Cover Story
Scalping Science

Sensitivity Run Amok May Silence
the Spirit Cave Mummy Forever


by D. Dowd Muska

n 1940 two archeologists entered a cave in northwest Nevada, 13 miles east of Fallon. Inside they unearthed a mummified corpse. As unique as their find was, the archeologists did not have the tools to recognize its true significance. In the decades that

Artist's rendering of the Spirit Cave burial site

click for larger version

followed, the Spirit Cave Mummy, as the body came to be known, was all but ignored. The mummy sat undisturbed in the Nevada State Museum’s storage facility in Carson City.

After another half-century of solitude, the Spirit Cave Mummy is suddenly very popular. Tests have revealed the mummy is much older—and much more unique—than originally thought. As a result, teams of researchers from across the nation are lining up to study the specimen.

But the Spirit Cave Mummy is more than a find of great scientific importance. It is also a battleground—a major skirmish in a much larger war. At the center of the conflict is the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a federal law designed to preserve existing Native American burial sites and return Indian remains to their proper tribes.

In many ways NAGPRA, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in 1990, has been a success. It has been directly responsible for the "repatriation" of thousands of Native American remains. But on more than one occasion—including, so far, the attempt to comprehensively study the Spirit Cave Mummy—NAGPRA has blocked the search for answers about American prehistory. Politically correct interpretations of the law have warped NAGPRA’s intent, and thus halted legitimate efforts to answer a burning question: Just what does the term "Native American" really mean?

The ultimate resolution of the Spirit Cave Mummy dispute will either further scientists’ knowledge of North American anthropology, or give the federal government’s imprimatur—yet again—to the anti-science agenda of many Indian activists.

The Discovery

It all started with a rattlesnake. In 1940, the Nevada State Parks Commission hired Syndey Wheeler and his wife/partner Georgia to excavate dry caves in the Lahontan Basin of northwest Nevada. The state had developed a salvage archeology program to ensure important sites would not be lost due to guano mining operations in the region. That summer the Wheelers excavated caves throughout Churchill County.

In early August Sydney Wheeler injured his ankle dodging a rattler. With his mobility diminished due to the injury, the Wheelers decided to investigate a cave not far from the road. "What they found," wrote Amy Dansie of the Nevada State Museum’s Anthropology Department, "was a remarkable example of arid-climate preservation." Two bodies had been buried in the cave, wrapped in tule matting. Knives, baskets, and animal bones were also present—67 artifacts in all. The second skeleton, buried deeper than the first, was remarkably well preserved. Above the waist the body was mummified—its scalp was complete, and even a small bit of hair remained.

With the assistance of local residents, the Wheelers bundled up the mummy and brought it to their station wagon. After a cursory examination, it was eventually housed in the Nevada State Museum. At the time the Wheelers and other archeologists believed the Spirit Cave Mummy was approximately 1,500 to 2,000 years old. As it turned out, they had underestimated the age of their find by 7,000 years.

The Rediscovery

In 1994, there finally was an opportunity to conduct a detailed study of the mummy. University of California, Riverside anthropologist R. Erv Taylor, using a technique known as accelerator mass spectrometry, tested a number

of items found in Spirit Cave. Dansie and Nevada State Museum Curator of Anthropology Donald Tuohy submitted a total of 17 samples including bones, human hair, textiles and wood.

Taylor’s tests yielded startling results: the mummy was not from the modern era at all. With a margin of error of 60 years, spectrometry revealed the body to be 9,400 years old, making it the oldest mummy ever discovered in North America. "We were absolutely astonished," said Dansie. The Spirit Cave Mummy, now identified as a 45-55 year old male, had died at about the same time prehistoric Lake Lahontan began to recede.

By December 1995 Taylor’s testing was complete. The information obtained by his work, as well as studies conducted by other scientists, lead to an undeniable fact: the Spirit Cave Mummy is not an ancestor of any modern Indian tribe. His origins are still largely unknown, but what Dansie calls his "compellingly Caucasoid traits" cannot be overlooked. The man found in Spirit Cave had a long, small face and a large cranium, in sharp contrast to the "Mongoloid" features of American Indians. If an anthropological affiliation can be assigned to the mummy at all, he most closely resembles a member of the Ainu, a minority group in Japan with dramatically un-Japanese physical features. There is even a possibility that the Spirit Cave Mummy is somehow connected to the Norse people of northern Europe.

On April 24, 1996 the Nevada State Museum went public with its findings. Dansie and Tuohy’s press release immediately drew national attention, resulting in requests from dozens of researchers to examine the mummy.

The Paiutes Lay Claim

The initial tests clearly indicated the Spirit Cave Mummy was an anthropological prize. But typical of scientific inquiry, the preliminary data only produced more questions. Further study, including DNA analysis, would reveal additional information.

