Mummies in Wyoming?

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Bill Sniffin
Bill Sniffin

Mummies are common in the ancient world but were there ever mummies in Wyoming?

In at least three cases the answer to that question is yes.

West of Cody along the Wapiti Highway to Yellowstone is a site known as Mummy Cave.  Reason for that name is “Mummy Joe,” a 1,200-year old body of an Indian male who was discovered in somewhat of a restored state in that cave in 1957 by Gene Smith of Cody.

Archeologists say Mummy Cave was occupied for over 8,000 years from 7280 B. C. to 1580 A. D. The site contained large amounts of materials in the form of wood, feathers, hide plus the mummified remains of one inhabitant. The materials found in the cave were more than 28 feet deep.

Bob Edgar, the founder of Trail Town in Cody, led the initial investigation of the cave in 1963. Further study revealed the occupiers of the cave were big game hunters, based on what they left behind. Over 2,000 animal bones were discovered and removed from the cave. Mountain Sheep seemed to be the predominant animal hunted by the inhabitants. 

Because of the sheep remains, researchers speculated that the cave was used as a headquarters for high altitude hunting trips since deer were more plentiful and available to the hunters at their normal lower altitudes.

For some years Mummy Joe was on display for visitors until the Native Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) took effect in 1990. 

Judy K. Wolf, State Historic Preservation Office archeologist, says that all Paleo-Indian remains from that point on needed to be removed from public institutions that received federal income and reburied.

“The act requires federal agencies and institutions to return Native American cultural items to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Indian tribes,” she said. “This includes human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony.”

These provisions do not apply when discoveries are made on state land or private land, she said.

Trail Town in Cody and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West both had early Indian remains on hand which were removed from public view and returned to tribes for burial.

Two other mummies have been found here in Wyoming.

The most famous is the Pedro Mountain Mummy, which was discovered in 1932 in mountains of that name south of Casper by gold prospectors.

University of Wyoming Anthropologist George Gill has done research on this mummy and another one that came to light in 1994. The second one had been discovered earlier in 1929 by a sheepherder in those same mountains.

These mummies prompted resurgence in the folklore surrounding the existence of the “little people,” which is common in Indian tribes. These little mummies were stored in caves in a seated position and were barely 14 inches tall.

After much study, it was determined that in both cases these were infants that were born with limited development of their brains. In both cases, it made for the mummy to look like a very odd little human being, thus prompting lots of speculation.

Both mummies were studied by forensic physical anthropologist, accompanied by teams of medical specialists. Gill says: “Both mummies are infants, and they suffered from a rare condition know as anencephaly (failure in fetal brain development).

Gill does hypothesize, however, that a relationship does exist between the tiny mummies and the strong regional folklore in Wyoming about the “Little People.”

As part of our research, for our next Wyoming coffee table book, was a plan to include a nice spread on these mummies. We were able to acquire some excellent photographs of the three mummies. But now, based on the NAGPRA ruling, find it prudent to not publish them.

Mummy Joe is remarkably preserved for being 12 centuries old.  Rather than having been “mummified” by his family or friends, it appears that his body may have remained in such a pristine state all these years because of the arid high mountain cave where he was buried.

Meanwhile the little mummies that came out of the Pedro Mountains do not even look like people. They look more like toys or stuffed animals.

A person can become calloused over the idea of being told you cannot do something that you want to do. But upon reflection, how would we feel if some folks were displaying photos of the dead remains of our ancestors? When it becomes personal, well, it becomes personal and such a rule makes sense.

 

Please “like” Wyoming Books and Columns by Bill Sniffin on Facebook. Other information available at www.billsniffin.com and www.wyomingwonders.com. Sniffin is a long-time Wyoming journalist and lives in Lander.

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