Many cultural traditions surrounding death are meant to preserve a person’s legacy. Yet few souls could ever have expected to be remembered for so long. Nor could they possibly imagine the amount of controversy and scientific inquiry they would evoke thousands of years after their death. Such is the case of the man found entombed in Spirit Cave, 13 miles east of Fallon, Nevada. The naturally preserved body was first discovered in the 1940s but then shelved until the 1990s. Today, the battle over cultural heritage wages as scientists and Native Americans vie over the dead man’s fate.
In 1940, Sydney and Georgia Wheeler were hired by the Nevada State Parks Commission to excavate dry caves in the Lahontan Basin (northwest Nevada). Guano mining in the region threatened to destroy as-of-yet unfound archeology sites so the state wanted to find and salvage any artifacts of note. That summer, the couple went through many caves throughout Churchill County. One day, in early August, Sydney was injured when he was forced to quickly dodge an angry rattlesnake. He was thankfully not bitten; however, he did hurt his ankle to the point where his mobility was greatly reduced. The Wheelers sought shelter in a nearby, unexplored cave close to the road, allowing them to stay out of the blazing desert sun as they waited for a car to pass on the little-used highway. Being curious archeologists, they passed their time by examining the cave.
Extent of prehistoric Lake Lahontan (CC BY-SA 3.0)
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