It was at this point that NAGPRA became relevant. Under the law, invasive testing of the mummy required written permission from the local Indian tribe, the Pyramid Lake Paiutes. Nevada’s Bureau of Land Management office fulfilled its obligation and notified tribal leaders of the museum’s intention to proceed with the next round of tests.

By all accounts, Paiute officials had no knowledge of the mummy prior to being notified by the BLM. But once they became aware, the Paiutes took great interest in the scientists’ plans. Mirroring the reaction of other tribes throughout the West, the Paiutes refused to allow invasive testing.

They didn’t stop there—the tribe exercised its authority under NAGPRA and immediately filed a "claim of cultural affiliation," asserting that the Spirit Cave Mummy was a Paiute. Although the science supporting their position is flimsy at best (and the tribe has consistently refused to acknowledge the voluminous evidence which undercuts their claim of affiliation), Paiute leaders announced their intention to obtain all remains and artifacts found in Spirit Cave for reburial. Under the law, the BLM can still allow non-invasive tests—a team from the Smithsonian Institution examined the mummy in November—but DNA analysis is off limits.

Taking Sides

It is now almost two years since the Paiutes filed a claim of cultural affiliation, and the dispute remains unresolved. Neither the scientists nor tribal leaders have budged.

The final decision continues to rest with Bob Abbey, BLM state director. As Nevada Journal goes to press, the BLM is continuing to collect information from both parties. It is not known when Abbey will announce his decision. He does not face a statutory deadline; he need only render a judgment "in a timely manner."

The state of Nevada has no role to play in the Spirit Cave Mummy dispute—it is entirely a federal matter. But one state legislator has taken a strong position on what Abbey’s decision should be. Sen. Ray Rawson of Las Vegas, a forensic dentist, sided with the concerns of scientists at a legislative hearing last spring. "I don’t want [the Paiutes] to rebury those remains without us properly studying them. This is an unrelated find to the Indian population, so NAGPRA doesn’t apply." Rawson reiterated his position in September: "Failing to look at what is going on here won’t do any of us any good. Ignorance has never served mankind well."

Nevada’s chief executive has contributed little to the Spirit Cave Mummy debate, aside from echoing the please-everyone strategy of his friend Bill Clinton. Gov. Bob Miller offered this bit of fence-straddling to the Las Vegas Review Journal last March: "I’m trying to walk the line between BLM and the tribes."

A settlement between both sides is unlikely. An attempt at reconciliation was made in late November—representatives of the Nevada State Museum and the BLM met with tribal leaders to explain their position. They stated their intention to allow the Paiutes to assume ownership of the mummy as soon as all testing was complete.

The Paiutes were not convinced. In fact, they were anything but accommodating to their guests. In Dansie’s words, there was "quite a bit of hostility" at the gathering. She and her colleagues faced "an Inquisition" which at times featured a number of tribal members yelling in their native language.

"They refused to talk about the real issues," Dansie told Nevada Journal, adding "there was no room for discussion whatsoever." (Mervin Wright, tribal chairman, did not return repeated requests by Nevada Journal to be interviewed for this story.)

In December, Paiute leaders met with Shoshone officials and both tribes called on the BLM to return all remains and artifacts found in Spirit Cave.

"We feel that those people should be buried, not sitting in some museum," said Alvin Moyle of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribal Council.

Burying the Truth

Moyle may get his wish. The federal government has sided with Indian mythology over scientific investigation several times since NAGPRA’s passage.

Such was originally the case in the most famous NAGPRA battle, the fight over Kennewick Man. Like the Spirit Cave Mummy, Kennewick Man lived approximately 9,000 years ago and exhibited the Caucasoid features that have captured anthropologists’ interest.

But the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency responsible for Kennewick Man, at first ruled in favor of the five tribes which claimed ownership of the skeleton. Before repatriation took place, eight prominent scientists filed a lawsuit contesting the decision. Last June a federal magistrate ordered the Corps to reexamine its decision to repatriate Kennewick Man. In October, Corps officials announced they had reopened their investigation of the matter.

Scientists may still have the chance to study both the Spirit Cave Mummy and Kennewick Man, but several unique anthropological specimens have already been returned to—and even buried by—Indian tribes. In Montana, naturally shed human hair discovered by one archeologist elicited a NAGPRA affiliation claim. Although the hair had not been buried in any kind of ritual, the federal government has prevented testing of the hair to commence.

In 1993 a skeleton found near Buhl, Idaho was claimed by the Shoshone-Bannock tribe. "The remains ... were dated at roughly 10,600 years," wrote Center for Equal Opportunity President John J. Miller, "making them the oldest ever found in the Americas. But little is known about them today, since they were quickly turned over to the tribe."

