone slabs had been laid over the two, leaving only the heads exposed. The weight of this stone covering, along with pressure from tons of overburden, had crushed and broken many of the bones, yet the skeletons were nearly complete. The skulls, though cracked, were not crushed. 

Grave Items

Special items were found within the grave, a number of them having been placed, tightly clustered, under or touching the head of the man. Perhaps originally encased in a sack or fiber bag, the cache may have served to cushion his head. Among the items were three modified turtle shells; two deer antler butts; two thin sandstone grinding stones with slight use-wear; a square fragment of fine red ocher; a crude chipped-stone biface; and a long, slender deer bone, perhaps intended as a tool. The three turtle shells, from which the fused ribs and vertebrae had been scraped, had been carefully arranged to form an enclosure: the bottom shell was upside down, and the other two lay nested within each other in the opposite direction. The stone and antler items had been identified for many years as part of a flint knapping kit. New analysis by Peggi Jodry and others at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History Department of Anthropology Laboratory and reported in Owsley and Jantz 2014 has led to fascinating new interpretations. The biface apparently was intended as a core for the extraction of small, sharp flakes for cutting, whereas the antler materials showed signs of rotational grinding and polish, suggesting their use as a pestle.

Outside the cache the excavators found three perforated coyote tooth pendants.  Based on their position in the neck area of the male, these pendants may have been strung on a necklace or sewn on clothing as adornment. Four unperforated claws of a Swainson's hawk also were found in the same area. (A fourth coyote tooth pendant was found cemented by calcium carbonate to the base of the adult's skull.)

Inside the mouth cavity of the adult male lay the talon of a Swainson's hawk, with proximal phalanx still attached, and the claw of a badger. Four additional badger claws lay in front of the skull. Two beads made of marine shell, including a large lettered Olive shell, also were found within the skull. Small fragments of burned walnut shell also were noted, the only plant remains from the Paleoindian strata at Horn Shelter.

Two additional turtle shells had been buried with the adult: one placed directly in front of his face, the other, upside down, under his pelvis. Inside the latter turtle shell were found an antler fragment and two seashell beads. In the leg area of the adult was a shaft straightener made from a deer antler and three additional beads. Microscopic examination of the turtle shells by the Smithsonian researchers showed polish, striations, and traces of hematite suggestive of their use as bowls used in conjunction with the antler pestles, perhaps for the preparation of pigment. Hematite residue was also present on the slender deer bone tool and abraders.

An eyed polished-bone needle and a few shell beads were the only items found with the Horn juvenile. The needle, made of polished bone and measuring roughly 1.75 inches (43 mm) long and .2 inches (2.5 mm) in diameter, was found between the lower ribs and femur. The tip of the needle was broken off before burial, and Redder has suggested that symbolic breakage may have been part of the burial ritual. Similar eyed needles were found in the underlying Sub-Stratum 5D at Horn Shelter, as well as at Folsom sites, such as Lindenmeier in Colorado. At the Buhl site in Idaho, the grave of a woman also contained a bone needle; age for this burial is estimated at around 10,500 years B.P.

Some 80 small beads made of nerite sea shell (Neritina reclivata) were found within the grave and scattered in the fill. Each shell had been abraded through the whorl area to form a hole, likely for stringing on thread for a necklace or sewn to the clothing. Seventeen of the beads were found in place, four with the juvenile and the remainder with the adult. Although the beads found in situ were still bright and shiny, those scattered within the fill were weathered and coated with calcite, making them impossible for the excavators to see until the fill was washed on a window screen. 

Also screened from the grave fill was a variety of cultural material including snail shells, chert flakes, turtle bones and turtle skull fragments, portions of worked deer antler, including a portion of a shaft straightener, and fragments of bird, rodent, snake, frog, fish, and deer bone. Whether any of these items were intentionally placed within the grave is not known.

