Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Oldest North American Mummy Volume 49 Number 5, September/October 1996
by Lara J. Asher

A mummy excavated in 1940 and stored at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City was recently dated to ca. 7420 B.C., making it the oldest mummy ever discovered in North America.

Donald Tuohy and Amy Dansie of the Nevada State Museum say the mummy, a male about 45 years old, was one of several gathered from caves in Nevada's Churchill County. Its excellent state of preservation had led earlier researchers to believe it was ca. 2,000 years old. Dansie and Tuohy were astonished when radiocarbon tests of hair and bone and two mats covering the body yielded dates more than 7,000 years older.

Discovered during salvage excavations in advance of a guano-mining project, the mummy was found lying on a fur blanket dressed in a twisted skin robe with leather moccasins on its feet and a twined mat sewn around its head and shoulders. A similar mat was wrapped around the lower portion of the body and bound under the feet. Skin remained on the back and shoulders as well as a small tuft of straight dark hair, which changed to reddish-brown when exposed to light and air.

The man may have died from complications associated with a skull fracture or abscessed teeth, according to Gentry Steele of Texas A&M University, who examined the body. Fifty-eight other fiber and fur artifacts were found in the cave, including two bags containing cremated human remains. The style of weaving used in the textiles, known as diamond-plaited matting, marks the earliest stage in North American weaving technology. "People were more settled than we thought," says Dansie, noting the time it must have taken to gather the fibers and weave them into mats.

© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America