When most people hear the word mummy they think of ancient Egypt—or of the many horror films featuring resurrected corpses. But the oldest mummies in the world were not created in the nation of the pyramids. They come from the Americas.
The most ancient mummy in North America was found near Fallon, Nev., in 1940 by a married pair of archaeologists the state hired to excavate Spirit Cave. The Spirit Caveman, as he has been dubbed, was buried about 9,415 years ago—thousands of years before the first Egyptian Pharaohs attempted to cheat death.
Like the earliest Egyptian mummies, Spirit Caveman was created by accident. The heat and aridity of the burial cave rapidly dried the corpse, creating a mummy naturally. Any dead body that contains soft tissues preserved by nature or by embalming can be called a mummy. Some, like Spirit Caveman, are only partially mummified; while his hair and the skin on his head and shoulder are intact, portions of his body have decayed to the bone.
Some experts estimate that hundreds of natural mummies have been found in North America, mostly in the Southwest and in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska—but because American mummies were treated as curiosities and even collected by Victorian hobbyists, accurate records don’t exist. Until recently, most archaeologists thought the mummies were much younger. Spirit Caveman was estimated to be 1,500 to 2,000 years old when he was discovered. But in 1994 R. Erv Taylor of the University of California Riverside Radiocarbon Laboratory took hair and bone samples and came up with a date that shocked not only the Nevada State Museum (which had stored the mummy in a box for over 50 years) but also the whole archaeological community.
Taylor’s samples yielded seven dates, all within a remarkably short span—210 years—providing a very precise age for the mummy: 9,415 (plus or minus 25 years). But the unexpected age was only part of what made Spirit Caveman so remarkable. Like the famous 9,300-year-old Kennewick Man and other Stone Age skeletons (including skulls in Nebraska and Minnesota), the mummy resembles South Asians or even Europeans more than it resembles today’s American Indians.
This has helped to revolutionize anthropologists’ theories of the original colonization of America, which is now thought to have occurred much earlier than once believed. The population of the continent may also have been much more multicultural than anyone expected.
For many years, the accepted history of the peopling of the continent stated that Mongoloid Asians crossed a land bridge into Alaska about 11,500 years ago, and from there spread south and gradually settled throughout America. These were the only supposed ancestors of the tribes today known as American Indians.
The oldest artifacts were believed to be stone spear points found in Clovis, N.M., in the 1930s, dated at 11,000 years old. This was claimed to be the oldest settlement found, and since the first people had arrived just a few hundred years earlier, how could anything much older exist?
With the tenacity of religious zealots, many scientists rejected any evidence that didn’t fit into the “Clovis model.” Many archaeologists didn’t even bother to dig deeper than the 11,000-year-old strata, since they were certain there was nothing more to be found. Those who kept digging—and found artifacts they believed were older than Clovis—were dismissed as fools.
But now everything has changed. Archaeologists are digging deeper and have found prehistoric sites all over the country—from Virginia and Pennsylvania to Nevada—that may be 14,000, 15,000, or even 17,000 years old. Obviously, the New World is not nearly as new as was once thought.
Even more amazingly, the most ancient remains tell a tale of an unexpectedly diverse American population long before the country became known for its “melting pot” of nationalities. For instance, when the Kennewick Man was discovered near the Columbia River in 1996, forensic anthropologists first identified the remains as a 19th-century Caucasian male because the skull looked more Caucasoid than Mongoloid. Every-one was surprised when radiocarbon dating proved the skeleton was more than 9,000 years old.
Spirit Caveman also has features that vary dramatically from the flattened, wide face of traditional Amerindians. His long head, wide nose, forward-projecting face, and strong chin make him (like the Kennewick Man) look more Caucasian, and some scientists say both skulls resemble those of the aboriginal Ainu of Japan.
Genetic findings by Theodore Schurr, a molecular anthropologist from Emory University in Atlanta, suggest a link between ancient Eurasians and Native Americans. A genetic marker, “Lineage X,” has been found in modern and ancient remains of Native Americans, and in European and Near Eastern groups—but not in any Asian peoples, the supposed ancestors of Native Americans.