In This Section:

Drawing of burial by Frank Weir
The bodies of the adult male (right) and juvenile had been covered with limestone slabs, with just the heads exposed. Drawing by Frank Weir. Enlarge for detail and photo. Enlarge image
painting of Horn Shelter burial scene by Frank Weir
A member of the burial party places a turtle shell over the face of the deceased man, who has been adorned with other items likely signifying power or status. Inset from painting of Horn Shelter burial scene by Frank Weir. Enlarge image
Drawing of burial by Frank Weir
Placement of bodies within grave, based on photograph taken during excavations. Selected artifacts are shown in approximate locations, based on field records. Note turtle shell under head and pelvis of adult male. Enlarge for detail and photo. Drawing by Frank Weir. Enlarge image
photo of grave items from burial
Grave items from burial of adult male, including nested box turtle shells, antler tools, sandstone slabs, chipped-stone biface, and red ocher nodule. Photo by Albert Redder, TARL Archives. Enlarge image
photo of grave items
Grave items. Top row from left: grooved nodule of red ocher; chipped-stone biface; deer antler butt; antler shaft straightener; antler butt. Second row: deer bone tool, or stylus. Third row: sandstone slabs; marine shell beads encircling an Olive shell and perforated coyote tooth pendant; eyed, polished bone needle; toothpick (shown for scale). Fourth row: worked antler fragments; antler shaft straightener fragment; utilized chert flake. Photo by Albert Redder. Enlarge image
photo of marine shell beads (Neritina reclivata ) shown with coyote tooth pendants
Marine shell beads (Neritina reclivata ) shown with coyote tooth pendants and large Olive sayana in center. The ornaments and shell beads, strung on modern thread for curation, likely hung from a necklace or adorned the clothing of the deceased. Photo provided by Calvin Smith. Enlarge image
photo of eyed needle made of polished bone
Eyed needle made of polished bone (its tip apparently was broken off before burial). This small domestic tool was one of only a few items found with the juvenile. TARL Archives.Enlarge image
photo of ornament made of large lettered olive shell
Ornament made of large lettered olive shell (Oliva sayana), one of several items crafted of non-local materials. This shell likely was brought from the Gulf of Mexico, some 200 miles away from the site. TARL Archives. Enlarge image
photo of turtle shell
Turtle shell, including reproduction. Photo courtesy of Bosque Museum. Enlarge image
closeup photo of bone needle
Closeup of bone needle, showing drilled hole. Photo by Albert Redder. Enlarge image
photo of antler billet
One of two antler tools found in burial. Originally considered part of a knapping kit, these tools are now thought to be pestles for grinding pigment. Photo provided by Calvin Smith. Enlarge image


In all, more than 100 items have been associated with the burial. Notably, only one artifact, the bone needle, seemed deliberately placed with the juvenile. This finely crafted small tool may have been used for sewing, beading, or net weaving. Only one of the shell beads found near the child was unweathered; it was found between the radius and ulna, perhaps having been worn on an arm band. Interestingly, two of the unweathered beads found with the adult male were in a similar position.

Certain items associated with the adult male—turtle shells, raptor talons, coyote teeth, badger claws, and exotic marine shell—may have symbolic meaning and denote high status or power. The pendants and some of the shell beads likely were strung as a necklace, armlet, or clothing adornment. A precious commodity, the shell came from the Gulf Coast, over 300 miles away. Interestingly, although the three turtle shells positioned under the man's head formed a hollow enclosure, nothing was found within.

Among the most fascinating new interpretations of the burial items were of those originally thought to be a flint knapping kits. Jodry and others have suggested these, and other items, were components of a tattooing kit (hematite used for pigment; deer antler pestles for grinding the pigment in turtle shell bowls; stone biface as a source for small flakes for cutting; sharpened coyote canine for incision; and slender bone stylus for applying the pigment into the wound).

