email a friend iconprinter friendly iconThe Mystery of Everett Ruess
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On July 22 Ron Maldonado went back out to the site with Bellson and Child. Maldonado started excavating as gingerly as he could. Meanwhile, Child discovered an artifact we had previously overlooked. Lying loose in a cranny in front of the crevice was a 1912 dime that had been converted into a button. The thing struck all three men as a very Navajo kind of relic (antique Navajo belts made of silver dollars fetch high prices). But we also knew that Ruess loved to wear Indian jewelry. In any event, the button gave us a terminus ad quem: the burial could not have taken place before 1912.

Almost at once, to his relief, just inches below the surface Maldonado came across two loose molar teeth. With great care, he removed and packaged them. There would be no more digging that day.

As soon as he got back to Window Rock, Maldonado emailed me about a bizarre event that had occurred as the men returned to their truck: A dust devil (whirlwind) started at or near me, violently sending dust into the area. It seemed that it visited each of us individually and slowly meandered down the road, lingering, appearing to die out, then starting again. It is all very strange and definitely associated with the burial. Bellson stated that it was Mister Ruess. Such things are associated with the dead and should be avoided at all costs. It has been a strange day.

It took weeks for the results of the DNA testing to come back. Finally, on September 30, Greenspan reported that the molar DNA was “European in origin and not Native American.” Maldonado’s intuition was validated—the gravesite on the Comb was not a Navajo crevice burial.

But Greenspan went on to explain in an email that the DNA from the hairbrush did not match that from the molars. A white guy, but not Everett Ruess? Who else would have been out there in the 1930s?

Later, over the phone, Greenspan admitted to me that he was not at all happy with the hairbrush sample. A mitochondrial DNA test required an exact match, but the DNA from Waldo’s hair was “degraded,” and it might have been contaminated by being handled by others. The mitochondrial reading from the molar was reliable, but the test using the hairbrush was far from conclusive.

As far as Maldonado, Hadenfeldt, Bellson, and I were concerned, the answer was still out there.

Now that Greenspan had proved the bones Bellson had discovered were Caucasian, Maldonado had decided to complete the excavation in hopes of coming up with further clues to the young man’s identity.

In November I was in Boulder, Colorado, having dinner with my friend Steve Lekson, the most brilliant Southwestern archaeologist I have met. I told Lekson about our Comb Ridge quest. He didn’t know much about Ruess, but his eyes lit up. “You can do a lot more than just DNA,” he said. “A forensic anthropologist can tell all kinds of things from bones. What kind of bones have you got?” At the end of the evening, Lekson gave me the email address of a colleague at the University of Colorado.

Dennis Van Gerven ignored my first two messages. Later he admitted he was doing his best to stiff-arm my inquiries, since he tended to get bombarded with pleas from nutcases who had watched too many episodes of CSI. His first communiqué had annoyance written all over it: “In short a study of the [bones] from my point of view would be quite pointless,” he signed off.

I persisted. “Would there not be some chance you might see something the DNA test couldn’t tell us?”

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  • It sure is taking National Geographic Adventure a long time to follow up on this story since the con…
  • I've read this several times. Kudos to the author who condensed a long and convoluted experience in…
  • I do not understand why dental records were not compared!?
  • Oops...looks like the horse left the barn a little early...remains were not Ruess after all. After …
  • Oops...looks like the horse left the barn a little early...remains were not Ruess after all. After …
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