Spirit in the sky

A 10,600-year-old Nevadan was the subject of recent controversies

Forensic artist Sharon Long made a mold of Spirit Cave Man’s face using a replica of his skull.

Forensic artist Sharon Long made a mold of Spirit Cave Man’s face using a replica of his skull.


After 76 years sealed in a box in Carson City, the partially mummified remains of the oldest known Nevadan will be reburied with Native American ceremonies, allowing the ancient one’s spirit to resume its journey into the next world.

“I’m glad Spirit Cave Man is going home,” said Melvin Brown, a Schurz artist of Paiute-Shoshone ancestry. “For a while it seemed like it was a done deal [that the man wasn’t Native American] and was from a different branch of the human family. … Turns out he’s one of us after all.”

Spirit Cave Man’s trek began 10,600 years ago when his clan buried his body in a rock shelter on a hillside near what would become Fallon. Archaeologists found him in 1940, but it wasn’t until 1994 that tests proved his remains were among the oldest found on the continent. His antiquity put him at the epicenter of a battle between scientists who wanted to study his remains and Nevada tribal leaders who wanted to rebury him. It is part of the conflict over who owns the human history of the continent, pitting tribal tradition and spirituality against scientific inquiry.

Brown has been following the story of Spirit Cave Man across two decades. He said he always believed the man was his distant relative, but unlike some other Native Americans, he didn’t object to the testing of very old remains for clues to their origins. Here’s the mystery: The characteristics of the few ancient skulls found so far don’t resemble those of modern Indians. That led to speculation that some other ethnic group was already here when the ancestors of American Indians arrived. Theorists suggested the founding population came from Europe, Africa, Polynesia or Japan rather than over a land bridge from Siberia.

Recent DNA tests on the Spirit Cave mummy provide some answers, but raise new questions. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management authorized the tests after the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe agreed to drop its opposition. The tribe wanted to avoid further court fights and expedite the transfer of the mummy to it.

The DNA results released two months ago showed that the ancient man was “Native American” as defined by federal law, although he was not an exact match to any other group of people in the genetic database. The man’s genome shows he is an ancestor of American Indians, but has more in common with tribal people in Central and South America than any groups further north. The BLM in November surrendered the remains to the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe for reburial.

It was a victory for Indian governments, but it came with collateral damage. In the late 1990s, bowing to pressure from local tribes, state officials suppressed knowledge about the ancient Nevadan. Administrators also allegedly retaliated against employees and others who favored further research on the mummy, which anthropologists rated as one of the most significant archeological finds on the continent.

Snapshot in time

At the tail end of the last Ice Age, the Great Basin was a land of lakes and marshes. It was a time before widespread farming, writing or cities. People around the globe were on an equal footing. The great pyramids of Egypt were 6,000 years in the future.

Vast ice sheets blanketed the northern part of the American continent. In what would become Nevada, giant Lake Lahontan filled the basins among the mountain ranges. During Spirit Cave Man’s time, the lake was evaporating as the climate became warmer and drier. The marsh where his people lived was creeping steadily northward, leaving desert in its wake. Around the world, Stone Age humans were adapting to climate change. The man’s remains indicate that the first Nevadans adapted to that change as well as any people, anywhere.

The man was about 45, an elder for the period. He lived in a moist world, alive with fish, birds and insects. Cattails and bulrushes defined the ponds and waterways that dominated the landscape. Sagebrush, greasewood and rabbitbrush grew on the hills and at the edges of the wetlands. Mammoths and other megafauna had died out about 1,000 years before, but antelope, marmots and rabbits were plentiful.

He died in terrible pain. Three of his teeth had abscessed and were draining through an open sore on his right cheek. The infection probably poisoned his blood. His people cared for him. Scientists found the remains of his last meal—chub and sucker fish, boiled and mashed—in his stomach. He died shortly after eating it. His people draped him in a rabbit fur blanket and wrapped him in a woven mat, worn from long use. They buried him in the cave. When found in 1940, the man was lying on his right side, his hand beneath his chin, and he still had dark hair on his head. He wore moccasins of antelope hide with marmot fur tops. Shredded tule reeds served as his socks. The Nevada State Museum initially placed his antiquity at no more than 2,000 years.

