Caves at Grimes Point, Nevada, near the discovery site of the Spirit Cave mummy (2010) (photo by psyberartist/Flickr)

On November 23, the US Department of the Interior announced that, as of five days prior, the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Indian Tribe had control over the human remains and funerary artifacts uncovered in 1940 in Nevada’s Spirit Cave. Previously, this control had been held by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and its transfer to the tribe came after years of legal battles. The remains in question include, significantly, the Spirit Cave mummy, the oldest known mummy from North America. The 10,600-year-old man was found shrouded in woven reed mats and a rabbit-skin blanket in August 1940 in a cave east of Fallon, Nevada, near Grimes Point (the exact location is protected by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979).

In a release, US Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell stated:

Returning the remains and objects found at Spirit Cave to the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe is an example of the Administration’s commitment to work with Native American governments in coming together to resolve issues.

BLM Director Neil Kornze added that his organization has “consulted extensively with the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe in recent years regarding the Spirit Cave Assemblage” and “are pleased that we have found resolution for transfer of the remains and objects and are able to hand over these important cultural items to the Tribe.”

Petroglyph at Grimes Point, Nevada (2012) (photo by Pi3.124/Wikimedia)

Nature reported in December that “genetic analysis has proved that the skeleton is more closely related to contemporary Native Americans than to other global populations.” The journal also noted that some scientists were not enthused by the decision, including anthropologist and Spirit Cave researcher Richard Jantz, who said it was “just a sad day for science. We will lose a lot of information about the history of human occupation in the Americas as a consequence.” While genetic analysis and carbon dating have provided an impressive amount of data on the mummy, there may still more to study in these rare remains from an incredibly early human period in North America.

The Spirit Cave mummy was not the only ancient human consigned to a Native American tribe in 2016. The November decision followed one concerning the 9,000-year-old Kennewick Man, who was identified in 1996 in Washington and transferred in September to the Columbia River tribes for reinterment. Both of these people were once kept in museum storage, with the Spirit Cave Mummy at the Nevada State Museum and the Kennewick Man at the Burke Museum in Seattle.

No one knew that the Spirit Cave mummy, resting in a sealed box on museum shelves, was so old until the 1990s. Archaeologists Sydney and Georgia Wheeler were working for the Nevada State Parks Commission in the early 1940s to examine an area of the Northern Nevada Desert being wrecked by guano mining. They found a partially mummified man who they thought was between 1,500 and 2,000 years old. He was one of two burials wrapped in tule reed matting in the cave, joined by some 67 artifacts.

Like so many discoveries made in museums, it took the right moment of scientific attention and technology to reveal that the mummy was actually 10,600 years old. In 1994, the remains were carbon dated, giving the Spirit Cave mummy his status as the oldest North American mummy. Both of the Wheelers died before the significance of their find was revealed.

Cave Trail at Grimes Point, Nevada (photo by Jonathanking/Wikimedia)

The Paiute-Shoshone Tribe’s first claim of cultural affiliation with the mummy came in 1997, under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Until 2016, the tribe had no success. For example, a 2000 determination by the BLM stated that “the remains from Spirit Cave are unaffiliated with any modern individual, tribe, or other group and are therefore culturally unidentified.”

As Samuel J. Redman chronicles in his 2016 book Bone Rooms, there was a real frenzy to exhume remains from the American West in the 19th and early 20th centuries, often with little regard for the indigenous people who lived in these areas. “At almost every turn, however, the grand vision laid out by the early founders of these collections — who claimed that secrets of racial evolution would be laid bare in the scientific examination of human bodies — seemed to veer further off course,” Redman writes. “Grave robbing, scientific racism, and ethnocentrism ultimately damaged the reputations of museums and scientists on a global scale.”

The removal of the Spirit Cave mummy came a little while after this craze, and the Kennewick Man much later, yet both cases highlight the ongoing need for American museums to address the issue of human remains in their collections. The process of returning these remains has been slow. For instance, the Smithsonian Institution repatriated the brain of Ishi, a Yahi Indian, only in 2000; the Field Museum waited until 2014 to return three Tasmanian Aboriginal remains acquired in the 19th century. The transfers of the Spirit Cave mummy and the Kennewick Man may indicate a shift in institutional attitudes. They’re also reminders of the continued debate between guarding human remains for science and cultural respect.

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...