Also, an examination of archaeological collections in Europe has uncovered a surprising similarity between artifacts created by early Americans and the Solutrean Paleolithic culture on the north coast of Spain. Stone and bone tools, engraved limestone tablets, and other items appear nearly identical to North American artifacts. All of this suggests that a group of Caucasians may have migrated from Europe to North America more than 9,000 years ago.
Indians claim remains
If so, they didn’t come over the Bering Strait. Glaciers in America’s center created an insurmountable barrier, preventing travel from west to east until their retreat about 11,500 years ago. Yet tools older than that have been found in the eastern part of North America, suggesting that the inhabitants who made them also came from the East.
No one claims that prehistoric people could have successfully navigated the open Atlantic, but scientists say they didn’t have to. Early European seafarers could have made it to America by following the seasonal pack ice that connected England to Nova Scotia, dining on sea mammals and waterfowl along the way. In a similar way, Poly-nesian and Asian groups could have reached America from the west via the sea.
The earliest peoples were either killed off or absorbed into the tribes of later arrivals, which begs the question: Are today’s Native Americans really descended from the first arrivals, or from a later wave of settlers? Or is their ancestry really a mix of earlier and later peoples?
Legal action delays answers. Tribes are exercising their rights under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 to claim any excavated remains they view as Native American. Once identified, the remains are reverently reburied and scientists are not permitted to examine them, effectively curtailing the expansion of anthropological knowledge. Given the lack of respect with which Native American remains have often been treated in the past, it isn’t hard to understand why many tribes feel their ancestors are better off in Native American hands. But are the recent finds truly Native American?
Scientists and Native Americans remain split on the issue—and so is the government. In 2000, the Nevada Bureau of Land Management (BLM) stated that there was no cultural, biological, or physical evidence that showed Spirit Caveman was an ancestor of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone tribe that claimed him and wanted to rebury him. In the same year, U.S. secretary of the interior Bruce Babbitt decided that five Indian tribe claimants did have legal right to the Kennewick Man. But neither ruling has actually resolved the issue.
In January 2003, the National Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act advisory committee to the National Park Service made its recommendation. The committee, composed primarily of Native Americans, recommended that the National Park Service recognize that Spirit Caveman is affiliated with and should be handed over to the tribe claiming him. This recommendation spurred the tribe to appeal the original Nevada BLM ruling to the U.S. secretary of the interior, who has sent the responsibility for a determination back to the director of the federal BLM.
In the meantime, the University of California, Davis, originally petitioned the Nevada BLM to allow DNA testing on the mummy, which could settle the question once and for all, in a scientific rather than a political manner. But because of the controversy, the Nevada museum declined to allow testing, and the scientists have withdrawn their request—at least for now.
According to Rochanne Downs, cultural resources director of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone tribe, the tribe is opposed to DNA testing because it would be destructive to the remains. “It’s disrespectful,” she says. “Every burial is sacred. Taking our ancestors out of the ground disrupts their journey.”
As the legal wrangling continues, no research is being allowed on Spirit Caveman, who remains in federal custody in an archival container locked behind three levels of security. Only one person—Scott K. Sisco, Nevada’s interim director of the Department of Cultural Affairs—holds the key to Spirit Caveman, who could himself hold the key to unlocking the mystery of the prehistoric settling of America.
An amateur archaeologist since childhood days, Renee Valois has written numerous articles for national magazines and newspapers as well as television, radio, and the Web. She lives with her mystery-novelist husband and children in the Twin Cities.
More Memorable Mummies
Although Native American mummies are now being treated with respect, other American mummies are another matter. Some are still displayed in bizarre roadside attractions, and their stories are as astonishing as Spirit Caveman’s.
Insane Mummies from a Funny Farmer
In the bathroom of an old train station in Philippi, W.V., two coffins sit on a wooden bench where the toilet used to be. Inside the glass-topped coffins are two mummies. There are no wrappings to conceal the gaunt, discolored flesh, and their names are long forgotten.