Spirit Cave Man’s people buried him in this cave near Fallon more than 10,000 years ago.


After his true age was established, forensic artist Sharon Long of Reno was commissioned to mold a face on a replica of his skull. She has used the same reconstruction technique to identify decomposed murder victims and other skulls unearthed by archaeologists. Long said she was surprised at the man’s bone structure. He had wide-set eyes, a broad nose, a long, narrow skull, and an outward-projecting face. He lacked the pronounced cheekbones that scientists would expect to find in ancestors of American Indians.

As with other ancient skulls found to date, his features looked more Northern Asian than Native American, she said. Nevada officials announced Long’s bust would go on public display in 1998, but tribal governments said the man was their relative and objected to the display and to any further testing of the mummy.

Skull wars

Scientific consensus is that the Paiute, Shoshone, Ute and Goshute occupied central Nevada after 3,000 years ago. Other people were here before them, but their identities have been lost to time. Traditional Nevada Indians have their own truth: the Great Basin is their Eden; they were created here at the dawn of time. Tribal leaders insist all ancient remains are the bones of their ancestors. Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribal Chairman Len George, whose tribe took the lead in the legal battle, did not return multiple calls for comment. But tribal officials and members interviewed by this writer in the 1990s and early 2000s made their position clear:

“We have been here since the beginning of time,” said Rochanne Downs, a member of the tribe who was involved in the repatriation efforts in 2000. “We’ve already lost so much of our history and culture. We don’t want our grandfather buried in a file cabinet. We want to rebury him at home.”

Norm Harry, who was then chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, said exhuming ancestors’ graves is “disgusting” and disrespectful. “If you want to dig up people whose descendants don’t object, that’s fine,” Harry said. “But we have very strong spiritual beliefs. We are connected to the Earth. When you disturb an ancestor that person’s spiritual journey into the next world is disrupted.”

Long’s sculpture intensified the rift between scientists and Native Americans. Nevada officials backed away from the controversy early on (“Remains to be seen,” RN&R, March 12 1997). To placate tribal concerns, members of Gov. Bob Miller’s administration locked up the model of the man’s head, which was paid for with public funds. Officials declined to include details about the mummy in museum displays. They announced that the state had “no further interest” in studying the remains, which were under federal control. Two Nevada State Museum anthropologists, who favored more testing, exited their jobs as the controversy escalated. A state official pressured a blogger, who was related to a state employee, to remove links and references to the Spirit Cave case from her personal webpage.

In 2000, Nevada’s attorney general threatened to prosecute Long for “theft of state property” because she displayed a copy of the bust at an anthropology conference. Long, who has done forensic facial reconstructions on models of skulls for the Smithsonian, other museums, police departments and Indian tribes, routinely kept copies of her work. Her contract with the state did not forbid the practice.

“Everybody was walking on eggs so as not to offend the tribes,” Long said. “I had to hire a lawyer, and it cost me a lot of money to defend myself.”

State officials at the time said they were trying to make amends for a past when Indian sites were plundered and Indians were treated as an extinct people who had no say in the protection of their ancestors’ graves. They said the museum’s initial testing was done without consulting the tribes, and they wanted to enhance cooperation with the Native Americans, not further alienate them. Anthropologists argued that the remains were too old to be directly related to any living people and that fundamentalism of any stripe should not dictate scientific inquiry.

A 1990 law mandates that Indian remains be returned to the tribe most closely connected to them, but the federal government ruled that the mummy was “unaffiliated” with any group. The determination was based on a lack of archeological evidence that would indicate a link between cultures. Stephanie Damadio, who in 2000 was the national curator for the BLM, wrote in her report that “all American communities had a right to the knowledge these remains can provide.”

The man’s fate was in legal limbo until the Fallon tribe reached their agreement with the government and scientists. Tiny samples from the man’s remains yielded usable DNA.

