VERMILLION, S.D. -- Timothy Heaton, Ph.D., chair and professor of the department of Earth Sciences at The University of South Dakota, is going back to the Pacific Northwest to help bury his discovery.
In 1996, while excavating for Ice Age animal fossils in On Your Knees Cave on Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, Heaton unearthed the remains of a human skull. It turned out that Heaton’s discovery was the oldest genetic sample ever recovered in the Americas and, more importantly, supported the scientific theory that humans first arrived in North America around 15,000 years ago. The skeletal jawbone and other remains from the cave determined to be of human origin were exhumed and turned over to archeologists. After more than a decade of scientific evaluation, the remains have been returned to the local Native American tribes for burial. Heaton will be attending the reburial ceremony in Klawock, Alaska as an invited guest speaker. In the process, he will be helping two tribes bury a 10,000 year-old ancestor.
“We originally envisioned the reburial as a quiet ceremony, but it has become quite the opposite,” said Heaton, who has been the principal investigator for paleontological research at On Your Knees Cave since 1994. His documentation of the ground-breaking Prince of Wales Island research has been featured in several prominent scientific publications, including a 2000 profile in National Geographic and a 2004 article in Smithsonian magazine entitled, “America’s First Immigrants.” An article Heaton co-authored last year that provided detailed information about the find was recognized by Discover magazine as the No. 32 (out of 100) top science story for 2007 (http://discovermagazine.com/2008/jan/tooth-dna-dates-the-first-americans).
A large, two-day celebration hosted by the Klawock Cooperative Association and the Craig Community Association has been planned for Sept. 26-27. In addition to presentations from archeologists and scientists such as Heaton, the ceremony will celebrate the life and homecoming of Shuká Kaa, Tlingit for “Man Ahead of Us.” Tlingit are indigenous people of northwest America. Heaton will also accept an award on behalf of USD from the U.S. Department of Agriculture designed to recognize the cooperation between scientists and Native Americans.
A photo of Heaton is available for download at www.usd.edu/urelations/images/Tim_Heaton.jpg.