Glacial Woman Nimuué

Who is Nimuué?

Nimuué is the name given to the skeleton of a young woman discovered on June 16, 1931 beneath the center of what eventually would become U.S. Highway 59.  Her discovery site is along the east side of Prairie Lake, in Otter Tail County, north of Pelican Rapids, Minnesota. University of Minnesota archaeologist Dr. A.E. Jenks, who was instrumental in the initial investigations of the skeleton, estimated the skeleton’s age to be about 20,000 years.  

Analysis of the bones indicated they were mineralized and had turned into phosphate rocks, suggesting the ancient timeline.  While there has been considerable disagreement over the years as to the true age of the bones, it can be stated that Nimuué ranks among the oldest human remains ever found in North America.

From 1931 until 1968 the skeleton was referred to as “Minnesota Man.”  In 1976, the identity was correctly changed to “Minnesota Woman.” Recently, members of the Glacial Minnesota Woman Organization bestowed upon her the name “Nimuué” and referred to her as the “Lady of the Lake.”

Following the 1931 excavation, her bones were taken to the University of Minnesota.  They later were placed on display at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul for 10 years prior to being retired from view.  In 1999, in response to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, Minnesota Woman’s bones were repatriated to a site near Sisseton, South Dakota, by the Dakota tribe.

Where & how was she discovered?

In 1929, construction began on 28 miles of gravel road between Pelican Rapids and Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.  To accommodate the project, more than nine feet of soil were removed from a hill near Prairie Lake, a short distance north of Pelican Rapids.  The road was graded and then covered with two feet of gravel, high in the center and sloping toward the edges for purposes of moisture runoff.

During the winter/spring of 1930/31, the yellow clay-silt soil beneath the road retained moisture that froze, thawed, and then heaved into a 600-foot-long frost boil.  That June, a crew began removing the boil and fixing the road surface. Ironically, a letter had been sent to the State Commissioner of highways asking him to alert his road bosses and road crew workers to be on the lookout for possible skeletons along the route.

As a grader was removing the frost boil, Carl Steffen, a member of the road crew, noticed what he later described as a “white shimmering glow.”  Steffen stopped the grader, dug into the clay with his bare hands and uncovered a skull and pieces of a clam shell that reflected the sun’s bright rays.  He and co-worker Eugene Russell continued digging – and, in the process, unearthed a human skeleton. They moved the skeleton to the side of the road and reassembled the bones as they were when found.  An assortment of artifacts, found with the skeleton, were laid beside it. Among the artifacts were a scraping tool made from elk horn, clam shell pieces, and, most curiously, part of a conch shell whose native habitat is along the gulf coast of Florida.  Found during additional digs were a tooth (later identified as from an eastern timber wolf), a metatarsal from a juvenile loon, a Painted Turtle carapace, numerous bird and animal bones, and bone tool fragments.

This momentous discovery was quickly reported to Dr. Jenks, the chairman of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Anthropology.  Away on another dig at the time, Jenks sent a colleague, geologist Dr. C.F. Stauffer, to Pelican Rapids. Stauffer examined the site, carefully wrapped the bones in newspapers and then sealed them in a carton for transport to Minneapolis.

Why is Nimuué important?

The discovery of Minnesota Woman/Nimuué brings attention to an ancient, largely mysterious chapter in the history of this region.  Uncovering the nearly complete skeleton of a young woman, perhaps once lying beneath the waters of Glacial Lake Pelican, was an electrifying development for laymen and scientists alike. From 1931 to1937, nearly three dozen distinguished scientists from 12 universities and other institutions immersed themselves in studying her skeleton and the artifacts found with her.  They worked to determine her identification and age, as well as her geological and archaeological surroundings. Ten of the scientists visited the burial site repeatedly in their quest for additional details. Published research findings drew worldwide archaeological attention to western Minnesota.

During the decades since Nimuué’s discovery, there has been considerable dispute among scientists and others regarding the origin of her clan and the age of her skeleton.  While those controversies have not been fully resolved, her ancient presence in this area, along with the contents of her gravesite, provide a precious link to the area’s long-distant history - a past where huge glaciers and melted glacial waters once dominated the landscape.  She is a vehicle to help today’s residents and visitors understand more about those prehistoric times and the impact they had in forming Otter Tail County in western Minnesota that exists today. Nimuué is a bridge to assist us in our understanding of who we were and who we are.

Controversies concerning Nimuué

One longstanding controversy surrounding Minnesota Woman/Nimuué is that of when she actually walked the land and touched the waters of what is now known as Otter Tail County.  Estimates have ranged all the way from about 8,000 to 20,000 years ago. Efforts in the 1950s to date her bones were, unfortunately, compromised due to the bones having been fossilized by their environment and the way in which they had been treated since their discovery.  They had been wrapped in wet newspaper and were bleached, and shellacked while being stored until Jenks could examine them. An Accelerated Mass Spectrometry (AMS) measurement conducted in the 1990s yielded an age of 7,840, a date questioned due to no identification in the report available of the details related to the sample(s) analyzed nor to the contamination of the bones.  The age of the silt layers intimately associated with the skeleton was not reported even though scientists in 1931 and again in 1937 had determined that to be 18,000 to 25,000 years. Research is now being done on this aspect of the discovery. Analysis of the 2018 core borings of silt from the environment of the discovery site may provide more information and answers to this controversy..

Another big question revolves around the origin of Nimuué’s people.  From what direction did they emigrate to this area so long ago? Across the Bering straits is one possibility, but new information suggests that certain groups actually may have come to this continent by boat from a Pacific origin, with their descendants eventually migrating into this region from the south.  The answer is not yet conclusive, if indeed it ever will be.

There are other questions, including the following:  Why did she carry a wolf’s tooth? What did she hold in the turtle carapace found with her?  From where did the broken clam shell pieces come?