Spirit Cave Mummy

It is now October, and Halloween is quickly approaching.  This means tricks, treats, and a lot of scary monsters.  One such monster is the infamous mummy! While mummies are usually associated with the cloth wrapped ones in the pyramids of Egypt, mummies can be found all over the world.  The United States has its own share of mummies including the Spirit Cave Mummy found in the 1940s in Nevada.  What distinguishes the Spirit Cave Mummy from those of Egypt is that it is a natural mummy, meaning that humans did not dehydrate and preserve this person as they do in Egypt.  In fact, radiocarbon dates determined that the Spirit Cave Mummy is 10,600 years old making it the oldest naturally created mummy.  While his age is extremely interesting for archaeology, it is actually his DNA and the issues surrounding his repatriation to the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe that are most informative.

Spirit Cave has long been claimed as ancestral land by the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe of Nevada.  The discovery of a set of mummified remains in this cave would further their claim on the land.  The mummy, discovered by Georgia and Sydney Wheeler in 1940, was determined a 40-year-old male who

Drawing of the Spirit Cave Mummy as he was discovered.

was wrapped in a rabbit-skin blanket and reed mats.  He was also wearing moccasins and associated with three other individual remains all of which were either cremated or partial.  Originally the Wheelers dated the remains to be 1,500-2,000 years ago, however, carbon dating revealed that they dated back to 10,600 years ago. Of course, the tribe wanted both the remains and associated artifacts to be returned for reburial.  According to the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the tribe should have been given the remains back. However, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) decided against this action in 2000.  In 2006, the tribe sued the government but all that led to was the US District Court ordering BLM to reconsider their decision.

The mummy was stored in the Nevada

DNA sequencing project conducted on various controversial remains throughout North America

museum and only available for limited research to determine ancestry.  Anthropologists Douglas Owsley and Richard Jantz examined the remains and only determined that the mummy’s skull was a different shape than current First Nations people’s.  The BML, with reluctant agreement from the Tribe, decided to allow DNA analysis to be conducted.  In 2015, evolutionary geneticist Eske Willerslev from the Natural History Museum of Denmark conducted the analysis and discovered that the mummy was more closely related to modern North and South American indigenous groups than another other modern population.  The remains were repatriated to the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone in 2016 and given a private burial in 2018.

Evolutionary geneticist Eske Willersley talking to two members of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe

While valuable information about the movement of early humans in the Americas was gained through the DNA analysis of the Spirit Cave Mummy, it brings up an important issue surrounding the implementation of NAGPRA.  NAGPRA states that human remains should be returned to tribes who have a geographical association with the burial.  Even more DNA, the tribe had claim to the remains and the remains should have been returned when the tribe requested the action.  However, the problem with repatriating remains as old as the mummy is that it is difficult to prove that they are in fact First Nation.  We know so little about the early inhabitants of the continent that it is possible some remains discovered are entirely unrelated to the modern First Nations.  This problem was easily remedied through DNA analysis and the technique is likely to be employed on other controversial remains.  But the next question is does DNA relation to modern people actually matter in such a context?  The Spirit Cave Mummy’s DNA showed that he was actually more closely related to peoples from South America.  While some might say it does if the person is actually a relative, others may believe that everyone who inhabited the land before them is their ancestor.  This question is better left to the tribes.

Sources: https://www.history.com/news/oldest-mummy-discovery-spirit-cave-shoshone; https://www.nature.com/news/north-america-s-oldest-mummy-returned-to-us-tribe-after-genome-sequencing-1.21108; https://www.biotechniques.com/news/resolving-lawsuits-and-revealing-humanitys-genomic-history/

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REAL Destruction

Location of the border wall along the south border of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge

Border wall location: Source NY Times

Many readers are likely aware of the construction of a border wall taking place along the boundary of the Organ Pipe National Monument.  While construction and infrastructure expansion are an inevitable part of society and has the potential to impact archaeological sites, this construction project has completely negated all cultural and environmental resources legislation and is currently destroying culturally sacred sites to the local Native American Tribes.  Normally, such projects go through a survey process laid out in the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 to identify and mitigate damage to potentially important archaeological sites.  However, the REAL ID Act of 2005 allows the Secretary of Homeland Security to waive all local, state, and federal laws that would impacts construction along the border, negating all the efforts of past government officials to protect not only cultural resources and descendant communities, but also the environment and protected federal lands.