But the pair were once residents of the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane. When they died in 1888, no family members claimed the bodies, so they were obtained by a farmer named Graham Hamrick, who was intent on cracking the secrets of the Pharaohs. He had started experimenting with vegetables (after friends dined at his home, he would reveal that the food was years old) and then moved on to preserving animals.
He eagerly used the two corpses to test the embalming recipe he had concocted after reading about the technique in the Bible. The mixture supposedly included water, saltpeter, and absorbable fumes created from the combustion of sublimed sulfur—a less toxic concoction than the arsenic and mercury traditionally used by undertakers.
Museum curator Olivia Sue Lambert says the Smithsonian Institution promised to exhibit one of Hamrick’s amazingly preserved mummies if he would reveal the formula. He was also offered $10,000 for it. But Hamrick refused both offers, and when he died a few years later, he was not mummified as he had requested.
The two mummies, however, persevered. They toured Europe with P.T. Barnum, then they returned to Philippi, where they were exhibited for years at fairs. Eventually they landed in the Barbour County Historical Museum, where you can see them in the former train station’s bathroom for a dollar.
Sylvester, the Murdered Mummy?
Tucked in with the shrunken heads, jackalopes, and mercreatures of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop in Seattle is a mummy that looks so good that experts used to think it was fake—until they examined it via CAT scan at the University of Washington Hospital. Scientists were amazed to discover that the mummy’s organs were intact, and that he had shrunk by only about a third. Most mummies shrivel so much that there’s hardly anything left.
But “Sylvester” weighs more than 100 pounds and appears wet and shiny. Investigators discovered that his unnatural sheen was due to arsenic, which was used near the end of the Civil War to preserve dead officers so they could make it intact to burial back home. Shop owner Andy James says that when the mummy was bought from a woman decades ago in California, she said it had been found in 1895 in the desert by wandering cowboys. Supposedly, the hot dry sands had naturally mummified the corpse.
Instead, experts now believe someone embalmed the corpse in the 19th century and then decided to make a buck by exhibiting it. But the identity of the mummy remains a mystery—as do the circumstances of the man’s death.
James says the investigators discovered a piece of bullet in the mummy, which they believe bounced off a rib and punctured his lung. But we may never know whether “Sylvester” was an innocent victim or an outlaw who met his end—but refused to disappear.
No Dummy of a Mummy
During filming of a scene for the television series “The Six Million Dollar Man” in 1976, a worker tried to move a dummy dangling from the ceiling of a fun house because it didn’t look right. But it looked even worse when the arm came off and a human bone could be seen poking out. Everyone—including the fun house owners—had thought the figure was made of papier-mâché, but an autopsy showed that the man had been shot and then embalmed in arsenic. It took a while to unravel the mystery of the mummy’s identity and his long, strange journey to Long Beach, Calif.
Apparently, Elmer McCurdy was born in 1880 and quickly began a life of not-so-successful crime. During one train robbery, he overestimated the amount of explosives needed to open a safe, blasting a hole in the side of the train and transforming thousands of dollars in silver coins into a molten mess. McCurdy and his cohorts couldn’t chip much off the walls and floor before their humiliated getaway.
During his final heist, McCurdy and his crew robbed the wrong train and made off with less than $50. A local newspaper derisively described the haul as “one of the smallest in the history of bank-robbing.” McCurdy refused to surrender to the posse that tracked him to a hayloft and subsequently was killed in the shoot-out.
No one claimed the outlaw’s embalmed body, so the mortician decided to prop it in the corner of the mortuary with a gun in its hand and charged visitors five cents to gawk at “the bandit who wouldn’t give up.”
Eventually two men showed up, claiming McCurdy was their beloved brother. But instead of giving him a long-overdue burial, they made McCurdy a star in their traveling carnival. By the time he was sold many years later, his identity and even his humanity had been lost. When the mummy (by now believed to be a dummy) was sold to a haunted house near Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, it was soon rejected, ironically enough, for being insufficiently “lifelike.”
The mummy’s last stop was the fun house. After McCurdy was finally identified, he was flown to a cemetery in Oklahoma. Two cubic yards of cement were poured over the coffin to ensure that the mummy’s traveling days were over.—R.V.