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Case Study: Spirit Cave Man

March 20th, 2013

Skeletons in the Closet:

A Blog about Ethical Handling and Storage of Human Remains in the Conservation Community

Case Study: Spirit Cave Man

Eva Falls

            Throughout the previous three blogs I have covered legalities, handling, and display issues surrounding human remains.  Now, let’s examine a case study where human remains ownership was contested in court. 

            Spirit Cave Man, the oldest North American mummy to date, was excavated in 1940 by SM and George Wheeler in Spirit Cave, Nevada.  When archaeologists decided to do extensive testing on the remains in the mid 1990’s, the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe claimed Spirit Cave Man as one of their ancestors and tried to reclaim the remains under NAGPRA.  This petition did halt invasive testing until the matter could be investigated.  Because the remains date to around 9419 BCE, Spirit Cave Man is extremely far removed temporally from the present day tribe.  The tribe’s stance was that they have been in this area since the beginning of time according to their oral histories.  Archaeological evidence does show a long continuous occupation at the site, but the Bureau of Land Management ruled in 2000 that there was insufficient evidence for tribal affiliation. The remains are currently owned by the government.  (Gregory 2007)

As of 2006, the courts have decided to send the case back to the Bureau of Land Management for further review (Friends of America’s Past 2009).  This particular mummy will remain tied up in legal battles for the foreseeable future.  Conservators must be vigilant to ensure the storage, handling, and records keeping for Spirit Cave Man are up to date as possible and are being handled in a professional and sensitive manner.  It is the conservator’s duty to ensure the remains are in the best possible condition whenever the courts and the Bureau of Land Management make their final decision.

Works Cited

Gregory, Cheryl A. 2007. “Spirit Cave Man: A Body of Contention.” Human Remains: Guide for Museums and Academic Institutions. Cassman, Vicki, Nancy Odegaard, and Joseph Powell ed. AltaMira Press. Lanham: 256-258.

 Friends of America’s Past. 2009. “Spirit Cave Man.” < http://www.friendsofpast.org/spirit-cave/> Accessed: 3/4/2013.

General Conservation

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