Numerous groups such as SAA

The Border wall going through Monument Hill Arizona. Source: Tuscon.com

and the Sierra Club have condemned the act and the actions following its approval.  SAA detailed their grievances in a letter to Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad F. Wolf demanding that all construction efforts cease until proper compliance regulations are completed (Link to letter here).  The construction has thus far destroyed many archaeological sites, sacred Native American burial grounds, and is currently threatening an oasis site which is not only sacred to the Tohono O’odham people but also of natural importance.  The project is using explosives to level Monument Hill, a burial location for Apache warriors.  Not only did the REAL ID Act of 2005 threaten irreplaceable resources, but it also threatens the checks and balances foundation of our government, give the Secretary of Homeland Security power over any law.

Image of Monument Hill showing a dust cloud from an explosion

Explosives being used on Monument Hill likely destroying burials. Source: azcentral.com

It is not only national and international organizations that have condemned these actions, but also news media outlets such as the Washington Post, The New York Times, NPR, and Smithsonian Magazine have also reported on the construction of this 30-foot high wall.  The lack of respect toward remains and burial grounds is not only morally abhorrent but completely goes against the principles of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, one of the many acts subverted Homeland Security.  All the laws in place that have been waives for this wall exist for a very good reason.  They are meant to protect human rights, culture, the environment, and endangered species while also allowing for infrastructure expansion.  These laws work in harmony with construction projects not against them.  Amazing things can happen if those at the top simply understand why these so-called blocks on progress exist, how they work, and their actual impact on construction projects.  They do not stop construction or prevent the destruction of all sites.  What they do is mitigate damage in creative and efficient ways.  This might mean a full-scale excavation of the impacted area, or a rerouting of a road, or it could be simply recording what is found and proceeding with the project as planned.  Archaeologists and environmentalists are here to help infrastructure not prevent it.

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Decolonization of Archaeology

Collaborating in Archaeological Practice by Chip Colwell-Chanthaphohn and T.J. Ferguson

There is a commonly known phrase that states that history is written by the victors.  In the case of archaeology, history is written by the research which in many cases is someone outside of the culture being researched.  Many times, especially in European archaeological investigations, archaeologists are studying ancient civilizations that are no longer in existence.  However, in the United States (and across the Americas) archaeologists investigate the cultures and ancestors of living descendant communities.  Early American archaeologists were Western antiquarians who collected artifacts and researched monuments and graves in order to discover the history of their newly claimed lands.  The public wanted their new home to have a similar historical depth to it as their former European homes.  This research often involved excavating of graves and looting the grave good and human remains.  Thomas Jefferson, the father of American Archaeology, investigated the mounds near his home to discover who actually constructed them.  While this investigation did conclude that ancestors of the present Native Americans were the builders, he completely ignored the importance of the mounds to the current population.  He claims to have seen tribes gathered around the mounds but then continues to excavate what appears to be child graves without any concern for the tribe’s feelings.

Decolonizing Methodologies by Linda Tuhiwai Smith

That lack of interest in descendant communities’ cultures, feelings, ideals, and practices relating to the archaeological sites continued until the 1960s when indigenous communities began to protest sites and archaeology.  Because of these efforts, there are now laws that require consultation with Native American tribes throughout the archaeological process and enforce respect for their beliefs especially in regard to burials.  Unfortunately, these laws only go so far, and the histories of these descendant communities are still interpreted from a Western point of view.  While some people may argue that modern archaeologists attempt to interpret their finds without that Western bias, this is just not possible.  Interpretations are directly influenced but experience, culture, and ideals in which the individual lives.  With that in mind, those most qualified to interpret history is those whose history is being interpreted, meaning that indigenous people should be interpreting indigenous archaeology.  However, because archaeology is dominated by the European ethic groups who colonized the Americas, it is not possible for only those of the same background as the research subjects to interpret their material culture.  This idea also perpetuated the idea that only certain people can study certain subjects.

