Mass Grave

My friend Rich and I have begun hiking the Wappapello Section of the Ozark Trail this winter in our quest to eventually hike all 350 miles of the Ozark Trail in Missouri (to this point we had completed ~230 miles).  The Wappapello Section is the southeasternmost of all the sections, lying almost entirely in Wayne County and traversing rugged terrain in the Mark Twain National Forest along the west side of Wappapello Lake as it courses north to Sam A. Baker State Park.  The U.S. Corps of Army Engineers built and manages Wappapello Lake primarily for flood control in the rich farmlands the lie just downstream in the Mississippi Alluvial Plain in extreme southeastern Missouri.  Because of this, stretches of the Ozark Trail are subject to frequent inundation.

Such was the case the day after Thanksgiving, when Rich and I tackled the northernmost 10-mile stretch of this section. Because of the flooding, we had to bushwhack to higher ground for a significant portion of the hike. This sounds easier than it was—elevational relief in this rugged southeastern portion of the Ozark Highlands is as much as 500 ft, with steep grades and thick leaf litter atop loose, cherty soils. We did our best to stay oriented using a basic contour map and the experience we’ve gained over the years in judging terrain.

Sometimes, diversions from the trail lead to unexpected discoveries. On an earlier hike, we had gotten lost trying to find our starting point (not a designated trailhead)—we drove through hill and dale and ended up on a losing 2-track that was quite obviously not where we wanted to be. While turning the vehicle around in the tight space between the trees, we noticed something white peeking out from under a black plastic tarp, and upon investigation discovered the clean and nearly complete skeleton of a horse (or mule? These are the Ozarks, afterall). A shattered left occiput and lead projectile protruding through the right maxilla of the skull told the story of this sad beast’s demise. Despite its gruesome origins, I simply cannot resist clean, whole skulls of any kind, so I placed it in the vehicle before we resumed our search for the trail. It now rests permanently in my “museum” and has been named Horace (sitting next to an even cleaner skull of a feral hog that I found a few years earlier—named Boris. Get it? Horace the horse and Boris the boar?).

On this day, as we blazed our own trail on higher ground roughly parallel to the actual trail, we happened upon the gruesome scene shown in these two photographs. Natural historians that we are, we began conducting our own “crime scene” reconstruction—first determining the identity of the remains, then hypothesizing the reason for their placement there based on what we could observe about them. As far as we could tell, the remains of at least three individuals were present, each in a different state of decay from the others and with no apparent evidence of trauma. Rich and I are pretty sure we know what these are, and we have our own ideas about how they got here and why, but I’d be interested in hearing what others think (click photos to embiggen).

This scene made me a little nervous—not because skeletons give me the creeps, but because the Ozark Highlands have a reputation for harboring what many people insultingly refer to as “hillbillies.” The stereotype that this term engenders—i.e., a barefoot man with a long beard and ragged clothes, banjo in one hand and shotgun in the other—may be an extreme and unfair caricaturization. Nevertheless, the presence of this mass grave, with apparently no effort to conceal it, made at least the shotgun part of that image seem a little too real for comfort.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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24 Responses to Mass Grave

  1. Seabrooke says:

    What a creepy scene to stumble upon. I can understand that it’s a fair bit of work to dig a hole large enough to accommodate an animal of that size, but still… surely there’s a better way to dispose of the remains.

    The lack of incisors and cloven hooves says cow to me. The way the legs are all splayed out awkwardly and the jaw is agape suggests to me the beast was killed elsewhere and then rolled off the back of a truck or something. Perhaps dairy cows, past their milk-giving prime and no good for meat, killed and disposed of to avoid having to feed them?

    • Seabrooke says:

      Or, I suppose, it’s not even necessary that they were intentionally killed; perhaps they just reached the end of their life and rather than burying them the bodies were dumped here.

    • I agree about the positioning of the legs suggesting dumping of an already dead body. As for the agape jaw, I’m inclined to think this happened post-dumping. I’m not sure a cow can even open its mouth that wide with all the tissues still in place. I suppose this would occur coincident with the hyperflexed neck position, which (correct me if I’m wrong) also happens post-mortem due to tightening of ligaments within the neck.

  2. Justin Thomas says:

    I’m no forensic zoologist, but I can’t pass up an organismal quiz of any kind. I am guessing from the cloven hooves, spatulate ribs, thick mandible, large molars and lack of incisors on the top that these are domestic cattle; calves perhaps.

    Following the logic of the riddle about the dead guy in SCUBA gear found on top of a mountain, I’m guessing that a fire fighting helicopter unknowingly scooped these cattle out of a farm pond and dropped them when they realized the error. It isn’t Ockham’s razor, but I don’t trust parsimony.

  3. MObugs41 says:

    After showing this to my son and my husband who are both farmers, they agree that these look more like cattle than horses. As for how they came to be together in this one area? Well, the consensus around here is ….a local farmer uses this spot as a “Dumping ground” for ailing, diseased or already deceased cows or calves. Many farmers have such areas that they use to “bury” their life stock that perish. Perhaps the farmer lives nearby, and moves them further away from their farm to detract from predators being attracted the all you can eat buffet. Encouraging coyotes or other predators to your farm where healthy live stock are would not be wise. Only an opinion, can’t wait to see what you and Rich surmise the scenario to be.

  4. A ruminant for sure, and an immature one (=juvenile) at that. The rear molars are yet to erupt. It didn’t reach old age.

  5. Alex/Watcher says:

    Hmm, yes, looks like a ruminant. As for what caused it, I’m going with this!

  6. jason says:

    I was thinking cows. Young ones. And it seems obvious what caused it: aliens! Am I the only one who’s seen the reports on cattle mutilations and the like? Come on, people! This is just the first step. Next we’ll see reports that they’re abducting people. Oh, um, er, wait a minute.

    (Shucks! I just looked at Alex’s link. I’m late to the party again…)

    Seriously, I’d say they’re bovines and they’re being dumped. Why is a good question though. MOBugs has a good theory that makes sense, but I admit it would be a lot more fun if something diabolical was in play. I can’t wait to hear what theory you and Rich came up with.

  7. Crystal says:

    There’s a mass grave about 1km from my home, in a woodlot. Mostly consisting of deer hunting “leftovers” (skulls and forelegs), we get the occasional moose skull and sometimes find bovine remains…normally mature animals, always with a bullet hole in the skull. Old or very ill, one must surmise; the farmers in my community would not be ridding themselves of livestock without a good reason. I agree that the ones you found look like juveniles, and that disease was the likely precursor to their hastened demise.

    Although, cows are heavy suckers, so how did they get out there?

    More support for the E.T. theory:

    Either that, or it was this guy:

    • We often find deer remains from hunting on these hikes (including at the beginning of our most recent one last weekend).

      Man, if I ever found a moose skull, I would cancel the entire hike just to get that thing out of the woods and into my museum!

      You make a good point about them being heavy suckers – even if they were illegally dumped there, it still took considerable effort to hoist the carcasses up into a truck to haul them there.

      • The moose skull we found was a few years old, so eroded and nibbled-on a bit, sadly;enough to make it difficult to clean and display properly…but it was indeed promptly whisked out of the woodlot and carried home with about the same pomp and circumstance you’d expect for, say, the Stanley Cup…it has a place of honour in our front garden. Our neighbour’s think we’re odd.

  8. Marvin says:

    Shelly’s theory sounds the most plausible, though my cattle raising neighbor tends to simply leave is beef cows where they fall.

    • Which avoids the whole hassle of loading it up into a truck and carting it off somewhere. I can’t imagine, however, that leaving cattle to lay where they fall is either legal or very sanitary for the rest of his herd.

  9. I think most everyone is on the right track. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that we at first just assumed they were horses, recalling our earlier experience with the horse under the tarp. Then I noticed the lack of upper incisors on all three skulls and the cloven hoofs on the freshest individual staring me right in the face, confirming their identity as cattle. I did not pick up on the just-starting-to-erupt 3rd molars that indicate this was a juvenile, so good catch by camera trap codger.

    Logging and beef cattle are the primary industries in the Missouri Ozarks, and the black skin suggests these might be Angus. The different states of decay of the three individuals suggests they were dumped here at different times, and the way the freshest individual is laying (front legs splayed out) makes me think the animal was already dead when dumped here. The lack of bullet holes in any of the skulls also suggests these animals were not killed, but rather died of disease—especially considering at least one is a juvenile.

    Missouri has laws about disposal of dead livestock, but the law doesn’t always reach into the depths of the Ozark Highlands. Producers may either bury, burn, compost, or utilize rendering services. Each of these involve cost and effort, and it seems in this case a local cattle farmer decided he’d found a good spot on public land to dump animals that didn’t make it to beef weight without the bother of trenching or cost of containment for pickup by rendering/incineration services.

  10. So maybe I’m the only one to like your skull names? I’ve got two bronze elephants that stand on either side of my fireplace outside – their names are Ellie and Fannie…get it?

    Also, I liked your word, “embiggen.” Ha!

    • Must have been the delivery🙂

      Rich suggested, had I also brought the cow skull home, that I could’ve named it “Moo-ris.”

      I’m glad to see I’m not the only one that names my inanimate objects.

      I can’t claim credit for “embiggen” – I think it was Maggie at giroofasaurus-vexed who introduced me to the term.

  11. Pablo says:

    I once found an elk head out near my Ozark woods. I reported it to the Conservation folk who said they knew about it. A local hunter had brought it back from a trip west and disposed of the remains properly, but some critter managed to get the head and carry it off.

    • I guess it looked like a deer skull on steroids?

      Next time you find an elk skull, be sure to call me instead of MDC🙂

      My dream skulls are a mountain lion or a bear! There are lots of other skulls I’d love to find as well – beaver, badger, bobcat, etc. In addition to the real skulls and bones I’ve gathered over the years, I also have a collection of fossil hominid replicas – Australopithecus africanus (Mrs. Ples and the Taung baby), all three Paranthropus spp. (aethiopicus, robustus, and boisei), and Homo erectus (Lake Turkana boy). I know – I’m strange.

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