BOONE —  Tom Whyte likes to dig in the dirt — and solve old mysteries while he’s at it. As a professor in Appalachian’s Department of Anthropology, he leads students in his experimental archaeology class to discover answers about precolonial life.

As Whyte described, the weirdest research he has performed involved a pile of over 17,000 toad bones, excavated from a single 7-by-12-foot pit dated from the 1400s in what was determined to be a Native American Cherokee settlement in the Appalachian Summit of Western North Carolina. The strangest part? There were few — if any — head bones.

Why were there so many toads buried in one place? And why were they headless? Were the head glands, full of potentially hallucinogenic bufotoxins, used in some sort of ritual elsewhere in the camp? Or were the head bones — smaller, more fragile and more camouflaged in appearance than the other bones — simply lost in the shuffle?

Whyte set up experiments to see if bias from inexperienced sorting or if differing rates of decomposition might explain the lack of head bones. He and his students excavated window wells from a 60-year-old house, where frogs, toads and other small animals had become entrapped and died over the years.

"When bones of animals are examined, specimens showing cultural modifications such as burning or cut marks may indicate the remains of food or other use by humans," Whyte explained. "Animals expiring as a result of natural entrapment leave bones unmarked in these ways, and the bones are usually more complete."

After examining sorting methods and preservation of the bones from the window wells, Whyte and the student researchers concluded the Cherokee at the Appalachian Summit site likely decapitated the toads where they were captured — probably in breeding ponds and puddles — then brought the carcasses back to the campfire for preparation. After eating, the bones were discarded in the pit — to be discovered centuries later.

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