Mummy in Nevada oldest on continent Age fixed at 9,400 years by radiocarbon analysis

April 28, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CARSON CITY, Nev. -- Anthropologists at the Nevada State Museum say they have found the oldest known mummy in North America -- and they found it right on their own shelves.

The mummy, known as the Spirit Cave man, had been found in a Nevada cave in 1940, but recent advances in radiocarbon dating allowed scientists to determine, to their amazement, that the remains they had thought dated back about 2,000 years were in fact more than 9,400 years old.

The mummy's great age and excellent state of preservation will provide critical information about life at the end of the ice age, including an unsuspected sophisticated level of textile weaving and clues to the identity of some of the continent's earliest settlers, anthropologists said.

"We anticipate that this will bear greatly on what we know about the peopling of the new world," said Amy Dansie, an anthropologist at the museum.

The Spirit Cave man is only a partial mummy -- mainly the skin of his head and shoulder were mummified -- but he provides a wealth of information.

He was wrapped in shrouds woven from marsh plants so neatly that they indicate the use of looms. The fish bones in his mummified intestines say much about his diet.

The mummy is expected to undergo intensive testing, including possible DNA analysis, that will help determine its genetic makeup and ancient environment of the Great Basin, which covers mainly Nevada and Utah.

The Spirit Cave man's age was determined by Ervin Taylor, an anthropology professor at the University of California at Riverside, who was working on a new method of testing ancient hair using a technique known as accelerator mass spectrometry, which allows scientists to count carbon atoms.

When the results on the mummy first came in, anthropologists thought they must be mistaken, Ms. Dansie said, and they had additional tests done on the textiles buried with it to be sure.

"It's a big surprise," said Robson Bonnichsen, director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans and a professor of anthropology at Oregon State University.

"It's a very pleasant surprise. This individual will provide real insight into what the people of the time looked like and what lifestyle they had."

The Spirit Cave man was discovered by two archaeologists, S. M. and Georgia Wheeler, a couple who was working for the state of Nevada; they died without knowing the magnitude of their find.

The Spirit Cave man was about 5 feet 2 inches tall, was in his 40s, had a fractured skull and suffered from horrible abscesses of his tooth roots that indicate he had terrible gum disease, anthropologists say.

Aside from the Spirit Cave man's state of preservation, it is the astoundingly intact textiles, woven with a method known as diamond-plaiting, that were found with him that are causing the most excitement.

"What's remarkable about it is the textiles are in an amazing state of preservation," said Ronald M. James, Nevada's state historic preservation officer. "One bag you could easily accuse them of having bought at a market in Arizona last year."

Pub Date: 4/28/96

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