The Spirit Cave Mummy

spirit cave mummy

The Spirit Cave mummy is the oldest human mummy found in North America, said to be 9,400 years old. It was discovered in 1940 in Spirit Cave, thirteen miles east of Fallon, Nevada by the husband-and-wife archaeological team of Sydney and Georgia Wheeler.

In another area, radiocarbon tests of carbonized plant remains where artifacts were unearthed last May along the Savannah River in Allendale County by University of South Carolina archaeologist Dr. Albert Goodyear indicate that the sediments containing these artifacts are at least 50,000 years old, meaning that humans inhabited North American long before the last ice age. The Spirit Cave mummy is dated to ca. 7420 B.C., so even though it's the oldest North America mummy found, humans have been in North America much longer. Sitting here on my Dell computer, it's crazy to find that humans were in North America that long ago. The Spirit Cave mummy may have died from complications associated with a skull fracture or abscessed teeth, according to Gentry Steele of Texas A&M University, who examined the body.

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 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.

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 — older than any previously known North American mummy.

Fifty-eight other fiber and fur artifacts were found in the cave, including two bags containing cremated human remains. The style of weaving used in the textiles, known as diamond-plaited matting, marks the earliest stage in North American weaving technology. "People were more settled than we thought," says Dansie, noting the time it must have taken to gather the fibers and weave them into mats.