Access Link: https://montpelier-documents.s3.amazonaws.com/Interpreting%20Slavery%2010-30-18.pdf

The best way to combat the colonization of archaeology, is not to simply consult with indigenous populations but to directly involve them in the research.  Indigenous populations (and other descendant communities) should ask and influence research questions, guide the excavations, determine what can and cannot be excavated, and play large roles in the dissemination of information.  Participatory research also prevents the descendants from being and feeling like purely test subjects rather than active players in their own history.  They have the opportunity to answer their own questions, not just accept the answers to other people’s questions.  In the end the people who are the least bias toward history are those who are descendant from that history.  While this post has a focus on indigenous communities, participatory archaeology can be done or all descendant communities throughout the Americas and the world.

This is a tall order that will take a lot of effort to accomplish.  Not every individual in a descendant community will be active or responsive to archaeology regardless of their inclusion.  By also involving them in the public aspect, more individuals, both descendant and non-, may gain a new perspective and appreciation for the history in their own backyard.

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Atalay, Sonya

2006    Indigenous Archaeology as Decolonizing Practice. American Indian Quarterly Special Issue Decolonizing Archaeology 30(3/4): 280-310

SAA Archaeological Record May 2010 Volume 10 Number 3 


It is no secret that since the colonization of America, that the government has not treated First Nation tribes with the respect and fairness due to them.  Early settlers forcibly took land from the tribes already living here.  As time progressed, the government became involved in the disruption of First Nations People.  One of the most devastating government acts was the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which led to the Trail of Tears as Native Americans were forced from their homes in the eastern US to Oklahoma.

Although US-Tribal relations have improved since the 1830s, Tribes today still struggle to fight against discrimination, voter suppression, poverty, and lack of respect, all a legacy of colonization and western expansion.  For example, federal recognition is a major milestone in tribes gaining sovereignty as a nation but can be very difficult to obtain.  The tribe must prove that its members are direct descendants from one or more tribes throughout history and that they maintain their own governance of their members.  The tribe must provide documentation of membership and their government such as a constitution.  One of the more complicated criteria is that the tribe must be able to prove that they have maintained their identity as “American Indian” or “Aboriginal” from their beginning to the present.  This might appear to be simple but the Brothertown Tribe is finding this to be very complicated.

The Brothertown Tribe was created by member of many different tribes of the Northeast known as the praying tribes.  They are currently trying to become a recognized tribe but are having difficulties due to their previous adoption of European materials and ways of life.  An archaeological survey, conducted by Craig Cipolla of the University of Pennsylvania, of Brothertown sites sought to aid in connecting the current tribe to their ancestral identity.   However, according to the Office of Indian Affairs in 2009, the archaeological investigation proved that the tribe showed little evidence of maintaining an identity as Native American.  While the tribe did adopt Christianity, built a Methodist church, and lived on farms similar to those of European settlers, this does not mean that they do not identify as Native American.  In 1839 the members of the Brothertown tribe were given US citizenship and land.  By signing this citizenship act, the members were no longer tribe members in the eyes of the government and therefore did not need protection.  They lost their tribal recognition. Although, they lost recognition and their identity in a legal sense, they did not lose their personal identities as Brothertown Tribe members.


Brothertown Members still practice traditional crafts including beading

Archaeologists must recognize that their excavations, publications, and work can impact the public and the group they are researching.  In the case of the Brothertown Tribe, the negative and incomplete research was misinterpreted to deny a tribe recognition.  As well, what exactly makes up an identity needs to be considered.  While the government may say that the Brothertown Tribe does not identify as a Native American tribe because of their settlement style and material culture, the members of the tribe to identify as Brothertown.  They are still working on becoming recognized today.



For more information about the Brothertown Tribe see: http://brothertownindians.org  and PBS

The requirements for Federal Recognition can be read here.


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What’s in a Name?

