In love with Leanne

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When we heard about the affection felt by some people in Austin for a Texan of 10,000 years ago, we phoned Frank Weir, director of archaeology studies, at the State Department of Highways and Public Transportation. He kindly told us more.

People have called her our 10,000-year-old girlfriend. We affectionately refer to her as Leanne. The more we have come to know about her the more she has become an individual human being to us, not simply a remote ancestor whose remains were discovered just a year or so ago.

Of course, we are not the first archaelogists to have felt a human bond with an object of research. Natural science can be touched with emotion when evidence of ancient cruelties - or kindness - comes to light.

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In the case of Leanne, we know that here was a young woman who was loved and cared for by at least some members of her prehistoric group.

For us the story begins about 1970 when the Texas State Department of Highways became involved in archaeology as well as building the best highways in the United States. The archaeology is intended to mitigate the possible effects of highway construction on historic or prehistoric sites.

It was in the course of such an excavation that a most important discovery was made. On the cold winter morning of Dec. 29, 1982, the department's archaeological team found the remains of a woman who died almost 10,000 years ago. They had been working on the site for a year.

Here was Leanne, as we call her now, though she was immediately nicknamed the Leanderthal Lady - a play on the name of the nearby town of Leander. The location is in central Texas about 20 miles north of Austin. Called the Wilson-Leonard Site, it is on a stream terrace above Brushy Creek, a major tributary in the Brazos River system.

As the archaeologists have shown, this site has been occupied by people periodically for more than 10,000 years. The last prehistoric occupation of the site was about AD 1200. But the period we are most interested in is about 7000 or 8000 BC.

We can imagine a small band of hunters and gatherers making camp on the stream terrace. Their number was probably between 20 and 30 people. Among this group was a young woman in her early or middle 20s. She was of average build with very strong or muscular legs. She stood about 5 feet, 2 inches tall. She apparently had suffered an injury early in life that affected the functioning of her left arm.

How do we know that she was loved and cared for? Because a shallow but carefully prepared grave was dug and her body lovingly placed in its tight confines. Enclosed with the body were two of her personal possessions - a shark's tooth ornament and a combination chopping and grinding stone. No doubt these were intended for her use in the kind of afterlife her people believed in. Her grave was covered and not disturbed until January 1983.

As a living, breathing human being Leanne spent her last days in the then damp and cooler climate of the terminal phases of the Pleistocene geological epoch, the end of the Ice Age. Ice Age elephants had already vanished from the scene, but elk and giant straight-horned bison still roamed the region and were probably hunted by Leanne's people.

Her people were not the first to occupy the site. Stratigraphically below Leanne's grave are other cultural deposits indicating that people lived here long before she arrived. How much time is represented by these earlier deposits we do not know, but certainly hundreds if not thousands of years passed between the first occupancy of the site and the time Leanne was buried. Leanne and her folks were in Texas between 7000 and 8000 BC and probably represent the first major occupation.

To date there are less than a dozen sites across the United States that have been found to contain human remains more than 9,000 years old. Perhaps in the near future archaeologists in central Texas will discover some of Leanne's relatives. Then we will know more about this young woman and her people, the ancient ones who lived to see the close of the Ice Age.

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