Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Pictograph Cave Cannibals

English professor H. Melville Sayre of the Montana School of Mines at Butte led the first archaeological excavations at Pictograph Cave, a National Historic Landmark, near Billings. Under foreman Oscar T. Lewis, a Glendive rancher and self-taught archaeologist, the dig was funded by the Depression-era New Deal Works Progress Administration of the 1930s. It put numerous crew members to work. According to locals who frequented the excavation site as visitors in 1937 and 1938, both Sayre and Lewis told fantastic tales. They claimed to have found evidence that Ice Age occupants practiced cannibalism. They backed up their story with the supposed discovery of human teeth, a human skull with knife marks consistent with removal of the tongue, and butchered human rib bones bearing human teeth marks. While Sayre’s formal report to Governor Roy Ayers is considerably less flamboyant, he does mention that some items yielded evidence consistent with cannibalistic activity. Lewis further speculates in his notes that notched bone projectile points found in the caves came from Inuits in the Arctic. He figured that the Inuits harpooned buffalo that did not die, but migrated south where they were eventually killed by the early inhabitants of the Yellowstone Valley. Writer Glendolin Damon Wagner, who wrote about evidence of cannibalism among other indigenous peoples, painted a vivid picture of the finds in Pictograph Cave in the Rocky Mountain Husbandman of May 3, 1938. But when professional archaeologist Dr. William Mulloy took over the Pictograph Cave excavations in 1941, these tales died a swift death. If evidence of cannibalism existed, it has been lost along with many of the artifacts discovered under Lewis and Sayre. Most scientists discount cannibalism among Montana’s first peoples as nothing more than bunk.

Bill Browne, photographer, Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, PAc 90-96 P3 #18
Archaeologists Gus Helbronner (left) and Wahle Phelan during excavation of Pictograph Cave, c. 1937 Click the photo for a bigger version.

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