UW Authors Detail Skeletal Biology, Bioarchaeology of Northwestern Plains in New Book
December 4, 2008 — Who was living in the states now known as Wyoming and Montana some 10,000 years ago? How long did they typically live? And when they died, how were they buried?
Those questions -- and many more -- are answered in a new book by a team of University of Wyoming authors that details the prehistory and early history of the Northwestern Plains through a collection of about 370 partial and full sets of skeletal remains gathered over the past 40 years by UW researchers.
"Skeletal Biology and Bioarchaeology of the Northwestern Plains," published and distributed by the University of Utah Press, features submissions from UW anthropology professor emeritus George W. Gill and 11 of his former students, including Rick L. Weathermon, a research scientist in the UW Department of Anthropology, and Douglas W. Owsley, a UW graduate who now serves as division head for physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
"I'm not sure there's anything that's ever been done exactly like this, a regional story told through the bones," says Gill, who wrote or co-wrote three of the book's 19 chapters. "This may be a first in the country, because I'm just not sure anybody's ever taken a local region and told as much of the story of prehistory and early history just from skeletons and burials. That's what we've done."
He adds, "It's quite the story of Wyoming and Montana over a 10,000-year period."
"This in-depth study of the human skeletal remains from both the prehistoric and early historic period of the Northwestern Plains ... (is a) remarkable addition to the literature of what the early humans in this geographic area were like and what happened to them," says William M. Bass, one of the nation's most renowned forensic anthropologists. Bass wrote the book's foreword.
The book contains contributions from 21 pre-eminent scholars working across many fields of bioarchaeology and skeletal biology -- including paleopathology, dental pathology and human osteology -- and details specific examples of Wyoming pioneer-era burials, Indian War-era casualties and remains discovered from the Benick Ranch and the Korell-Bordeaux sites.
Reports on Crow Indian mummies from Montana and military burials from Missouri and Nebraska are also included in the book.
In addition, the authors make two probable identifications of skeletal remains -- Lt. Gabriel Field, who was killed in 1823 near Fort Atkinson in what is now Nebraska, and Pvt. George W. Camp, who was tomahawked in 1865 at then-Platte Bridge Station in present-day Casper.
Gill calls the chapter that details the story of Camp's death and the subsequent discovery and identification of his remains the "most interesting" in the book. His bones were found in 1990 during the building of a parking lot at the Fort Caspar Museum, on the site of the old Platte River Station.
By studying and cross-checking historic and military records, which provided Camp's age, stature and details of his death, among other things, Weathermon says, "It's too coincidental to be anybody but George Camp."
Camp was among four soldiers killed along with Lt. Caspar Collins when they were attacked by some 1,000-2,000 Cheyenne and Sioux warriors, according to the Military History of the Eleventh Kansas Volunteer Cavalry.
Since the book went to publication, Weathermon has contacted a great, great nephew of Camp, who provided a daguerreotype of the fallen soldier. The results of a photo superposition were "good enough," he says, to pursue a DNA match in the near future.
"That's George Camp," Gill says of the remains. "Rick has convinced me. I'd bet on it."
The book also details burial practices, including the use of makeshift coffins sometimes made of wooden cracker boxes and wagon parts, and the introduction of coffins to the Northwestern Plains.
During his extensive research, Weathermon stumbled across one account of an elderly couple that decided to come west on a wagon train.
"She was in ill health and so he bought a coffin and put it in the wagon," Weathermon says. "Can you imagine? She was expecting to die."
But she didn't.
"She made it across," he adds, "and buried him in it."
The publication of the book, which the authors believe will become an authoritative statement on both skeletal biology and bioarchaeology of the Northwestern Plains, is especially gratifying to Gill.
When he began work at UW in 1971, Gill says the university had about 10 sets of skeletal remains.
"After I'd been out here a few years and saw how slowly skeletons collect here, compared to Mexico and some of the other places I've been, I was wondering if we'd ever be able to make any statements," he says. "But, now, we've given the archaeologists something to think on."
This photo shows two skeletons discovered at the Benick Ranch burial site, located on a terrace of the Laramie River in southern Wyoming. (UW Photo)