Spirit Cave Mummy remains still wrapped in material it was laid to rest in.
Spirit Cave Mummy remains still wrapped in material it was laid to rest in.

The Spirit Cave mummy is the oldest human mummy found in North America.[1][2][3] It was discovered in 1940 in Spirit Cave,[4] 13 miles (21 km) east[5] of Fallon, Nevada, United States, by the husband-and-wife archaeological team of Sydney and Georgia Wheeler. He was said to be forty years old when he died. Analysis of the remains showed similarities to North and South American indigenous peoples and in 2016, the remains were repatriated to the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe of Nevada.[6] The Spirit Cave mummy was one of the first to be dated using accelerated mass spectrometer radiocarbon dating. In turn, its discovery and analysis gave much insight and motivation of further research into the chronology of the western great basin.[7]


Lahontan Valley
Lahontan Valley

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). This partially mummified individual (actual Spirit Cave mummy) was found to be wearing moccasins and wrapped in a rabbit-skin blanket when laid to rest.[8] 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

Spirit Cave is at an elevation of 4,154 feet in the foothills of the Stillwater Mountains;[9] the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge is now established in this area. The location is to the northeast of Fallon, Nevada.[10] Biological similarities between remains found in Spirit Cave have shown undeniable association to remains scattered across a wide geographic location such as the Wizard Beach man and Crypt Cave dog burial.[7]


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.[7] Researchers estimate the death of this person to have occurred about 7420 B.C.[1][dubious ] The mummy was originally thought to be between 1,500 and 2,000 years old until mass spectrometry carbon dates were carried out.[7]

The findings were published in the Nevada Historical Quarterly in 1997 and drew immediate national attention.[11][12][13][14]

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.[15]

In 2000, further study was unable to establish a definitive affiliation of the remains.[16]

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 (BLM) 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.[17]

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.[6] Willerslev attended the 2018 burial of the remains by the tribe.[8]

In November 2018, researchers reported that the DNA sequencing of the remains were used in research about Paleoamericans (Y-haplogroup Q1b1a1a1-M848, mt-haplogroup D1).[18]

Wizards Beach Man

The remains of a man from the same era, Wizards Beach Man, were also in the collection of the Nevada State Museum. The remains 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[19] on Pyramid Lake, about 100 miles (160 km) to the northwest from Spirit Cave.[10] Radiocarbon dating has established that he lived more than 9,200 years ago.[20][21]

Lovelock Cave, another important early site, is also nearby.

See also


  1. ^ a b Asher, Lara J. (September–October 1996). "Oldest North American Mummy". 49 (5). Retrieved April 18, 2010. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  2. ^ "Questions about mummies and bog bodies". Ask Dr. Dig. Retrieved April 18, 2010.
  3. ^ "10 Oldest Mummies in the World – Oldest.org". February 22, 2018. Retrieved October 14, 2020.
  4. ^ Redmond, Caroline (November 9, 2018). "Mystery Of 10,600-Year-Old 'Spirit Cave Man,' Earth's Oldest Natural Mummy, Finally Solved". All That's Interesting. Retrieved October 14, 2020.
  5. ^ Approx. 39°25′31″N 118°36′31″W / 39.425403°N 118.608570°W / 39.425403; -118.608570, Rhode, David; Adams, Kenneth; Elston, Robert (2000), "Figure 2-Map showing location of field trip stops", in Lageson, David (ed.), Great Basin and Sierra Nevada, Geological Society of America, ISBN 0-8137-0002-7
  6. ^ a b Callaway, Ewen (December 2016). "Ancient genome delivers 'Spirit Cave Mummy' to US tribe". Nature. 540 (7632): 178–179. doi:10.1038/540178a. S2CID 89286088. Retrieved May 30, 2017.
  7. ^ a b c d Kirner, D. L.; Burky, R.; Selsor, K.; George, D.; Taylor, R. E.; Southon, J. R. (1997). "Dating the Spirit Cave Mummy: The value of Reexamination" (PDF). Nevada Historical Society Quarterly. 40 (1): 54–56. Retrieved May 30, 2017.
  8. ^ a b Devlin, Hannah (November 8, 2018). "Early human dispersals within the Americas". The Guardian. Retrieved November 8, 2018.
  9. ^ The Men from Spirit Cave and Wizard's Beach. Mammoth Trumpet, 1997
  10. ^ a b map of the area
  11. ^ "Nevada Historical Society Quarterly" (PDF). Nevada Historical Society Quarterly. 40 (1). 1997. Retrieved September 19, 2020.
  12. ^ "Spirit Cave Man Update" (PDF). Nevada State Museum Newsletter. Carson City, Nevada: Nevada State Museum. 7 (5): 5. September–October 1999. Archived from the original (PDF) on March 21, 2015. Retrieved April 18, 2010.
  13. ^ Begley, Sharon; Murr, Andrew (April 26, 1999). "The First Americans - New digs and old bones reveal an ancient land that was a mosaic of peoples--including Asians and Europeans. Now a debate rages: who got here first?". Newsweek. Vol. 133. pp. 50–57. ISSN 0028-9604. Retrieved April 19, 2010.
  14. ^ Mullen Jr., Frank X. (August 2, 2000). "After 10,000 years, dispute remains Clan of the cave man may predate Indians". USA Today. p. 10d.
  15. ^ "Spirit Cave Man". Nevada Department of Cultural Affairs. Retrieved April 18, 2010.
  16. ^ Barker, Pat; Ellis, Cynthia; Damadio, Stephanie (July 26, 2000). "Determination of Cultural Affiliation of Ancient Human Remains from Spirit Cave, Nevada" (PDF). Bureau of Land Management Nevada State Office. p. 39.
  17. ^ Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe v. United States Bureau of Land Management, 3:04-cv-00466-LRH-RAM (United States District Court for the District of Nevada 2006-09-21).
  18. ^ Moreno-Mayar, J. Víctor; Vinner, Lasse; de Barros Damgaard, Peter; de la Fuente, Constanza; et al. (November 8, 2018). "Early human dispersals within the Americas". Science. 362 (6419): eaav2621. Bibcode:2018Sci...362.2621M. doi:10.1126/science.aav2621. PMID 30409807.
  19. ^ "Wizards Beach". Geographic Names Information System. United States Geological Survey, United States Department of the Interior.
  20. ^ Hall, Don Alan (1997). "The Men from Spirit Cave and Wizard's Beach". Mammoth Trumpet. 12 (2). Retrieved June 14, 2016.
  21. ^ Edgar, Heather Joy Hecht (1997). "Paleopathology of the Wizards Beach Man (AHUR 2023) and the Spirit Cave Mummy (AHUR 2064)" (PDF). Nevada Historical Society Quarterly. 40: 57–61. Retrieved June 14, 2016.