Names are very important to a person’s identity.  Anyone who has a unique name or spelling understands the feeling that comes when your name is pronounced for spelled wrong.  It doesn’t feel like your name.  It isn’t you.  This is a very common problem among the Native American people.  Throughout history their tribal names have been created more by outsiders than by the people themselves.  Many of the tribal names we know of today are names that were given to these people and not their true names or identities.  For example, the name Anasazi commonly associated with the people of Mesa Verde in Colorado is derived from a Navajo term which is often translated to “enemy ancestors”.  This was likely not the intention of those naming the now dubbed Ancestral Pueblo, it has a very negative meaning.  The term Ancestral Pueblo, while accepted as a better name, does not adequately communicate the ancestral history of the Pueblo people or the far-reaching influence of the Ancestral Puebloans.


Along with tribal names a major discussion is in the terminology used to describe the Native American People as a whole.  These names are also impressed upon them and often used in discrimination and oppression of identity.  The first name given to the inhabitants of this land was Indian or American Indian.  This was due to Christopher Columbus’ error in thinking he had reached the Indies.  The term is widely accepted and used because of its age.  But is an incorrect description of the people it refers to.  In the 1960s political correctness came into vogue as well as a unifying sense of having one American identity.  During this time there was a trend of hyphenating original identities with “American”.  Thus, you get African-American, Irish-American, and Native-American.  Again, although widely accepted and used this term is problematic because it forces the original population into a foreign and colonized identity.  As well, “Native” has two distinct and opposing meanings.  The first is that is refers to the original inhabitants which is correct.  However, European use of the word changed it to represent a primitive or ignorant culture which in and of itself is ignorant.

So, what should we call the original inhabitants of the United States?  We should call them what they want to be called. In the 1970s inhabitants of Canada decided to start using the term First Nation but this has gained little traction and has no legal standing yet.  In general, when referring to Native Americans/First Nation People, you should use their tribal affiliation over the generalized term.  However, as stated earlier, many of these names were given by outsiders or enemy tribes.  Sioux and Apache are corruptions of words meaning “enemy”.  With such complicated nomenclature, it is also better and respectful to ask what name a person would prefer.

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In 1986, President Ronald Reagan issued a proclamation making November 23-30, 1986, American Indian Week.  Since then, each president has proclaimed the entire month of November to be Native American Heritage Month.  It is important to understand and respect Native American heritage and cultural traditions, especially has an archaeologist.  Archaeologists have extremely close interactions with Native American culture through their work.  We excavate their villages, identify their material culture, and try our best to preserve their heritage and work with First Nation communities in our work.

Archaeology in the past has not treated Native Americans very well.  The first American Archaeologist Thomas Jefferson destroyed sacred mounds that were thought to have been build by more civilized and advanced people.  The abuse was not isolated to the destruction of their sacred sites but also their ways of life.  In 1838, the Cherokee were forcibly removed from their traditional homes to an Indian Territory through a marched known as the trail of tears.  During this time many treaties between the tribes and government were signed a broken resulting in many conflicts.  Like other marginalized groups, Native American were given the right to vote late in US history.  However, when states began to require voter ID card with permanent street addresses, many Native American, who had PO box addresses, were again not able to vote and express their rights as citizens of the US.

Painting depiction of the Trail of Tears

 Bison geoglyph found in Iowa

The best way for archaeologists to help is to consult with the tribes before and throughout the life of a project.  Section 106 of the National Preservation Act of 1966 requires archaeological survey and consultation with Native American Tribes.  However, these requirements should not be simple check marks on a form.  To have the most effect consultation needs to be done throughout a project. A great example of how consulting throughout a project can make a difference is when the Iowa Department of Transportation discovered unique Native American geoglyphs while building a highway in 2013.  The Tribes were involved in every step and the highway was able to be redirected around the features.  For more about this project watch this video.

November may be Native American Heritage Month, but their heritage and traditions should be thought of throughout the year and during every project.  Years of prosecution and neglect has already limited the number of sites and strained trust between the tribes, government, and archaeologists.  We are working to preserve everything we can and regain that trust but it is a long and complicated road.




For more visit these sites:



Pueblo Voices

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