10,000-Year-Old Spirit Cave Mummy Revealed as Belonging to an Early Caravan of Immigrants to the Americas
A new twist in the mapping of early human migrations into North and South America has occurred after DNA samples from the 10,000-year-old “Spirit Cave mummy,” unearthed in a cave in Nevada, revealed it’s the ancestor of a Native American tribe.
The skeleton, a male aged around 40 at the time of his death, was found in a Nevada cave in 1940 wearing moccasins on his feet and with his body wrapped in a rabbit-skin blanket covered with reed mats. Now, Professor Eske Willerslev, who works with the University of Copenhagen and the University of Cambridge, has published the Spirit Cave Mummy’s DNA sequencing in the journals Science, Science Advances , and Cell, and the results raise as many new questions as they answer.
The Spirit Cave mummy. ( friendsofpast.org)
Finding the Family of the Spirit Cave Mummy
Willerslev interpreted the mummy’s DNA results against “dozens of ancient specimens spanning about 10,000 years and locations from Alaska to Patagonia,” according to a report in The Guardian . He told reporters that “the findings highlighted the power of ancient DNA to reveal untold stories of the distant past.” The Independent reported that this new DNA evidence has enabled researchers to demonstrate “the astonishing speed at which people colonized the region after they diverged from their East Asian ancestors.”
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DNA extracted from the mummy’s ancient skull has finally proved the Spirit Cave mummy “was an ancestor of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone people in Nevada” a result which immediately debunked a long debated theory that the man belonged to a group of Paleoamericans that had arrived in North America before the first Native Americans. The controversial skeleton was finally reburied this summer, closing a “seven decades-long legal dispute with anthropologists who fought for it to remain on display in a museum” according to the report in The Guardian.
The genetic details of the skeleton not only proved “two previously unknown migrations into South America,” but also revealed “surprising traces of Australasian ancestry in indigenous South Americans,” suggesting a much earlier swathe of modern humans made it to the Americas potentially as far back as 30,000 years or more.
A graphical abstract of the study’s presentation of migrations into the Americas. ( Posth, C. et al. 2018 )
Closure, Finally, After Seven Decades
Willerslev, who attended the reburial of the mummy this summer, told reporters it involved “people crying, singing and praying” as the mummy was put inside a casket and offered farewell gifts. The event “was similar to if you and I were burying a very close relative,” he said. “It’s that emotional even though we are burying a mummy that was living 10,000 years ago.”
In an August Ancient Origins article, written by yours truly, titled The Great American Origins Debate: Clovis First vs Pre-Clovis , I looked at all of the modern scientific evidence and arguments for the first peoples to arrive in the Americas. I deliberately omitted this skeleton from my research because of the controversy and uncertainty which surrounded it. Since the mummy was discovered in 1940, along with the partial remains of three other individuals, fringe factions of the scientific community have claimed that that it was “Paleoamerican” (pre-Native American) based on earlier studies suggesting Native Americans have different shaped skulls. However, “Looking at the bumps and shapes of a head does not help you understand the true genetic ancestry of a population – we have proved that you can have people who look very different but are closely related,” said Willerslev.
The Spirit Cave mummy cranial reconstruction. ( friendsofpast.org)
The burying of this skeleton marks the end to what have been deemed outlandish claims, and puts to bed arguments that indigenous groups “often fight for repatriation of remains in order to gain a political voice.” On the contrary, Willerslev said “This event showed me it’s way more than that, it’s very deep feelings,” he said. “It’s similar to us not being able to bury our grandmother and her skull put on a shelf somewhere.” A statement from the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone tribe, said of the study : “[The skeleton] confirms what we have always known from our oral tradition and other evidence - that the man taken from his final resting place in Spirit Cave is our Native American ancestor.”
New Questions Rise From the 10,000-Year-Old Mummy
Little is known of what happened to the American populations when they diverged from their Siberian and East Asian ancestors nearly 25,000 years ago. It is known that people spread unevenly and rapidly throughout the Americas in at least "three different streams” dispersing from North to South America some time before 15,000 years ago.
The ‘Clovis people’ who first arrived in the Americas 13,000 years ago were ‘almost’ entirely replaced by a subsequent wave of people around 9,000 years ago. The new evidence, according to Cosimo Posth , a geneticist from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and co-author of one of the three scientific papers published by the international team, proves that “Nearly all Central and South Americans arose from a star-like radiation of the first lineage into at least three branches.”
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The blades of the Clovis culture, known as Clovis points. ( Public Domain )
The international study also revealed “traces of Australasian ancestry in ancient Native Americans in South but not North America” which the scientists think could be evidence of “the existence of an ancient population, with deep ancestral links to people who ended up in Australasia, that arrived in the Americas far earlier than the ancestors of Native Americans.”
Victor Moreno-Mayar, from the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, and first author of the study, said:
“That this signal has not been previously documented in North America implies that an earlier group possessing it had disappeared or a later arriving group passed through North America without leaving any genetic trace.”
Top Image: Reconstruction of the face of the Spirit Cave mummy. Source: friendsofpast.org
By Ashley Cowie