BRAZORIA COUNTY/ 11,000 YEAR OLD REMAINS:
Archaeologist Robert d'Aigle unearthed bones three years ago in the San Bernard River National Wildlife Refuge in south Brazoria County. He may have found only the third human skeleton in North America that dates back at least 10,000 years.
The bones -- a skull, two vertebrae and part of a jaw with some teeth -- may date back 11,000 years or more, according to preliminary analysis that included radiocarbon dating at the University of Arizona.
A final report on the site and the find were submitted this week to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by Spring-based archaeologist Robert d'Aigle, who recovered the skeletal remains three years ago in the San Bernard River National Wildlife Refuge in south Brazoria County.
D'Aigle announced his discovery this week.
The bones were turned up during mechanical excavation work on a levee on federal land in the refuge, he said. They were buried about three feet deep in what d'Aigle thinks is a vertical position, leading him to suspect the area was a bog in which the victim became trapped and died.
D'Aigle said experts who examined the remains believe they are from an adolescent female who was about 4 feet tall.
If confirmed, this would be only the third discovery in North America of skeletal remains that are 10,000 or more years old, experts say. As such, "Brazoria Girl" may turn out to be a milestone in documenting the inhabitation of the continent.
The find comes as scientists are rethinking the long-held theory that North and South America were populated by prehistoric tribes that crossed from Asia via a Bering Strait land bridge. Even those who don't question the migration aren't sure about its timing.
D'Aigle, a registered professional archaeologist, said his discovery may force scientists to revise their timetable.
"This will shake up a lot of archaeologists," he predicted.
Anthropologist Michael Collins of the Texas Archaeological Research Lab in Austin called the find "rare and extremely important," but doubted it would be as important as d'Aigle thinks. Other discoveries, mainly of artifacts, have long since established human presence in Texas 100 centuries ago, Collins said.
"There is carbon dating and then there is carbon dating," he added, expressing reservations about the University of Arizona's testing capabilities. He urged more tests on both bones and soil, noting that bones often are contaminated by carbon from surrounding soil.
Most prehistoric discoveries are subjected to multiple tests by several labs, Collins said. Until that is done, "I certainly wouldn't call this a hoax, but its reliability is in question," he said.
But Collins' own nominee for the most highly credentialed carbon dating analyst in the country, geologist Tom Stafford of Boulder, Colo., said he has little doubt that d'Aigle's find is the real deal.
D'Aigle sent an ear bone and a sample of soil from within the skull to the Stafford Research Laboratories for analysis. Stafford said that, while his own radiocarbon testing was inconclusive, other signs, such as the soil in which the bones were found, point to the remains being at least 11,000 years old.
Stafford also said the importance of d'Aigle's find is not necessarily that it is the oldest human skeleton on the continent, but that it is one of so very few.
As such, he termed it "a pretty incredible discovery" on par with two other 10,000- to 11,000-year-old specimens, one from Montana and the other from California.
"Our population of prehistoric skeletons is pretty small."
Besides, he said, the University of Arizona has a "spectacular" lab and is capable of reliable radiocarbon testing. However, he too said more testing by other labs is needed to determine the age of the remains.
As for the discovery's importance, he said, "I'd give a very enthusiastic but qualified 'yes.'
"I think we're in the right ballpark for age. I think it really may be what Bob (d'Aigle) thinks it is."
D'Aigle said his delay in announcing his April 1999 discovery was imposed by his contract obligations to the federal government. The radiocarbon dating and other analysis done on the recovered remains was done largely on a voluntary basis by several labs and at least 10 scientists, he said.
The findings were included in a report submitted this week to the Fish and Wildlife Service. D'Aigle said he was free to talk publicly only after completing the report.
David Siegel, historic preservation officer for the federal agency's southwest region, said the remains may go to the University of Texas for museum preservation and possible exhibition. He cautioned that federal regulations about the handling of Native American remains and artifacts will first have to be considered.
The discovery site has been covered with dirt to preserve it and prevent tampering, Siegel said.
"At this juncture, we have no plans other than to leave the site alone," he said. "It could be years before we do anything further."