INTRODUCTORY DISCUSSION PAGE,
PHOTOS BEGIN ON NEXT PAGE
WARNING! Just digging for, let alone taking, artifacts from archeologically important federally managed sites such as the ones visited on these pages is a Federal crime!
It is not every trip that you learn something. This trip, I learned a lot. Largely because our tour guide was Amy Dansie, professional archaeologist
for a very short biographical sketch see: http://www.centerfirstamericans.com/mt.html?a=51
and for her contribution to a NOVA program see: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/transcripts/2705first.html.
She knows about Nevada caves and rock shelters, and knows all about Spirit Cave man. With help, of course, she was the archaeologist who either did the work or caused the work to get done that gave us the insights we now have on Spirit Cave man, a mummy since much of his body was preserved, and his distant cousins.
This was a field trip to see archaeological sites. You may want to skip reading about what I learned, and just go to the photo pages, but then you will miss some piece of what the photo page discussions are about.
So I’ll start with what I learned about a rapid climate change at the tail end of the last ice age that played an important role in both dating and preserving our mummy.
I learned about a plateau on the radioactive carbon dating curve for about a thousand years during a climate period called the "Younger Dryas." According to this page on abrupt climate changes, http://www.whoi.edu/institutes/occi/currenttopics/climatechange_wef.html it occurred about 12,700 - 11,400 years before present with a 5 degree C drop over the north Atlantic region and icebergs floating all the way down to present-day Portugal!
Wikipedia says it was about 11,000 to 10,000 years before present (other websites say this too, some academic ones included, and all say it went away in a matter of a decade or at most a few decades!). Here is the Wikipedia entry on this carbon-14 dating correction which also has a link to a good discussion of the Younger Dryas itself: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radiocarbon_dating.
The American Geophysical Union website at http://www.agu.org/revgeophys/mayews01/node6.html has an article on the Younger Dryas suggesting it lasted 1,300 years and ended about 11,640 years before present. It also says it began in a decade, and ended in a decade, with an abrupt 7 degrees Celsius lowering of the average annual temperature during those 1,300 years.
Why was there a carbon-14-in-air plateau causing a correction in carbon-dating to have to be made? Because at the end of the last ice age a lot of polar ice melted and covered the northern oceans with fresh water. Fresh water soaked in much more carbon dioxide than the usual sea water, leaving less in the air, thus reducing greenhouse gases and allowing the temperature to plummet (the opposite of today’s global-warming mechanism). The evidence for this is not overwhelming, however, and the phenomenon was seen in the southern hemisphere as well, without the same intense driving forces, so there is still some mystery about the cause, but the nature of this climate change is not in doubt.
During the Younger Dryas, likely because of this fresh-water/ carbon-dioxide relationship, the warming of the end of the ice age was abruptly reversed. Glaciers reformed, and ice sheets grew. During this time extremely cold weather may have frozen all surface water sources, thereby killing the mammoths and other large mammals in western America in one winter, or maybe several, but that is all it would take. They died in the cold, but they were used to cold. They died of dehydration. Formerly accessible surface water was frozen. Smaller mammals, especially burrowing ones, may have survived because tiny seeps and springs in places not accessible to behemoths may have continued to provide some limited water.
With the sudden end of the Younger Dryas, ice melted all over the planet from pole to pole and off all higher mountains. In the Great Basin lakes like Bonneville and Lahontan refilled from relatively low stands to extremely high levels. These high levels were gone in a matter of a few centuries, suggesting that the new climate after the Younger Dryas was extremely dry.
There were people in North America during this time, like the person buried in Spirit Cave, near Fallon, Nevada, whose radiocarbon date is now corrected for this and some other climatic changes and is at about 10,600 years before present. If we use the older (corrected and reliable) dates for the Younger Dryas, he lived during this time of such extreme dryness. The very large lakes covering much of present day Utah and Nevada had evaporated in just a few centuries, with only marshlands remaining near our archaeological sites.
The part of Lake Lahontan that deposited tufa all over the hills of his area, including the cave in which he was buried, was reduced to marshlands about 300 feet below the burial cave. Small fish and small game were abundant around these marshlands, sustaining the people who lived here.
His burial occurred during an extremely dry time, when dust storms were plentiful, which turns out to have been important for his preservation. We’ll get to that preservation story, but we first have to clear up something that may be bothering you if you have read about Spirit Cave man before.