Dating the Deposits

Radiocarbon assays, diagnostic projectile points, and cultural stratigraphy have helped date the stratum (5G) from which the burial originated. Two charcoal samples from this layer yielded radiocarbon determinations of 9980+/-370 years B.P. (11,590+/-606 calibrated years B.P). and 9500+/-200 (10,810+/-277 calibrated years B.P.). Snail shell samples provided assays of 10,310+/-150 years B.P. (12,121+/-331 calibrated years B.P.) and 10,030+/-130 years B.P. (11,621+/-259 calibrated years B.P.). The materials dated were composite samples from Sub-Stratum 5G, that is, they were not found within feature contexts or within the burial. More recently, however, Smithsonian Institution physical anthropologist Douglas Owsley has obtained AMS dates of 9710+/-40 B.P. from bone of the adult male and 9690+/-50 B.P. from bone of the juvenile. The close correspondence of these various returns confirms the age of the burial, and validates its distinction as one of the oldest in North America.

Brazos Fishtail (or San Patrice) dart points, found within the layer from which the burial was dug, as well as that below it, also point to an early time period for the burial. The base of an apparent Wilson point also was found in 5G; the remainder of this point was found in underlying layer, 5F. Both San Patrice and Wilson have been found in earlier parts of Late Paleoindian contexts at other sites, including Wilson-Leonard in nearby Williamson County. A human burial, dated between 9750-10,000 B.P, also was found at this site and is attributed to Wilson peoples.

Analysis of Human Remains

Diane Young conducted initial analysis of the human remains from Horn Shelter under the guidance of Gentry Steele in 1985 at Texas A&M University. Additional analysis by Douglas Owsley is ongoing at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History. Osteological studies such as these provide insights into the diet, health, appearance, activities, and origins of early peoples in North America.

The adult male is estimated to have been near 40 years old at the time of his death, based on measurements, growth and aging indicators. In stature, he would have measured between 5 feet 3 inches and 5 feet 4 inches (162 to 166 cm).

Of particular interest is evidence indicating he had been engaged in strenuous, repititve activities involving use of his forearms, resulting in well-developed muscle attachments, and robust development of his right thumb and forefinger, indicating repetitive gripping motion. Jodry and Owsley suggest these unusual attributes may relate to shamanic drumming and repetitive healing tasks, such as body painting.

There were few signs of disease or medical disorders in the male skeleton. The man had suffered an infection of the left maxillary sinus and a fracture on the left foot, which had healed completely. Other foot bones showed abnormal growth, possibly due to mechanical stress or infection. Transverse, or Harris, lines on the femur and tibia (lower limb bones), may indicate he had experienced disease or nutritional deficiences while young. The individual had lost permanent teeth (a maxillary incisor and portions of the mandibular molars) before death, causing him to have only two or three functional chewing surfaces. Those teeth remaining were heavily worn, likely related to a coarse hunter-gatherer diet and, as Owsley has noted, possible use of teeth as tools.

The bones of the juvenile were much thinner and less well preserved than those of the adult. Age of this indivdual was estimated at 10 to 12 years old, based chiefly on dental eruption and dental calcification. All of the permanent teeth had emerged,  although one deciduous, or baby, tooth (left maxillary secondary molar) was still present. The deciduous molar showed heavy attrition, its chewing surface worn into a concave depression and down to secondary dentine. There were only light to moderate signs of wear on the other teeth. Only a trace of shoveling was observed in the central maxillary incisors, and none on the lower incisors. Both Young and Owsley noted small pits on the lingual surfaces of the juvenile's upper first molar. Identified as Caribelli's trait, or cusp, this feature is not common in Native American populations. Caribelli's trait has a higher incidence among Caucasoid populations than Mongoloid, based on a scorings by physical anthropologist Christy Turner.

The sex of individuals this young is often difficult to determine, especially given deterioration of post cranial elements typically used to make this assessment. Although Young tentatively identified the individual as male, there are aspects of the dentition suggesting the juvenile was female. The presence of a bone sewing needle, traditionally associated with females, also suggests this identification. 