Science vs. Mysticism

Some involved in NAGPRA conflicts see the disputes as not simply bureaucratic overreaches based on misguided "sensitivity," but symptoms of a larger, more disturbing trend. They allege that all too often in modern society, myths and legends are granted as much credibility as conclusions reached through detailed scientific inquiry.

Some even claim this development is the result of an orchestrated campaign. G. A. Clark of Arizona State University made such an allegation in a letter published in the Society for American Archeology Bulletin: "... it seems that the worldview of western science is under serious and sustained assault ... [from] a multipronged attack in which mysticism, religious fundamentalism, creationism and belief in the paranormal ... attack the critical realism and mitigated objectivity that are the central epistemological biases of the scientific worldview."

A prime example of Clark’s theory is the creation myth believed by many Native Americans. Although science has all but concluded the ancestors of modern-day Indians reached North America via a land bridge from Asia, many Native Americans hold on to long-held legends about their origins. This view was perhaps best expressed by Umatilla tribal leader Armand Minthorn:

"We as Indian people know that we have been here since time began. We didn’t come across no land bridge. We have always been here." (Minthorn’s position is particularly important since he was recently appointed by President Clinton to serve on NAGPRA’s review committee.)

Jim Chatters, the first anthropologist to examine Kennewick Man, charges that NAGPRA has politicized science: "It just shows the plight we’re facing in a political climate that is making it increasingly difficult to know anything. I am speaking of political correctness in general: ‘Just don’t talk about the truth. It might offend somebody.’"

But such strong words—spoken and written in public —are rare in the academic community. Although Clark reported that the "plaudit-to-brickbat" ratio of his letter was 16-to-1, only a few archeologists and anthropologists seem willing to take a position on NAGPRA excesses.

"Privately," wrote New York Times reporter George Johnson, "some say they are afraid that if they take too strong a stand in favor of scientific inquiry, they will be denied even more research opportunities."

Not surprisingly, universities are largely unwilling to weigh in on the dark side of NAGPRA as well. The scientists in the Kennewick Man class action suit have been given no financial support from their employers—their attorney is working the case pro bono.

"Our institutions are typically mainly concerned with keeping themselves out of controversy," noted University of Tennessee anthropologist Richard Jantz, a plaintiff in the suit.

Archeological and anthropological associations also refrain, for the most part, from taking a stand on overly broad interpretations of NAGPRA.

"National organizations are deeply reluctant to get involved in this mess, and that’s extremely frustrating," Miller told Nevada Journal.


Some in the Indian community eschew the question of science altogether, and attempt to deflect NAGPRA critics with a standard tactic—crying racism.

In Miller’s words, manyNative Americans "would have the world believe that this is simply another morality play between treaty-breaking whites and reservation-bound Indians."

"It comes down to racism," said Suzan Harjo, an Indian activist with the Washington, D.C.-based Morning Star Foundation.

But science has hardly singled out Indian remains for study. From Jamestown settlers to the "Ice Man" found in the Alps in 1991, deceased Europeans and Americans are constantly subjected to tests.

Several years ago DNA testing was even performed on the exhumed body of Zachary Taylor, to determine if the former president was poisoned.

If the Nevada State Museum is racist, it has an odd way of demonstrating its bigotry. Dansie told Nevada Journal that since NAGPRA’s passage in 1990, the museum has repatriated the remains of approximately 120 Native Americans.

She also added that several Indian tribal officials in the state have refused to even acknowledge offers to repatriate the remains of their ancestors still housed in museum storage.

The Future

NAGPRA began as an admirable effort to respect the burial rites of Indian tribes. But more than once it has mutated into a facts-be-damned tool of political correctness. The issue is likely to remain contentious, as Native Americans in Nevada and throughout the West cling to a scientifically insupportable cosmography.

The men and women seeking to study the Spirit Cave Mummy are just as adamant about their worldview, one based on empirical inquiry and logic. "We can’t just ignore this, and say they’re Paiute," Dansie told Nevada Journal. "If [Abbey’s decision] violates scientific values, we will fight legally." (She suggested the possibility of retaining Alan Schneider, the attorney in the Kennewick Man case.)

"We are all losers," wrote Clark, "if, for reasons of political expediency, Native Americans rebury their [sic] past." Federal officials now face a clear choice: permit the search for America’s prehistory to go wherever the facts lead, or defer to Indian activists and tribal officials unwilling to face the implications of such an investigation.

Meanwhile, the Spirit Cave Mummy resides in a box in Carson City. Dansie and her colleagues have learned some of his story. It remains to be seen if they will be allowed to learn the rest. u

D. Dowd Muska is a Contributing Editor of Nevada Journal. He can be reached at


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