You may know that the previously reported age for Spirit Cave man was about 9,400 years before present (BP, see for example http://www.cabrillo.edu/~crsmith/spiritman2.html), and I just said it was more like 10,600 years before present. The 9,400 year BP date was before this Younger Dryas change in the global carbon cycle correction was made, using a program I had never heard of before called CalPal, The Cologne Radiocarbon Calibration & Paleoclimate Research Package, available at http://www.calpal.de/ on the Internet, that corrects radiocarbon ages for things like the Younger Dryas and many other times when there is good evidence for changes in the global carbon cycle.
A recent very comprehensive article on Nevada’s ancient heritage in the Reno Gazette Journal http://www.rgj.com/news2/specials/ has a subsection at http://www.rgj.com/news/specials/story5.html that probably used CalPal to come up with a date of 10,600 years ago for Spirit Cave man. I just used CalPal online (and so can you) to come up with the same date as the lower end of a range of possible years BP, which corresponds to about 8,700 B.C.E. This dating game is all great fun but the point is that this places his burial during the very dry time after the Younger Dryas when huge Great Basin lakes very rapidly disappeared.
This dryness turns out to be important to the story of the preservation of Spirit Cave man because he was placed on and covered with woven mats, in turn covered with brush and rock. The very dry air and dust storms of that era is what rapidly desiccated him and preserved him very well. He was soon covered with dry silt blown in by winds. Although coyotes unearthed a similar neighboring burial from a thousand years later and ate it, leaving only bones, the Spirit Cave man’s woven and stone covers were never disturbed. Only a rabbit burrow entered his space and body cavity, apparently followed by some mice, over time. So, the thinking goes that it was the extreme climate of the Younger Dryas, very dry and dusty here, that preserved the man.
So what is my theory of origins? Read the website discussions. Among them, the newspaper one from the Reno Gazette Journal is the clearest and best in my opinion: http://www.rgj.com/news/specials/story9.html. Stay away from the white supremacist sites. They are just another group trying to use hand-picked facts from science to support an ideology, or a theology, either of which in turn supports an associated political agenda.
In support of my own agenda, I like the Ainu of Japan origin idea myself. They were the native population of Japan but were overrun by others coming from the mainland. They were pushed to just one part of the island chain in the far north. Some of them migrated to the new world. So did some who had displaced them.
No doubt they migrated separately. Perhaps their descendants met again in the new world. Did the same thing happen again, with the majority migrants wiping out the minority peoples? I don’t know. Stone-age hunter-gatherer societies were typically quite aggressive toward one another in all parts of the world. But I prefer to think they saw an opportunity for making love rather than making war. That is another way to eventually wipe out a minority’s DNA, but it is a much more pleasant way.
Either way, through successful war or through lovemaking by a large majority, you eventually wipe out minority traits, hence the disappearance of the Spirit Cave man type of person.
Please read this description of Spirit Cave man at http://www.cabrillo.edu/~crsmith/spiritman.html.
Also read about the ‘related’ Kennewick man http://www.cabrillo.edu/~crsmith/kennewick.html,
Buhl woman http://www.cabrillo.edu/~crsmith/buhl.html,
and Wizard’s Beach man http://www.cabrillo.edu/~crsmith/spiritman2.html) who was somewhere between the Spirit Cave man type and the later Native American types we know now, at least in terms of skull structure.
This is a lot of introduction to a visit to two rock shelters, only one of which is a true cave (being really dark at some point makes it a cave). The two caves/shelters visited were Hidden Cave and Spirit Cave, and both have been described on web sites already, some with pictures. Here is an example site that discusses Hidden Cave, it is an excellent archaeological/teaching site maintained by the Bureau of Land Management with the cooperation of the Churchill County Museum. It is the museum that you contact to take a guided tour of this cave.
In fact, the museum's web-site has a little tour you can see online, just click the photo on this page: http://www.ccmuseum.org/Programs/hiddencave.htm.
Here is a site discussing Spirit Cave and its most famous occupant: http://dmla.clan.lib.nv.us/docs/museums/cc/mummy.htm (Note that there is a link on that page that takes you to an artist’s drawing of the mummy as it appeared to its discoverers, the Wheelers, whose story is also briefly discussed on that page. A second link on the page discusses more recent developments regarding the legal situation regarding the Native American Graves Repatriation Act, although there is a more elaborate discussion of all the viewpoints involved in the controversy over the study of these old human remains in the Reno Gazette Journal’s special section at http://www.rgj.com/news/specials/story1.html).
If you have looked at the above sites for material on these two caves, I need to say very little when we get to my photo pages. They are next.