Though Science Sometimes Takes Time, The Consequences Can Be Spectacular
In the heat of a Nevada summer, Georgia and S.M. Wheeler explored rockshelters in the sun-baked Carson Sink area. The couple hoped to find archaeological sites providing evidence that people had lived there during the period when Pleistocene Lake Lahontan was receding from its maximum level approximately 10,500 years ago. Their work for the Nevada State Parks Commission ultimately documented 26 caves and shelters, most containing archaeological materials.
They debated whether a cleft in bluff they had seen many times before might be worth a look. Possibly not, but they decided to investigate. It was a mile from the nearest roadway to the little cave, which faced toward the west. The day was Aug. 11, 1940.
After trudging through hot sand and scrambling over the rock terraces left by the ancient lake, they probably were disappointed by what they found. The cave was no more than five feet high, 25 feet wide, and barely 15 feet deep. It offered a little shade and was protected from rain or run-off, but it wouldn't have sheltered much of a living space. Ceiling and walls were covered with the tufa--calcium carbonate deposits left by evaporation of waters from the ancient lake--and there was little evidence that there had been fires in the cave.
S.M. was ready to head back to their station wagon, but Georgia protested. They had walked all that way, so why not put in a test pit?
Her husband relented. In a report published years later, he described the scene: "On the left, as we looked in, a slightly raised portion of the floor was bordered by a quarter circle of rocks, which extended from near the center of the rear wall to the north wall just inside of the entrance."
Georgia Wheeler Excavates
He decided to explore the inner room while she started to excavate within the area enclosed by the arc of rocks. There, amid the delvings of rabbits and other animals, they made a truly remarkable discovery.
"The first foot revealed no evidence of occupancy, just dry, wind-blown sand. Under this she laid bare a portion of what had been a large mat, very finely twined, with the warp of split tules and the weft of native hemp cord. When completely uncovered, this was found to be wrapped around a few human bones, all that remained of some early Nevadan." Underneath this carefully made bag of remains lay irrefutable proof of what they were hoping to find. Humans had been there in the ancient past.
"Immediately under this was another large mat of tules, the warp held together with rows of tule twining about five inches apart." They enlarged their pit to uncover the complete mat and they saw they had a second burial that was a much more significant discovery that the first. "The wrappings were nearly perfect." Their excavation turned out to be six feet long, four feet wide, and more than three feet deep.
"It was lined with sagebrush on which the mortuary bundle was deposited, and then covered with more brush." They found the head of the burial at a depth of two feet, four inches, slightly higher than the hips. "The upper part of the pit had been filled with rocks, which the wind eventually concealed with find sand." The intrusive upper burial had been laid onto the covering of the earlier one.
Excellent State of Preservation
The lower burial was intact and in an excellent state of preservation. The upper part of the body actually was partly mummified; some hair and scalp remained on the head, and its leather moccasins, rabbit-skin blanket, and burial mats were in good condition. The person had been placed on his left side with his knees flexed upward to the level of his hips.
The Wheelers carefully excavated and removed the mummy, designated as Burial 2, and then faced the problem of getting this precious treasure back to their station wagon. "With the assistance of Fallon residents, we were able to accomplish this without doing any damage to the specimen," Wheeler reported.
Not long afterward, they learned disappointing news about the apparent age of the individual. M. R. Harrington, curator of the Southwest Museum, placed the age of the burial at approximately 1,500 to 2,000 years. Burial 2 could not have dated to the time Lake Lahontan was drying up. Thus they did not have verification that people had lived beside the Pleistocene Lake.
Awaiting Radiocarbon Dating
Because their discovery was made in 1940, the archaeologists had to accept expert opinion--the advent of radiocarbon dating was still more than a decade away. The mummy was placed in a well-crafted wooden box. Cataloged and curated in the security of the Nevada State Museum in Carson City, it remained awaiting the proper time for study as part of the long-term project on Lahontan Basin prehistory.
That time came when R. Ervin Taylor of University of California Riverside Radiocarbon Laboratory began experiments to determine if it is feasible to date hairs recovered from archaeological sites. Dr. Taylor contacted Donald R. Tuohy at the Nevada State Museum to ask if the museum had any mummies with hair on their heads. Assured that such samples were available, Taylor went to Carson City to obtain the hairs and take bone samples selected by the museum staff to test procedures and results.
