The original story was part of a series called “The First Americans” and aired in November 1999 on KLAS-TV in Las Vegas.
Who were the First Americans?
The timeline of when humans first appeared in North America has changed dramatically in recent years, in part because of a mummy found 80 years ago in a desert cave.
Scientists had no idea of the significance of their find until DNA testing a half century later proved the mummy to be the oldest human remains ever found in North America, dating back more than 10,000 years.
“Spirit Cave Man” was found inside a cave in the Great Basin Desert in northwest Nevada in 1940. Years later, it became a focal point of a legal and ethical fight involving science, the U.S government, and native American tribes regarding how – or if – human remains should be studied and who should take ownership of mummies and bones.
Spirit Cave Man’s Beginnings
Thousands of years ago, much of Nevada was covered by a giant lake and the people who lived along the shore survived thanks to the freshwater and abundant animal life. Descendents of early native tribes ran farms and ranches on the land the current tribe says has always been its home.
Scientists, for many years, said the first people in North America came here at the end of the Ice Age about 12,000 years ago by crossing a land bridge from Northern Asia. Now, scientists say Spirit Cave Man is a relative of those first people.
After the Discovery
Nevada State Museum is home to many historical artifacts from ancient life in the state to more modern photographs and stories of western explorers. But for nearly 50 years the museum had no idea that hidden out of sight in its holdings was one of the archeological finds of the century.
Shortly after the discovery of the mummified body of Spirit Cave Man in 1940, researchers wrote a short report, stored the bones in a box, and forgot about it.
In the report, researchers stated the bones dated back to about 2000 years ago.
Dry desert weather over the millennia helped preserve the mummy. Hair on Spirit Cave Man’s head was still intact.
In the 1990’s, researchers at the museum saw an opportunity to use carbon dating to determine how old the mummy truly was. They were shocked to discover the body could be more than 9,000 years old.
These results would make this discovery the oldest human remains ever found in North America at 10,600 years old. That’s 5,000 years older than the mummies of ancient Egypt.
But upon further inspection, the researchers realized the body had been wrapped in mats made of reeds. They also found the remains of a well-stitched robe along with lined moccasins, and other weaved fabrics. To make these involves using technology that wouldn’t be seen again for some 8,000 years.
Now the goal was to figure out how Spirit Cave Man died. Researchers found some evidence of damage to his skull from battles, and some evidence of dental problems.
What’s now a simple trip to the dentist could have meant death.
Spirit Cave Man’s skull had similarities to early Polynesians, also to prehistoric Japanese, and even to seafaring Norsemen, but few links were found to modern Native American tribes.
BLM Archeologist Pat Barker said during a 1999 interview, “The proponents of the scientific view would say, based on all of the scientific evidence we have, there is no chance that a 9000 year old set of remains could be affiliated with anybody in the modern world.”
The Fight Over Spirit Cave Man
Spirit Cave is on public land. This meant it was up to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to decide what happened to the remains. For many years scientists pushed for more tests, including modern DNA testing.
Citing the discovery of 9,200-year-old Wizard’s Beach Man, also found in Nevada, and the much younger but better known Kennewick Man in Washington state the scientists claimed it helped prove North America became populated during several mass migrations from Asia.
A different theory was Europeans may have crossed the Atlantic some 18,000 years ago.
It was a debate tribal leaders did not want to have.
“We don’t believe that DNA testing should be done, or any testing should be done. We feel it’s desecrating our ancestors,” Donna Cossette from the Paiute Shoshone Tribe said.
Under a 1990 federal law, museums were required to return all human remains to affiliated tribes. This led to tribal leaders legally stopping all research on the remains.
For years, the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe objected to any display of the artifacts.
“The basic argument comes down to the value or the weight you put on scientific data versus tribal expert testimony,” according to BLM archeologist Pat Barker. “Does the value of the science outweigh the sensitivities of the people that think they’re associated with it? Most Americans would not want their grandparents dug up and have all this stuff done to them. So it’s an issue that it goes beyond science, and it goes into our core values as people in the United States.”
The well-documented case lasted until 2015, when the tribe allowed Eske Willeslev of University of Cambridge and the University of Copenhagen to run a genome sequencing DNA test, extracting DNA from Spirit Cave Man’s skull.
DNA analysis proved the 10,600-year-old mummy is related to present-day Paiute Native Americans. In 2016, scientists returned the remains to the tribe. Spirit
Cave Man was buried in a private ceremony in 2018 by the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe.