Prehistoric Native American Jawbone Uncovered Near Iowa River in ‘Historic’ Find

by Lauren Boisvert

On August 10, Marshall County Conservation staff and Marshall County Sheriff’s Deputies found a human jawbone near the Iowa River. The jawbone turned out to be from a “prehistoric Native American,” according to the Marshall County Sheriff’s Department. A truly special and historic find for all those involved. A photo of the amazingly intact jawbone is featured in the Des Moines Register.

In addition to the jawbone, three other alleged human bones were found in the area. Officials began an investigation to determine where and when they came from. But, according to the State Medical Examiner, they were not, in fact, human remains.

“The jawbone was intact, but the condition was deteriorated indicating the jawbone was several years old,” Marshall County Sheriff Joel Phillips said in a statement. He commented on the “remarkable” condition the bone was in when deputies found it. He also shared that the State Medical Examiner sent the bone to the Office of the State Archaeologist at the University of Iowa.

“There is no medical comparisons because it was before medical records existed in the United States,” said Phillips. “We try to get things back to where they belong.”

Iowa Deputies Discover Human Jawbone in River, Archeologists Determine Its Origins

The jawbone, or mandible, is allegedly from a middle-aged or older “prehistoric” Indigenous male. According to the Office of the State Archeologist, researchers have not determined the exact age yet. Lara Noldner, bioarchaeology director at the Office, said that they will report the remains to the federal government. Of course, following a thorough analysis.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed in September 1990, aims to return any discovered remains or cultural artifacts respectfully to their tribe of origin. According to a US Senate Report from the time, NAGPRA’s goal is to “encourage a continuing dialogue between museums and Indian Tribes.” It looks to “promote a greater understanding between the groups.” Additionally, while “recognizing the important function museums serve in society by preserving the past.”

According to Sheriff Phillips, there were about ten Native American tribes living along the Iowa River in those days. Noldner told the Des Moines Register that all tribes that were historically located there will be notified. Then, they can have a proper burial for the remains.

National Park Service to Use Indigenous Practices to Manage Public Lands

National Park Service Director Chuck Sams is looking to implement Indigenous knowledge back into the management system of US public lands and National Parks. Sams, himself an enrolled member of the Cayuse and Walla Walla Tribes, said in a committee meeting in March 2022 that plans for the National Park Service begin with an acknowledgment of where these lands came from and who lived here first.

“Much of this has been missing from our history books, that understanding that tribes are sovereign,” said Sams during the virtual meeting. “What could be a better avenue of restorative justice than giving tribes the opportunity to participate in the management of lands that their ancestors were removed from?”

Under Sams’ leadership, the NPS has established 80 cooperative management agreements with Indigenous tribes. Right now, four National Parks share co-management with Indigenous peoples. Sams hopes that this number will grow. There’s no doubt that the National Parks will flourish under this proposal in the coming years.