One of the mummies Taylor took samples from was the Wheelers' Burial 2, presumed about 2,000 years old. The testing procedure called for taking a small sample of bone to date in comparison with the date obtained from a hair. Curiously, Taylor's lab got results indicating Burial 2 dated to the early Holocene, more than 9,000 years ago. Had something gone wrong? Taylor and his lab colleagues at UC Riverside decided to investigate further.
After conferring with the Nevada State Museum's Tuohy and Amy Dansie, they decided to see if the woven mats also would yield dates as old as had hair and bone samples. It was not a straightforward task because the mats had been kept preserved with mothballs for more than half a century. To get an accurate date from the plant materials, the naphthalene would have to be removed from samples. Richard Burky, a student in Taylor's lab, proposed treating the mats as they had the bone and the hair--a complex, technical procedure in which the amino acides were extracted, then dated by accelerator mass spectrometry, or AMS.
The Wheelers HAD Succeeded
Dates from samples of the two burial mats were almost identical to dates for hair and bone. The Wheelers had found proof that people had lived beside Lake Lahontan as it was disappearing. Mr. Wheeler did not live to learn the true age of the discovery, but his wife did.
Dansie, anthropologist at the Nevada State Museum, talked with Georgia about the new dates that confirmed the Wheelers' initial belief that the burial was quite old. "She wasn't surprised," said Dansie.
Knowledge that Spirit Cave Burial 2 was one of the oldest sets of human remains in North America (to say nothing of it being the most complete and well-preserved) brought renewed scientific focus on this early Nevadan. Physical anthropologists from the Smithsonian Institution have visited the Nevada State Museum to analyze the skeleton as has D. Gentry Steele of Texas A and M University, who has made detailed studies on Paleo-American skeletal remains. Details of these studies have yet to be published, but preliminary results will be published in the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly this year.
Wizard's Beach Man
The surprising date for the Spirit Cave man was discovered about the same time the Nevada State Museum learned that another skeleton in its collection dated to almost exactly the same era. The other early Holocene skeleton, known as the Wizard's Beach man, was found in 1978 when a prolonged drought had lowered the level of Pyramid Lake northeast of Reno. The discovery site is only about 100 miles from Spirit Cave. Though scientific details have not been published on the Wizard's Beach man, radiocarbon dating has established that he lived more than 9,200 years ago. Because the skeleton was discovered when Pyramid Lake was lower than it had been in historic times, Dansie says he likely died at a time of severe drought. "We're very interested in trying to understand the details of that climate change," said Dansie.
Dansie and other scientists are excited about the potential these two skeletons and the associated sites offer the study of human adaptation to changing climate. They date to the period when Ice Age environments, which created great inland lakes such as Lahontan, were giving way to the altithermal, the period of maximum temperatures when lakes were drying up or shrinking to the remnants, such as Pyramid Lake, that we know today. It was a time when people were adapting to new lifestyles that included the harvesting and grinding of seeds for food to supplant diets of fish and meat. One significant question these early skeletons address is when and how seed grinding was added to the human adaptations during the early Holocene.
Different Than Later People
These two early Nevada men looked somewhat different than most of the people who are known to have inhabited the area about 5,000 years later. Possibly they represent a population that reached North America before other ancestors of today's Native Americans. Analysis of cranial measurements of skeletons that date to around 9,000 years ago or earlier indicates those people had different morphologies and may have had different roots than later Americans. Forensic anthropologists, expert at determining the physical characteristics of crime and accident victims, say these most-ancient Americans had certain generalized features they see in contemporary Caucasian populations.
Does that mean the first Americans, including the man buried in Spirit Cave and the one whose remains were found beside Pyramid Lake, had European ancestors? Not likely, according to human morphologists, scientists who study change that has occurred over time to human skulls. For example, Dr. Steele's careful analysis of rare paleo-American skeletons has revealed statistical similarities to some modern Asian, Pacific and European populations. Marta Mirazon Lahr and Walter Neves, specialists in human diversity of ancient South Americans, agree that the earliest American skeletons lack some of the specific features that define modern ones. (See "Who Were the First Americans?" Mammoth Trumpet 11:3 and 11:4; "Brazilian Scientists Challenge 3- Wave Theory of Migration," MT 11:3; and "Paleoindian Skeletal Data Re- examined" MT 7:2.)
