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.”
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.
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.
Goya’s Coded Love Letter to the Duchess of Alba
Goya neatly clothes himself in his own world of fantasy: He will have her in the end. In life, where the climate is much chillier, it was, alas, to be otherwise.
Witches Take Over Westchester
Bowen’s multimedia art is an alchemical mix of the sensuous and arcane, and it is more than a little witchy.
The Public Theater Explores the Hurricane Katrina Diaspora in shadow/land
Written by Erika Dickerson-Despenza and directed by Candis C. Jones, this lyrical meditation on legacy, erotic fugitivity, and self-determination is on view in NYC.
14 Art Books and Catalogues We’re Reading This Month
Anthologies and catalogues on feminist art in Latin America, Native mound building, Armenian photography, and more are on our reading list.
Saudi Arabia Announces $1M “Freedom of Expression” Art Award
Kanye West, Roman Polanski, and Carl Andre are among the shortlisted artists.
The Rubin Museum Presents Death Is Not the End
Tibetan Buddhist and Christian works of art made across 12 centuries explore death, the afterlife, and the desire to continue to exist. On view in NYC.
British Museum Offers Greece “Exclusive NFT” of the Parthenon Marbles
“With the power of blockchain technology, there will be no question who the real owner is,” said a British Museum spokesperson.
MoMA to Co-Curate Exhibition With NYPD
Arrest Me, Daddy hopes to cast a more positive light on the work of law enforcement officers.
When I Am Empty Please Dispose of Me Properly
Ayanna Dozier, Ilana Harris-Babou, Meena Hasan, Lucia Hierro, Catherine Opie, Chuck Ramirez, and Pacifico Silano explore the myths of the American Dream at Brooklyn’s BRIC House.
Repatriation-Inspired Fragrance Line Hopes to Heal Collector Wounds
The exotic scents of the Rapatriement line offer solace and joy to dismayed collectors who were forced to return looted artifacts.
Mediocre Painting Thought AI-Generated Revealed as Work of Real Artist
Visitors who spoke to Hyperallergic said they were “horrified” to learn that a human could come up with such a banal and poorly executed artwork.
Pratt’s 2023 Fine Arts MFA Thesis Exhibition Is On View in Brooklyn
The two-part exhibition features the work of 41 graduating artists across disciplines, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, and integrated practices.
Prince Harry to Star in New Van Gogh Biopic
The estranged prince said he took the role to raise awareness of mental health issues.
Newly Discovered Trove of Vermeer Works Reveals He Painted Mainly Dogs
A cache of 243 paintings found in an English castle, all depicting canine subjects, suggests Vermeer’s true aspiration was to become a dog portraitist.