Mummies Around the World @ Mummy Tombs


Native American Mummies


 Where were the accidental mummies found

Many accidental (that is, made by nature) native American mummies have been found primarily in caves (or cliff dwellings) in the southwestern part of the United States. At least one mummy has been found in Mammoth Cave and a few others in caves of the Aleut islands.

Many of the mummies from southwestern caves are incomplete (sometimes only a limb remains, rather than a complete body).

When they were made

These mummies were not made very long ago, ranging from perhaps 1000 to 1800 A.D.

How they were made

Mummies found in caves were naturally dried either in the hot dry caves (southwest) or in the cold dry air of caves (Aleut islands).

How many were made

Perhaps as many as two hundred mummies who were ancestors of present day southwestern Native Americans have been found. No one has ever counted because accurate records were never maintained.

What's special about them

1. These mummies teach us how not to treat recent mummies. Native American mummies were often treated as curiosities and were collected by so-called antique collectors. Some were displayed in museums, even until a few years ago when such displays were outlawed by Congress. Even Ishi, the last of his tribe, was mistreated by the Smithsonian institution (because he was such a good specimen). 

2. When treated with respect by archaeologists, native American mummies can teach us about the lives of early native American tribes. A few early studies, especially by Emil  W. Haury at the University of Arizona, have taught scientists many things about native American life. However, because most native American mummies died so recently (in archaeological terms), because their DNA can be used trace them to their living ancestors, because the United States has a history of mistreatment of native Americans (no one would want their dead to be treated as curiosities or potential museum displays--how would you feel if your great great great grandmother was taken from her coffin and placed in a local museum because she was "interesting" to look at?), and because disturbing the burials of native Americans desecrates their strong religious beliefs (a cave was a native American cemetery in many tribes), it is doubtful that any further study will take place.

Where to see them

It is said that a number of native American mummies are held in private collections, especially in Europe. But the only legal place to see such mummies is in books published earlier in the 20th Century.

Where to find more information

Emil Haury's book The Stratigraphy of Ventana Cave is one of the best books on the subjects of the remains of native Americans found in a southwestern cave. The story of Haury's excavation is included in How to Make a Mummy Talk by James M. Deem.