America’s oldest mummy is coming home – to Nevada.

Nature salutes the gene-sequencing of the 10,600-year-old Spirit Cave Man – and his return to what we now know are his descendants, the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe:

The case follows the US government’s decision this year that another controversial skeleton, an 8,500-year-old human known as Kennewick Man, is Native American and qualifies for repatriation on the basis of genome sequencing. Some researchers lament such decisions because the buried skeletons are then unavailable for scientific study. But others point out that science could benefit if Native American tribes use ancient DNA to secure the return of more remains, because this may deliver long-sought data on the peopling of the region. “At least we get the knowledge before the remains are put back in the ground,” says Steven Simms, an archaeologist at Utah State University in Logan, who has studied the Spirit Cave Mummy. “We’ve got a lot of material in this country that’s been repatriated and never will be available to science.”

Archaeologists Georgia and Sydney Wheeler discovered it in Nevada’s Spirit Cave in 1940. The skeleton, an adult male aged around 40 at the time of his death, was shrouded in a rabbit-skin blanket and reed mats and was wearing moccasins; he was found with the cremated or partial remains of three other individuals. The Wheelers concluded that the remains were 1,500–2,000 years old. But when radiocarbon dating in the 1990s determined that they were much older, the finds drew attention from both scientists and the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe. The tribe considers Spirit Cave to be part of its ancestral homeland and wanted the remains and artefacts.

The mummy’s remains were stored out of view in a Nevada museum, and placed off-limits to most research, except for efforts to determine its ancestry. In a 2014 monograph based on earlier examination of the remains, US anthropologists Douglas Owsley and Richard Jantz noted that the mummy’s skull was shaped differently from those of contemporary Native Americans…

The genome of a 12,600-year-old skeleton from Montana, called the Anzick Child, is the only other published ancient genome from the Americas that is older than 10,000 years. The Spirit Cave remains and the Anzick Child both seem genetically closer to South American groups than to some North American groups, and the migrations behind this pattern are not yet understood, says Raff.

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