Keith Glasscock, a Permian Basin oilfield worker, often spent his spare time searching the windswept sandy dunes near Midland for stone artifacts left by the Native American groups who once traveled there thousands of years before. On a June day in 1953 he discovered something unexpected. Where the winds had eroded the grayish sandy floor of a “blowout,” Glasscock saw several bone fragments. He collected part of a human skull, a rib, and two metacarpals (bones from the hand), all heavily mineralized.
Realizing he had found something significant, Glasscock gathered the exposed bones, disturbing nothing below the surface. He contacted Dr. Fred Wendorf at the Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and mailed him the bones.
In October 1953 Glasscock, Wendorf, and several other archaeologists returned to the site where they discovered more bones, including additional skull fragments. They also collected fossilized animal bones from the blowout, including horse remains. Wendorf conduced another month-long excavation in February 1954.
Scientists began working to learn the age of this find. Dr. Wendorf believed these might be the oldest human remains found in North America at that time. The one-hundred-plus bone fragments were reassembled to form the top of the skull. Tests of the bones, along with analysis of the discovery site, were used to determine their antiquity. The find received national attention, even featured in popular articles in several national magazines, including Time, Life, and National Geographic. Early estimates ranged as high as 20,000-years-old, though that proved to be far too great. The best evidence would eventually place the age of this skeleton at around some 9,500-years-old.
For a few years, the find was big news in Midland. Eventually two state historic markers recorded the discovery. In an era less sensitive to displaying human remains, the Midland County History Museum exhibited the skull for a time. Today, the “Midland skull” is with the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History.
And what of this ancient person and how they had once lived? From the bone size, scientists determined it was a female, some 30 years old at the time of her death. Wear on the few teeth found indicated a diet of abrasive food that ground them down.
She lived in a much wetter climate, perhaps being buried beside a small lake, now only an arid depression. Her nomadic extended-family group crossed West Texas, hunting the more plentiful game there, perhaps including bison, antelope, and even extinct creatures—mammoth, camels, giant armadillos, and the small horses found with her. The plant food gathered was tough and fibrous, containing grit from the stone grinding tools used to process it. Her life might be tough at times, focused on survival, yet it also unfolded at a far more leisurely timeframe than the hurried pace of modern times.
Since 1954 several far more ancient human remains have been discovered in North America, eclipsing the fame of the Midland skull. But a bronze cast remains at the Midland Museum to remind visitors that, in the scale of human time, we are all relatively newcomers.
Midland County History Museum
200 North Main
Midland, TX 79701
Thu.-Sat. 11 am-4 pm
James Collett, who currently serves as President of the Midland Historical Society, is an amateur archaeologist who has spent many years wandering West Texas in search of evidence of the ancient people who lived there for thousands of years.