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Planet Earth

Oldest American

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In Spirit Cave in western Nevada in 1940, archeologists found a mummy that, based on the appearance of the finely woven mats wrapped around it, they estimated to be about 2,000 years old. Since then the mummy has resided in the Nevada State Museum, which is where Donna Kirner, an anthropologist at the University of California at Riverside, found it. She radiocarbon-dated the mats, as well as hair and bone, from the mummy for the first time and found that it is actually 9,400 years old, making it the oldest known mummy in the New World. It was totally unexpected, says Kirner. The mummy, a man of about 45, wore moccasins made of three kinds of animal skin, sewn together with two types of stitching--a sophisticated design for something so old. The identity of the mummy and his people, the earliest known settlers of the area, is undetermined. (Kirner supplied this painting of the mummy; Native Americans in the area have requested that no photos be taken of the ancient American.) Everybody keeps looking for the oldest person in the New World, says Kirner. Well, it could be that there are skeletal remains sitting in a museum somewhere. We could already have what we’re looking for and we just don’t know it.

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