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Scientists reveal the origin of the world's oldest natural mummy

The Spirit Cave mummy, found in 1940, was at the center of a legal battle between a Native American tribe and anthropologists.


Skulls and other human remains from PW Lund's collection from Lagoa Santa, Brazil, kept in the Natural History Museum of Denmark.

Natural History Museum of Denmark

Ancient DNA sequencing has definitively shown that the world's oldest natural mummy -- a 10,700-year-old skeleton discovered in Nevada nearly 80 years ago -- was Native American.

While tracing the migrations of ancient humans through the Americas, a team led by Eske Willerslev, professor in ecology and evolution at the University of Cambridge, confirmed that the "Spirit Cave mummy", the oldest mummy found in North America, is an ancient ancestor of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone tribe.

The mummy, a 40-year-old male at time of death, was first discovered in 1940 by Sydney and George Wheeler in a dry cave in Nevada, wrapped in a blanket and matting made of reeds. The arid conditions had helped preserve the remains, with the head remaining completely intact, and the remains were moved to the Nevada State Museum.

In 1996, radiocarbon dating showed that the remains were approximately 9,400 years old, making it the oldest mummy in North America. A year later, the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone tribe made a claim to repatriate the bones but were originally denied access to the remains. After obtaining permission from the tribe, Willerslev conducted genetic analysis of the bones in 2016 showing that the mummy was most closely related to Native Americans. As a result, the body was handed over to the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe and reburied.

The findings come as part of a much larger international study that traced the historical movement of humans through North and South America. Extensive DNA analysis of human remains, aged between 600 and 12,000 years, found across the Americas showed that humans quickly moved across the continents during the Ice Age 13,000 years ago.

Comparing the DNA profiles, and looking for similarities, in the ancient remains found from Alaska to Patagonia helped the research team understand how humans moved through the region in ancient history. A second study, published in Cell Thursday, studied genetic changes over the last 11,000 years, finding genetic relationships between samples from Chile, Brazil and those found in Montana from similar time periods.

Based on the analysis, the new research suggests humans dispersed rapidly across both North and South America some 10,000 years ago.

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