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Spirit Cave Mummy: The Incredible Discovery of Kennewick Man

The Incredible Discovery of the Spirit Cave Mummy


Many cultural traditions surrounding death are meant to preserve a person’s legacy. Yet few souls could ever have expected to be remembered for so long. Nor could they possibly imagine the amount of controversy and scientific inquiry they would evoke thousands of years after their death. Such is the case of the man found entombed in Spirit Cave, 13 miles east of Fallon, Nevada. The naturally preserved body was first discovered in the 1940s but then shelved until the 1990s. Today, the battle over cultural heritage wages as scientists and Native Americans vie over the dead man’s fate.

In 1940, Sydney and Georgia Wheeler were hired by the Nevada State Parks Commission to excavate dry caves in the Lahontan Basin (northwest Nevada). Guano mining in the region threatened to destroy as-of-yet unfound archeology sites so the state wanted to find and salvage any artifacts of note. That summer, the couple went through many caves throughout Churchill County. One day, in early August, Sydney was injured when he was forced to quickly dodge an angry rattlesnake. He was thankfully not bitten; however, he did hurt his ankle to the point where his mobility was greatly reduced. The Wheelers sought shelter in a nearby, unexplored cave close to the road, allowing them to stay out of the blazing desert sun as they waited for a car to pass on the little-used highway. Being curious archeologists, they passed their time by examining the cave.

Extent of prehistoric Lake Lahontan

Extent of prehistoric Lake Lahontan (CC BY-SA 3.0)

“What they found," wrote Amy Dansie of the Nevada State Museum’s Anthropology Department, "was a remarkable example of arid-climate preservation.”

The Wheelers had stumbled upon two bodies wrapped in two tule (a marsh plant used for weaving) matts along with 67 artifacts including knives, animal bones, and baskets. The first body was in a poor state but the second, buried slightly deeper, was very well preserved. It is believed that the heat and aridity of the desert cave rapidly dried the corpse, leaving it partially mummified. The head was completely intact and even a bit of hair remained in place.

Schoenoplectus acutus, also known as tule.

Schoenoplectus acutus, also known as tule. (Public Domain)

Mummy Analysis

Later research revealed that the man was aged 45-55 and stood 5 feet 2 inches (1.57 meters) tall. His skull was fractured and he had horrible abscesses in his teeth, meaning he must likely suffered from a painful gum disease. He wore moccasins and was wrapped in a neatly woven shroud, suggesting that the people of the area were using looms before previously thought. Finally, fish bones were found in his mummified intestines, reflecting the Great Basin’s history as a lake before the water dried up as the glaciers receded.

The mummy discovered.

The mummy discovered. (

Eventually, the Wheelers flagged down a passerby and, with the help of some local residents, managed to carefully bring the body into town. It was photographed, estimated to be about 1,500 years old, and then placed in a sealed box on a shelf in the Nevada State Museum. The Wheelers have since died, never knowing the incredible discovery they unearthed.

Another photo of the mummy discovered by the Wheelers.

Another photo of the mummy discovered by the Wheelers. (

Revisiting the Cave

In 1994, the University of California, Riverside anthropologist R. Erv Taylor had the opportunity to revisit the Spirit Cave Mummy with the latest in dating technology. Using accelerator mass spectrometry, Taylor and his team tested 17 samples including hair, bones, the textiles, and wood. So, startling were the results that the researchers believed that there had been a mistake or that the method was flawed. Yet secondary examinations verified the results: the mummy was in fact buried 9,415 years ago (plus or minus 25 years).

“It's a big surprise,” said Robson Bonnichsen, director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans and a professor of anthropology at Oregon State University, in an interview with the New York Times. “It's a very pleasant surprise. This individual will provide real insight into what the people of the time looked like and what life style they had.”

Reconstruction of the mummy.

Reconstruction of the mummy. (

The Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was enacted in 1990 to preserve existing Native American burial sites and to return any remains to their appropriate tribes. In 1997, the Paiute-Shoshone Tribe of Nevada’s Fallon Reservation put forward a NAGPRA claim to the Spirit Cave Mummy and the artifacts found with him. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) stated that, based on preliminary findings, the Spirit Cave Mummy was not affiliated with any known Native American tribe and therefore the NAGPRA claim is invalid.

“There is no geographic evidence indicating how long the Northern Paiute have occupied the Spirit Cave area prior to European contact in the early 1800s and none indicating who, if anyone, lived there at any earlier time,” said the BLM in a statement. The remains “predate contemporary Northern Paiute tribes and cannot reasonably be culturally affiliated with any of them.”

Top image: The mummy cranial reconstruction. (

By Kerry Sullivan


Chereb, Sandra. "Mummy Will Not Be Returned for Burial." ABC News. ABC News Network, n.d. Web. 25 Sept. 2016.

Drinnon, Dale. "Spirit Cave Mummy." Frontiers of Anthropology. Frontiers of Anthropology, 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 25 Sept. 2016.

Goldberg, Carey. "Oldest Mummy 'Found' on Museum Shelf." The New York Times. The New York Times, 26 Apr. 1996. Web. 25 Sept. 2016.

Muska, D. Dowd. "Scalping Science: Sensitivity Run Amok May Silence the Spirit Cave Mummy Forever." The Nevada Journal 98.02 (1998): n. pag. Nevada Journal Archive. Nevada Journal. Web.



I don't know what they are talking about when they say that this mummy has "Caucasian" features.

I clearly see a Native American man's face when I look at the facial reconstruction model. He has a long, narrow face, with a wide nose that hooks/tapers at the end. He has very prominent, high cheekbones, but has a skull that appears flat when you look at his face head on, much like the Flathead Indians. This is not like the appearance of a Caucasian person who's skull looks wide and round when looking at the person head-on.

The facial reconstruction artist gave him thin lips, but if his lips were made thicker, he would look more Native American. He looks very much like the Native American peoples of the Western Plains.

So I don't see where they are getting these "Caucasian" features from.

Video content is outdated. A limit on the use of "Nevada" would be greatly appreciated by all readers.

Roberto Peron's picture

Thank you for correcting the erroneous info in this artical Ancient Origins.  It just upsets me that our modern world is so full of wrong or outright faked info.  One would think that any writer would check out his/her facts before publishing but that seems not to be the “style” today.  Instead what I see is many writers just writing “off the cuff” without checking facts first.  However, I can understand how the Spirit Cave find(s) could be easily confused with the Kennewick Man find even though they are two different finds in two different areas.  So I forgive the author of this article as well.

ancient-origins's picture

Dear Robert, thanks very much for your feedback and highlighting the innacuracy in the article. This has since been corrected, and therefore comments relating to this were removed as they are no longer relevant as that content no longer exists. We apologise for the error. We have over 6,000 articles on the site and only a few of them have contained mistakes of this kind, so I hope you can forgive the misinformation and enjoy the rest of the content Ancient Origins has to offer. 

Roberto Peron's picture

Several comments were posted about this story and its HIGHLY INACCURATE details yesterday including one from me.  Yet, today they are “mysteriously” gone and I’d like to know why.  Further, I fail to understand why this website has not taken this story down as it is nothing but a mass of confusion mixing Kennewick Man with the Spirit Cave Mummy.  The two are NOT one in the same.  Future writers ought to check out their facts BEFORE publishing!


Kerry Sullivan's picture

Kerry Sullivan

Kerry Sullivan has a Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts and is currently a freelance writer, completing assignments on historical, religious, and political topics.

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