Spirit Cave Man: The Controversy

The ancient human remains known as Spirit Cave Man have been the focus of a legal battle beginning in the 1990s.

The 10,600-year-old mummy, found in a shallow cave on federal land near Fallon in 1940, was initially thought to be a Paiute dating to about 1,500 years ago. But Carbon-14 testing in 1994 revealed the remains were among the oldest found in North America and represented the original people on the continent. Sharon Long, then a Nevada-based forensic sculptor, created a bust on a model of Spirit Cave Man’s skull. The features looked more European than Native American. The bust gave rise to theories that Spirit Cave Man’s people may represent a population already present in North America when the ancestors of American Indians came across a land bridge from Asia.

The issue became politicized, with advocates of further scientific study on one side and Native American leaders, who wanted the remains reburied immediately, on the other. After consulting with tribal leaders, the Nevada State Museum agreed not to display the bust. The Federal Bureau of Land Management, meanwhile, ruled in 2000 that the remains could not be associated with any known people. The Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe sued the BLM in an attempt to claim the remains. The tribal members said it is their custom not to interfere with a departed person’s journey into the next life and that artifacts, as well as geography and tradition, indicated the person is their ancestor.

The legal action cited a 1990 federal law – the Native American Graves Protection and Reburial Act – which requires museums and others who possess Native American remains and grave goods to return them to the tribe most closely associated with them. But the Spirit Cave mummy, found long before the law was passed, presents a dilemma: the mummy's skull does not resemble members of modern Indian tribes and it’s difficult to link such ancient remains with any people alive today. The man might represent an entirely different group of people who predated modern Indians, some scientists said. In 2006, a federal court ordered the BLM to reconsider the evidence of association submitted by the tribe.
Spirit Cave Man could be the Indians' ancient grandfather or he might represent another group of people, now extinct, scientists theorized. The question of who will be the caretakers of the mummy remains unresolved. In its determination of tribal affiliation, the BLM ruled that “the remains predate contemporary Northern Paiute tribes and cannot be reasonably affiliated with any of them.” Tribal leaders continue their fight to gain custody of the remains of this ancient Nevadan.

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