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Legal Battle Ended: Scientists Reveal Origin Of World's Oldest Natural Mummy

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Natural mummies are those that were naturally mummified because of the weather and soil conditions that dehydrate the body. The world's oldest natural mummy has been at the center of a legal dispute for years.   ( Tomas Castelazo | Wikimedia Commons )

A legal battle over the custody of a mummy has ended as DNA sequencing reveals that it is of Native American descent. The “Spirit Cave” mummy is the world’s oldest natural mummy.

Legal Battle Over ‘Spirit Cave Mummy’

After years of legal battle over the custody of a 10,600-year-old natural mummy, it was finally handed over to the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone tribe after advanced DNA sequencing revealed that the so-called Spirit Cave Mummy is actually related to a Native American tribe.

The legal battle began in 1996 after radiocarbon dating revealed that the mummy was about 9,400 years old. A year later, the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone tribe tried to claim the remains for immediate repatriation under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, but they were denied access to it because the ancestry was disputed.

As a result, the tribe sued the federal government and a lawsuit ensued for 20 years. In it, anthropologists argued that the remains should remain displayed in a museum because of its valuable insight into North America’s earliest inhabitants.

Native American Descent

In 2016, scientists gained the permission of the tribe to conduct a genetic analysis of the remains for the first time, which eventually revealed that the remains are, indeed, related to Native Americans. With such findings, the remains were immediately repatriated to the tribe and was buried.

“The tribe have real feelings for Spirit Cave, which as a European it can be hard to understand but for us it would very much be like burying our mother, father, sister or brother.” said study lead Professor Eske Willeslev, the geneticist who performed the DNA testing. “We can all imagine what it would be like if our father or mother was put in an exhibition and they had that same feeling for Spirit Cave.”

The Spirit Cave Mummy was first discovered in 1940 by Sydney and George Wheeler in a cave in Nevada. It is the mummy of a 40-year old male at the time of death, and was wrapped in a blanket and matting made of reeds. At the time, the remains were transferred to the Nevada State Museum

The research is published in the journal Science.

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