The causes of death of the Horn Shelter individuals were not revealed by osteological analyses and, for the present time, remain a mystery. Other than signs of a minor sinus infection in both the man and child, there were no indications of serious medical conditions or signs of trauma. Both Redder and Dee Ann Story have suggested that the apparent simultaneous death of both persons is noteworthy and would seem to lead to certain interpretations. Either the two were both struck down by an unknown calamity, or the youth was sacrificed following the death of the adult male. Given the richness of the grave offerings, the man obviously held high status in his group. And, if the young child were female, she may have been his wife. As Story noted, the loss felt by the group, or perhaps the extent of the man's power, is evident in the careful burial at Horn Shelter.

Face from the Past

Because of the rarity of Paleoindian skeletal remains, little is known about the physical characteristics of earliest peoples. A number of features, however, suggest that Horn Shelter man derives from different ancestry from modern Native Americans. His long, narrow skull and relatively short face more closely resemble the Ainu of Japan, who are known to carry European traits, rather than the more round skulls, broad faces, and pronounced features represented in some modern Native American populations. Certain evidence in the teeth of the Horn Shelter juvenile also tends to set her apart from Native Americans, including shallow depth of incisor shoveling and the presence of a small cusp of Caribelli. Interestingly, physical anthropologist Matthew Taylor has found a lower incidence of shoveling in prehistoric skeletal remains from the Texas Gulf Coast compared to more inland sites in the state. Caribelli's trait is common among prehistoric coastal populations, based on Christy Turner's scoring.

Additional analyses of early human skeletal remains in the U.S. are detailed in Arch Lake Woman, Physical Anthropology and Geoarchaeology (2010 Texas A &M University Press) by Owsley, Margaret Jodry, and others. In addition to reporting findings from the Arch Lake site in New Mexico, the book also synthesizes and compares skeletal and cultural materials from several other early burial sites, including Horn Shelter.

In his analysis, Owsley found dental traits in common between the Horn Shelter No. 2 juvenile and Arch Lake Woman in New Mexico. In certain aspects of cranial morphology, the Arch Lake woman was most similar to the Horn Shelter No. 2 male as well as Gordon Creek woman from a site in northern Colorado. These traits, he notes, are not representative of recent Native Americans. DNA analysis of bone from the Horn Shelter remains currently is underway. Results of these studies may provide further clues on the ancestry of these ancient people.

Today, a bronze bust of the Horn Shelter man stands at the entrance to the Bosque Museum in Clifton, enabling visitors to gaze at a likeness of this face from the ancient past. Sculptor Amanda Danning performed this reconstruction based on a cast of the reassembled skull of the Horn Shelter adult made by physical anthropologist James Chatters. Working under the guidance of Owsley and others, Danning produced an approximation of facial features of the man, one of the earliest known inhabitants of North America. In addition to the sculpture, the museum holds an interpretive display of the burial scene and excavations at Horn Shelter.

photo of Swainson hawk in flight
Swainson's hawk in flight. Talons from this type of raptor were placed in the burial of the man, one of several items suggesting high status or power. Enlarge image
photo of Brazos Fishtail point
Brazos Fishtail point recovered from layer in which the double burial originated. This type may be a variant of San Patrice. Image by Susan Dial. Enlarge image
illustration of skull of adult male
Rendering of skull of adult male. Enlarge for detail and photo. TARL Archives. Enlarge image
photo of reconstruction of the skull of the adult male
A reconstruction of the skull of the adult male found in Horn Shelter burial, created by James Chatters. Photo courtesy of Bosque Museum. Enlarge image
photo of bust depicting Horn Shelter Man
Bust depicting Horn Shelter Man, commissioned by the Bosque Museum in Clifton. Facial features are based on a reconstruction of the skull from the burial. Photo by Susan Dial. Enlarge image
photo of physical anthropologist Douglas Owsley
Physical anthropologist Douglas Owsley examines an element of the Horn Shelter male at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, where the human remains and artifacts now have been placed for safekeeping and scientific research. Photo by LaVern Dutton, courtesy of the Bosque Museum. Enlarge image