We Value Your Privacy

This site uses cookies to improve user experience. By continuing to browse, you accept the use of cookies and other technologies.


The Spirit Cave Mummy is Over 10,000 Years Old

The remains were found with moccasins, a rabbit-skin blanket, and many other artifacts.

spirit cave mummy
  • camera-icon
  • The Spirit Cave Mummy, wrapped in the material in which it was laid to rest.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Mummies are deceased humans or animals that have been preserved, which keeps their remains from decaying any further. While Ancient Egyptians are most commonly associated with the mummification process, there are actually mummies found all over the world. The process can either be deliberate or accidental. Although you may have used toilet paper for a mummy costume in the past, the real method includes wrapping the dead body in linen and embalming it. And on rare occasions, environmental conditions happen to be just right to result in a body's preservation.

Now you may be wondering who the oldest mummy is, and that honor goes to the Spirit Cave Mummy at 10,600 years old. However, its importance runs deeper than just its old age. The Spirit Cave Mummy was part of a fierce battle between the government and a Native American tribe over its cultural and scientific significance.

The Spirit Cave Mummy was discovered in 1940 by archaeologists and husband-and-wife team George and Sydney Wheeler. They found several sets of remains in a small rocky cave located in northwest Nevada, one of which was partially mummified. The mummified man was determined to have died while he was in his forties. His remains were found wrapped in a rabbit-skin blanket and reed mats, and he was still wearing moccasins.

At the time the man's mummy was found, it was estimated that he died between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago. However, when more advanced testing methods came along in the 1990s, it was found that the skeleton was actually 10,600 years old, making the Spirit Cave Mummy the oldest mummy found in North America.

Related: These Native American History Books Shed New Light on the Past and Present

There was a long legal argument starting in 1997 over who should have possession of the oldest mummy in North America. Native Americans from the region believed that they should have the remains due to cultural affiliation, since the mummy was found in their ancestral homeland. However, when the federal government rejected their request for possession, the Paiute-Shoshone Tribe of the Fallon Reservation and Colony sued the government.   

The government alleged that they wanted possession of the remains for scientific research, but the US Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act states that Native Americans have control over resurfaced items and remains to which they have biological or cultural connections. The US government's Bureau of Land Management is the agency that declined the tribe's request. Although a US District Court Judge told the agency to reconsider their decision, no progress was really made with this case for 20 years.

  • camera-icon
  • The Great Basin Desert where the Spirit Cave Mummy was discovered in 1940.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Initially, the Paiute-Shoshone Tribe did not want to pursue genetic analysis to prove that the mummy was an ancestor, but eventually they agreed to do so. A couple years later, the DNA sequencing test revealed that the skeleton was in fact related to indigenous people of North and South America. On November 22, 2016, the mummy was repatriated to the Paiute-Shoshone Tribe and they held a reburial for the remains.

Several scientific findings were made due to the discovery of the Spirit Cave Mummy. It was one of the first to be dated using accelerated mass spectrometer radiocarbon dating, a process that revealed the mummy to be much older than previously thought. It raised further questions about migration patterns in early North and South America. Additionally, a total of 67 artifacts were recovered from the cave along with the mummy, revealing how ancient humans lived and died.

Related: 6 Incredible Death Rituals From Around the World

Although it took many years for the mummy to be repatriated to the local Native American tribe, DNA testing ended up being a win-win for all parties involved. The Paiute-Shoshone Tribe was able to prove ancestry and have the remains returned to them, and the government was able to gain some vital scientific information from performing the test before repatriating the remains.

There is so much more to be discovered about the past, and each finding brings scientists closer to more answers. DNA analysis on the Spirit Cave Mummy gave more insight on early humans and resolved the conflict between the federal government and the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe.

Sources: Nature.com