Spirit Cave Man: An Overview

The term “Spirit Cave Man” refers to the partially-mummified remains of a Paleo-Indian who lived near what is now Fallon, Nevada, about 10,600 years ago – the oldest mummified remains ever found in North America.

The body rested in a shallow grave in a rock shelter near Grimes Point. Two Nevada archaeologists found the burial while examining the site in 1940. His antiquity was not known until 1994 when scientists at the University of California, Riverside, dated his hair samples at 9,400 Carbon-14 years, equivalent to about 10,600 calendar years before the present.

Anthropologists argued that Spirit Cave Man provides clues to the founding population of North America and wanted to do further testing. Some Nevada Indians countered that the man is their ancestor and under federal law must be returned to the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone tribe for reburial. Today the remains are kept in an annex of the Nevada State Museum while the controversy continues.

In the 1990s, scientists studied the remains with X-rays and computer scans, built models of his head, reconstructed his facial features in clay, analyzed his dried excrement, and examined pollen and other materials found with the burial. They determined that the man was about 45 years old when he died, a ripe old age for the time. He and his clan lived in a marsh at the edges of a receding lake, later to be known as Lake Lahontan. His people caught fish, harvested edible plants, and used stone points to hunt animals. His body had been wrapped in a blanket made of rabbit fur and a mat made of native hemp fibers. He wore moccasins with leather soles and marmot hide tops.

He had a partially-healed skull fracture that stretched from the left front of his skull to behind his left ear. Two fractures spread out from a circular indentation in his skull, as though he had been hit with a blunt object, like a club or a rounded stone. Shortly before he died, three teeth became infected and probably led to blood poisoning. His people cared for him, as evidenced by the ground-up fish remains still in his stomach. He died shortly after that meal.

Clan members carried his body to a hillside where shallow caves dotted the landscape. They dug a grave and placed him inside a rock shelter later known as Spirit Cave. He was laid on his right side with his hand resting beneath his chin. Two sets of remains, buried later, were found with him.

Based on his skull features, some anthropologists theorized that Spirit Cave Man may represent a population not related to any modern Native American tribe. In 2015 scientists reported results of DNA tests on another set of remains, called Kennewick Man, a partial skeleton dated to 9,460 years before the present. The analysis showed that the DNA of that individual contains sub-groups shared by modern Native Americans. That indicates Kennewick Man may represent some modern tribes’ ancestors after all.

No DNA tests have been done on Spirit Cave Man’s remains so it isn’t known whether his DNA profile is similar to Kennewick Man’s.

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