American genesis

A summary of the DNA results was released in November. They indicate Spirit Cave Man isn’t directly related to any living or now-vanished geographical group represented in a DNA database. However, the man is more closely related to Native Americans than any other people on the planet, the report said. His genes have more in common with the Indians of Central and South America than to North American native groups.

Mutations in his DNA indicate descent from Siberians who lived 24,000 years ago as well as from East Asians. Scientists theorize that members from the two groups interbred in Siberia. Their descendants may have lived on the edge of Beringia, the now-submerged land mass between Siberia and Alaska.

Scientific consensus beginning in the 1930s was that the first humans arrived from Siberia around 13,000 years ago. They followed their food—mammoths—through an ice-free corridor southward, according to the theory. But over the last two decades, prehistoric sites on both continents yielded carbon-14 dates as early as 14,500 years ago, long before the corridor existed. The original inhabitants must have traveled to the New World some other way and arrived thousands of years earlier than suspected.

The genomes of Spirit Cave Man and of the Anzick Child, the 12,600-year-old remains of a toddler found in Montana, are similar, the DNA report says. Genetic results led to a revised theory: At some point around 16,000 years ago, a relatively small band of these people made their way from Beringia south down the Pacific Coast, on foot or in small boats. Their descendants spread south and east to populate the Americas. Sometime later, other bands left Siberia and followed an ice-free corridor into North America.

Genetic markers that resulted from the interbreeding of the two groups in Asia can be found in most North American Indians and an even greater percentage of Central and South American tribal people, scientists say. That means one small band of humans begat all the great civilizations of this hemisphere, according to Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen, whose team mapped the genomes of the Anzick and Spirit Cave remains.

So in a way, the Indians were right: the New World forged a new people. Their DNA signature has, so far, been found in no other group of humans, living or extinct, anywhere else on the planet. This continent is the site of their genesis. But if Indians in Peru are more closely related to Spirit Cave Man than any North American people, shouldn’t they have a say in the disposition of Nevada’s ancient remains? If so, which tribe? At what point in time do such remains become the property of all humanity?

Melvin Brown, whose Shoshone-Paiute ancestors are buried all around northern Nevada, sees the problem as a false conflict between science and spirituality. Some things are matters of faith. Science and spirituality can exist in harmony, Brown said, when there is mutual understanding between Native Americans and other groups. Scientists should always respect tribal culture and beliefs, he said, and work to build bridges. He said Indians may seek knowledge about their origins without having to reject tradition.

Science, he said, can’t explain everything. “There’s definitely something spiritual that’s a part of [Spirit Cave Man],” Brown said.

The dusty trail

Early attempts by the state and tribes to keep information about Spirit Cave Man hidden from the public were unsuccessful. Long’s busts of the man, displayed on TV programs, including 60 Minutes and PBS’s Nova, have been seen by millions. Articles have appeared in scientific journals and magazines. A few Nevada teachers ferreted out information and shared it with their students.

For 10 years, teachers Deb Sutherland and Vivian Olds taught their Fernley Elementary School students about Spirit Cave Man. They invited anthropologists and Native Americans to speak to classes and took pupils on a field trip to the cave. Sutherland and Olds said students were encouraged to do their own research and reach their own conclusions. In 2002, several Fernley students were invited to present their research at a regional anthropology conference in Elko.

Olds said a state official tried to convince her students to cancel their talk. The kids declined. During their presentation, a woman sat in the front row and wept. She was upset that the students were talking about the man she considered her ancient relative. The students were respectful of her, but continued their presentation, Olds said. She said she is glad the DNA tests were completed and have added to our understanding of the peopling of the Americas.

“Spirit Cave Man’s story is being told,” she said. “You can’t keep a good man down.”

The Fallon tribe won’t say where the remains are now, but an underground vault located on the Stillwater Wildlife Refuge contains the bones from hundreds of very old Native American graves exposed—and studied by scientists with the cooperation of tribal members—during a drought in the 1980s. It’s possible the vault will serve as a secure sepulcher for the man, who may already have been interred.

After a long sojourn, the spirit of the first Nevadan can resume its celestial walk along the Milky Way—the “dusty trail” of Paiute tradition—and continue the long trek to the next world.