Dansie believes the two ancient Nevada skeletons exemplify the interrelatedness of humans. "These skeletons are important to remind everybody that we are all of one people," she says. However, she points out that the physical appearance of later peoples in that part of the Great Basin actually was quite different than the early ones. "There's no reason to think they are ancestral to Paiute people," says Dansie. Even Paiute legends say that they were victorious over people who occupied the area when Paiutes first arrived. "Their own stories say that they eliminated their predecessors."
Whoever the Spirit Cave man and the Wizard's Beach man were, their skeletons show obvious similarities. Both had long narrow faces, unlike the relatively wider and shorter faces characteristic of early Native American people. They both died at approximately the same age--45 years. They may have been exact contemporaries, but because radiocarbon dating isn't precise enough to say, hundreds of years could have separated their time on earth.
The Spirit Cave man was only five feet, two inches tall. He had two abscessed teeth at the time of his death. These abscesses, according to physical anthropologists who have examined the skeleton, could have been the immediate cause of death; there was a severe infection in both his upper and his lower jaw. However, he also had a skull fracture that was just beginning to heal.
Some of Skeleton Lost to Lake
Though the Spirit Cave man's skeleton was completely preserved, about half of the Wizard's Beach man's bones were lost to Pyramid Lake's wave action. The bones, however, are clear evidence that he was a healthier, more robust man than the Spirit Cave man. Dansie suggests that they may be from two different groups; the robust man having a diet that included more fish and meat than stone-ground seeds. The Wizard's Beach man had very healthy teeth. Though they exhibit considerable wear consistent with his age, the wear was gradual and lost dentin had been replaced, unlike teeth found in all later seed-eating people.
The Wizard's Beach man impressed physical anthropologists who analyzed his bones. "He was a big guy," said one. "Obviously lots of protein in his diet." His stature in life was calculated at five feet, six inches tall. Another anthropologist described the bones as large and dense. The scientists know that he was a vigorous, well-muscled man, but they don't know why he died.
Little can be known about the other individuals buried in Spirit Cave. The Wheelers had returned to the site on Aug. 16 and did some additional excavations. Against the rear wall about 10 feet away from the previous excavation she found what her husband described as a "small, unshaped metate" 20 inches below the surface. Not far below that, she uncovered a small twined bag of split tules and immediately below that a close-twined bag of native hemp. Both bags contained burnt fragments of human bones. Assuming that each contained the remains of one person, S.M. Wheeler suspected that they had been cremated in the cave, but he noted that all trace of the crematory fire had disappeared from ceiling and walls. Both bags, he said, definitely been buried at the same time in the end of a trench marked by charcoal, ash, and small bone fragments. Recent radiocarbon dates by AMS place the age of the cremations at 9,040 +/- 50 years ago (UCR 3478)--375 years after the mummy. Subsequent analysis revealed the remains of two additional individuals in the cave.
Spirit Cave is at an elevation of 4,154 feet in the foothills of the Stillwater Mountains. It is about 211 feet below the last high level of Lake Lahontan, which is at an elevation of about 4,365 feet. The level of Pyramid Lake is now about 3,790 feet in elevation.
The Wheelers recovered 66 artifacts from Spirit Cave, most of which were fiber and fur materials associated with Burial 2. They discovered what would prove to be the remains of five individuals, but they found only seven lithic artifacts including a Humboldt point, known in the Great Basin to date to the period from 9,000 to 7,000 years ago. Analysis of the textiles on the mummy and one of the cremation bags reveals that the weave is not twining, but a distincitive plain weave dubbed "diamond plaiting" by museum staff. Dansie says it is a major new textile type in the New World, found only in the ancient Northwestern Great Basin. This particular weave was not recognized as an early Great Basin textile type until the dating of the Spirit Cave mummy, wrapped in the same kind of textile, drew attention to its significance.
Paiute Indian tribes have asked the Nevada State Museum to turn over the two ancient skeletons to them. Listed as unidentified in the official Native American Graves Protection and Repatiration Act (NAGPRA) inventory, the ultimate disposition of the skeletons must await clarification of NAGPRA's application to "ancient" remains such as these.
Seven dates obtained from Sprit Cave Burial 2 produced a weighted mean of 9,415 +/- 25 years B.P. The individual dates:
--Don Alan Hall
Copyright © 1997 Mammoth Trumpet
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