Many cultural traditions surrounding death are meant to preserve a person’s legacy. Yet few souls could ever have expected to be remembered for so long. Nor could they possibly imagine the amount of controversy and scientific inquiry they would evoke thousands of years after their death. Such is the case of the man found entombed in Spirit Cave, 13 miles east of Fallon, Nevada. The naturally preserved body was first discovered in the 1940s but then shelved until the 1990s. Today, the battle over cultural heritage wages as scientists and Native Americans vie over the dead man’s fate.
In 1940, Sydney and Georgia Wheeler were hired by the Nevada State Parks Commission to excavate dry caves in the Lahontan Basin (northwest Nevada). Guano mining in the region threatened to destroy as-of-yet unfound archeology sites so the state wanted to find and salvage any artifacts of note. That summer, the couple went through many caves throughout Churchill County. One day, in early August, Sydney was injured when he was forced to quickly dodge an angry rattlesnake. He was thankfully not bitten; however, he did hurt his ankle to the point where his mobility was greatly reduced. The Wheelers sought shelter in a nearby, unexplored cave close to the road, allowing them to stay out of the blazing desert sun as they waited for a car to pass on the little-used highway. Being curious archeologists, they passed their time by examining the cave.
The Wheelers had stumbled upon two bodies wrapped in two tule (a marsh plant used for weaving) matts along with 67 artifacts including knives, animal bones, and baskets. The first body was in a poor state but the second, buried slightly deeper, was very well preserved. It is believed that the heat and aridity of the desert cave rapidly dried the corpse, leaving it partially mummified. The head was completely intact and even a bit of hair remained in place.
Later research revealed that the man was aged 45-55 and stood 5 feet 2 inches (1.57 meters) tall. His skull was fractured and he had horrible abscesses in his teeth, meaning he must likely suffered from a painful gum disease. He wore moccasins and was wrapped in a neatly woven shroud, suggesting that the people of the area were using looms before previously thought. Finally, fish bones were found in his mummified intestines, reflecting the Great Basin’s history as a lake before the water dried up as the glaciers receded.
Eventually, the Wheelers flagged down a passerby and, with the help of some local residents, managed to carefully bring the body into town. It was photographed, estimated to be about 1,500 years old, and then placed in a sealed box on a shelf in the Nevada State Museum. The Wheelers have since died, never knowing the incredible discovery they unearthed.
Revisiting the Cave
In 1994, the University of California, Riverside anthropologist R. Erv Taylor had the opportunity to revisit the Spirit Cave Mummy with the latest in dating technology. Using accelerator mass spectrometry, Taylor and his team tested 17 samples including hair, bones, the textiles, and wood. So, startling were the results that the researchers believed that there had been a mistake or that the method was flawed. Yet secondary examinations verified the results: the mummy was in fact buried 9,415 years ago (plus or minus 25 years).
“It’s a big surprise,” said Robson Bonnichsen, director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans and a professor of anthropology at Oregon State University, in an interview with the New York Times. “It’s a very pleasant surprise. This individual will provide real insight into what the people of the time looked like and what life style they had.”
The Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was enacted in 1990 to preserve existing Native American burial sites and to return any remains to their appropriate tribes. In 1997, the Paiute-Shoshone Tribe of Nevada’s Fallon Reservation put forward a NAGPRA claim to the Spirit Cave Mummy and the artifacts found with him. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) stated that, based on preliminary findings, the Spirit Cave Mummy was not affiliated with any known Native American tribe and therefore the NAGPRA claim is invalid.
“There is no geographic evidence indicating how long the Northern Paiute have occupied the Spirit Cave area prior to European contact in the early 1800s and none indicating who, if anyone, lived there at any earlier time,” said the BLM in a statement. The remains “predate contemporary Northern Paiute tribes and cannot reasonably be culturally affiliated with any of them.”