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Know the West

One law, two bodies, two different decisions


Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article appears as a sidebar to another news article, "Tug-of-war continues over ancient bones."

Four years after the controversy over “Kennewick Man” first surfaced, the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada decided the fate of another ancient skeleton.

In 1940, archaeologists found “Spirit Cave Man,” near Grimes Point in northwestern Nevada. Believed to be only 2,000 years old, the skeleton was stored — and largely forgotten — in the Nevada State Museum for 50 years. Then in 1990, when the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) required museum curators to determine the tribal affiliation of all the remains in their collections, Spirit Cave Man was found to be about 9,400 years old.

Scientists, previously uninspired by the remains, vied with the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe for possession of the skeleton for six years. Then, in August 2000, the BLM decided that since the remains couldn’t be linked with any modern tribe, they would not be turned over for reburial.

But in contrast to the recent court decision on Kennewick Man, Spirit Cave Man was not given to scientists, either: He will remain under federal ownership. And the Nevada State Museum, where the remains are still stored, does not display the remains, or the facial reconstruction of the skull, in deference to tribes’ requests.

The Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe is still seeking the return of the remains, and may make a direct appeal to the secretary of the Interior.