Researchers recently concluded that a 10,000-year-old skeleton in Nevada, believed to belong to the world’s oldest naturally preserved mummy, represents that of an ancestor of a modern-day Native American tribe.
According to SlashGear, the so-called “Spirit Cave mummy” was originally thought to be the skeleton of an individual that belonged to the “Paleoamerican” group that predated Native Americans in North America. However, that theory was disproven by the scientists behind the new research, who extracted DNA from the prehistoric skull and concluded, based on analysis of the DNA, that the mummy was actually an ancestor of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone tribe in Nevada.
A report from the Guardian further noted that the Spirit Cave mummy, which was first discovered in 1940, was the skeleton of an adult male who died at around 40-years-old. The individual, who was wearing moccasins at the time he was buried, was wrapped in reed mats and a rabbit-skin blanket. The research on the mummy was conducted with the assistance and approval of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone tribe, which reburied the skeleton this summer after a “decades-long legal dispute” with scientists over whether it should be kept in a museum or given a proper reburial.
“[It] confirms what we have always known from our oral tradition and other evidence – that the man taken from his final resting place in Spirit Cave is our Native American ancestor,” the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe said in a statement.
University of Cambridge evolutionary geneticist Eske Willerslev, who led the team that performed DNA sequencing on the Spirit Cave mummy, attended the reburial ceremony earlier this year and recalled to the Guardian that there was a lot of “crying, singing, and prayers” involved, as well as the placing of farewell gifts. He described the experience as being similarly emotional as burying a close relative, even if the mummy was originally buried about 10,000 years ago.
Willerslev also said that his team’s analysis proved that it’s too simplistic to base ancestry on the shape of one’s skull, given that the aforementioned theory that the Spirit Cave mummy was Paleoamerican was based on how its skull had a different shape than that of Native Americans.
“Looking at the bumps and shapes of a head does not help you understand the true genetic ancestry of a population – we have proved that you can have people who look very different but are closely related.”
The above research was part of a broader, multinational project on the ancestry of modern-day North and South Americans, which was documented in separate studies published in the journals Science, Science Advances, and Cell. Aside from determining that the world’s oldest natural mummy shares DNA with an existing Native American tribe, the project also revealed that there were two migrations into South America that were not documented in previous studies.
Likewise, the researchers discovered some proof of Australasian ancestry in native South Americans, but found no such traces in native North Americans. Both the Guardian and SlashGear pointed out that this could suggest modern humans arrived in the Americas about 30,000 years ago, far earlier than originally thought.