Spirit Cave mummy
The Spirit Cave mummy is the oldest human mummy found in North America. It was discovered in 1940 in Spirit Cave, 13 miles (21 km) east of Fallon, Nevada by the husband-and-wife archaeological team of Sydney and Georgia Wheeler.
The Wheelers, working for the Nevada State Parks Commission, were surveying possible archaeological sites to prevent their loss due to guano mining. Upon entering Spirit Cave they discovered the remains of two people wrapped in tule matting. One set of remains, buried deeper than the other, had been partially mummified (the head and right shoulder). The Wheelers, with the assistance of local residents, recovered a total of sixty-seven artifacts from the cave.
These artifacts were examined at the Nevada State Museum where they were initially estimated to be between 1,500 and 2,000 years old. They were deposited at the Nevada State Museum’s storage facility in Carson City where they remained for the next fifty-four years.
Spirit Cave is at an elevation of 4,154 feet in the foothills of the Stillwater Mountains; the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge is now established in this area. The location is to the northeast of Fallon, Nevada.
In 1996 University of California, Riverside anthropologist R. Ervi Taylor examined seventeen of the Spirit Cave artifacts using mass spectrometry. The results indicated that the mummy was approximately 9,400 years old (uncalibrated RCYBP); ~11.5 Kya calibrated) — older than any previously known North American mummy.
Repatriation and DNA Analysis
In March 1997, the Paiute-Shoshone Tribe of the Fallon Reservation and Colony made a Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) claim of cultural affiliation with the artifacts.
In 2000, further study was unable to establish a definitive affiliation of the remains.
In September, 2006, the United States District Court for the District of Nevada ruled on a lawsuit by the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe and said that the Bureau of Land Management made an error in dismissing evidence without a full explanation. The court order remanded the matter back to the BLM for reconsideration of the evidence.
In October 2015, Eske Willerslev collected bone and tooth samples from the remains with the permission of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe. DNA analysis indicated that the remains were similar to North and South American indigenous groups. On November 22, 2016, the remains were repatriated to the tribe. Willerslev attended the 2018 burial of the remains by the tribe.
Wizards Beach Man
Wizards Beach Man's remains were also in the collection of the Nevada State Museum, and were radiocarbon dated at the same time. This turned out to be another early Holocene skeleton dating to almost exactly the same era.
Wizards Beach Man was found in 1978 at Wizards Beach on Pyramid Lake, about 100 miles (160 km) to the northwest from Spirit Cave. Radiocarbon dating has established that he lived more than 9,200 years ago.
Lovelock Cave, another important early site, is also nearby.
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