mummy

Meet Chiquita: A tiny, blonde, 500-year-old Wyoming mummy

2014-07-06T09:00:00Z 2014-12-17T12:00:03Z Meet Chiquita: A tiny, blonde, 500-year-old Wyoming mummyBy JEREMY FUGLEBERG Star-Tribune staff writer Casper Star-Tribune Online

George Gill hands over the never-published photos of the infant he calls Chiquita.

Her fine blond hair arches over her wrinkled, leathery skin. Her arms are wrapped around her, a tiny mouth frozen in an “O.”

If she once had another name, Gill wouldn’t know it. After all, Chiquita has been dead for hundreds of years.

She is one of only a handful of known infant mummies in existence with a particular birth defect. Two such mummies, Chiquita and one known as the Pedro Mountain mummy, were found in Wyoming.

They both hold tantalizing clues about those who inhabited Wyoming’s past and what sort of lives they had. Both likely didn’t survive birth.

But clues are just that, and the mummies raise more questions than anyone can answer.

Gill has studied hundreds of human remains. For the noted anthropologist at the University of Wyoming, it’s his job and his passion.

But despite all his time excavating, protecting and curating human remains elsewhere and in Wyoming, he’s never come across remains like these.

“We never get preservation like that from any time, from any population,” he said. “Even war chiefs and very special burials are not preserved like these little people.”

But there’s a problem. Both are again lost and gone.

The first find

Chiquita came to light only because decades before, two prospectors were looking for gold and found something they didn't expect.

It was the early 1930s. Using dynamite, Cecil Main and Frank Carr blew open the entrance to a cave on the slope of a peak in the Pedro Mountains, about 65 miles southwest of Casper.

Inside they found not a streak of gold but what looked like a tiny, dead old man with leathery skin, his arms crossed and legs folded under him as he sat on a ledge in the cave.

It was a mummy.

It was about 6 to 7 inches tall sitting down. It weighed about a pound. Main and Carr might not have known it, but they were holding a treasure.

They swore to their story of finding the mummy. Not long after, the mummy was spotted in a drugstore window in Meeteeste, bringing in cash from postcards sold of its likeness.

It was displayed for viewing in Greeley, Colorado, and elsewhere, accompanied by fantastic tales about what it was.

“A mummified pygmy, believed by scientists to be a progenitor of the present human race, was exhibited in Lusk recently,” one news story ran.

It was a sideshow attraction. Another member of the weird carnival.

Soon the mummy belonged to Ivan Goodman, a Casper car dealer. He showed off the mummy, by now seated atop a wooden base topped by a tall glass jar.

A poster of the mummy bearing Goodman’s name blared the hype: “It’s Educational! It’s Scientific! It will amaze and thrill you. It’s a pygmy preserved as it actually lived!”

The poster featured photos of the mummy and X-rays of it from the side and front. This prehistoric pygmy was 65 years old when it died, the poster claimed, and predated the human race. All lies. But they made for a fascinating story -- one that could sell.

Also, one that could be stolen.

Goodman lost the mummy in 1950 while in New York, likely at the hands of a con artist. The mummy was gone. The only one of its kind found in Wyoming. A singular loss.

A 1994 television show republicized the story of the mummy. The show featured Gill in its coverage of the story.

In Cheyenne, a family watched, and remembered. They saw as the University of Wyoming anthropologist told interviewers the story of a tiny mummy, found in a Wyoming cave decades before, displayed as a curiosity, examined, stolen and gone.

The family knew something the man, Gill, had only suspected: The Pedro Mountain mummy wasn’t alone.

There was another, near at hand.

Only from Egypt

For one U.S. infant in 4,859 every year, something goes wrong in the womb during the first month of pregnancy.

Even before a woman knows she's pregnant, something is triggered that nearly guarantees her child will be born dead.

It’s called anencephaly.

The baby’s brain and skull don’t develop correctly, which often results in the child being born without crucial portions used to think and coordinate. Other parts of the brain are left unprotected as the skull develops.

Scientists still don’t know exactly what causes the birth defect. There’s a strong indication it’s caused by a diet with little folic acid, a B vitamin that helps the body make new cells.

When Gill saw details of the Pedro Mountain mummy, he thought of the birth defect.

“I was pretty certain the Pedro Mountain one was an anencephalic infant,” he said.

A previous analysis of the mummy by a team led by anthropologist Harry Shapiro at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City had come to the same conclusion. The mummy was an anencephalic infant, not an ancient 65-year-old pygmy.

But there was another problem: It was nearly impossible to compare the lost mummy to anything else in the world.

Anencephalic infants are rare enough in the present day. They’re even rarer in the archaeological record.

Scientists have uncovered and studied precisely one ancient infant mummy that appears to have anencephaly. The mummy was discovered in Hermopolis, Egypt, in the early 1800s, preserved alongside sacred baboons.

Another, about 2,000 years old, was thought to have been discovered in the Dakhlah oasis in 2003. But later examination showed it wasn't anencephalic. 

The X-rays of the Pedro Mountain mummy are lost, and without the mummy, scientists can’t examine it further. Chiquita is also gone, although Gill got a chance to learn a little about her -- before she disappeared for good.

The small set of tantalizing clues he gained raised even more questions.

If only he could spend more time with Chiquita.

Chiquita

The family carried her to Gill in their hands.

She was stiff, mummified. She felt like “a rock or something,” he said later.

For decades, Chiquita lay in a trunk in the Cheyenne family’s attic, a relic purchased by their grandfather from a sheepherder in approximately 1929. But in 1994, six decades later, she was going to change hands.

Despite his decades of interest, Gill never got to examine the lost Pedro Mountain mummy. Now he had Chiquita. Gill wasn’t going to let her get away. He asked the family for permission to examine her. They agreed but set tight terms.

“They would come in each day and take it. I don't think we ever had it on an overnight,” he said. “By each evening (I mean) we would meet each evening and I would get it back to them."

In the end, they would allow him access to Chiquita only three times. Gill made the days count. He examined the mummy and arranged for tests at Children’s Hospital in Denver.

The exams told a tale of a tragedy: a baby born with anencephaly. Gill had seen much the same telltale signs in the Pedro Mountain mummy. The two infants were born without the capacity to survive.

Yet they were both buried in such a way that they were preserved from the elements, left undisturbed to mummify naturally in Wyoming’s arid climate. Both were left forever with their legs tucked under them, their arms wrapped around themselves. Upright.

“Nowhere else in Wyoming do we have burial sitting up like that. Never sitting up with legs crossed and arms folded across their chest,” Gill said. “There's a clear connection between the two of them, besides being in the same region."

The tests raised plenty of other questions for Gill. Chiquita, a name given to the mummy by Gill and fellow researcher Maxine Miller, was dated to about 1500.

Chiquita's DNA indicated that she was Native American -- something of a surprise, since she had blond hair. Gill still doesn’t know what to make of that. He thinks more could be discovered if the mummies were subjected to the latest and best tests.

“Maybe we could even do more now,” he said. “It's been a few years, and they're always progressing in the sampling and testing in the radioactive carbon dating and DNA, so we might be able to use less of a sample and DNA and get a definitive result."

But Gill no longer has the mummy. After the handful of precious days, the family took the mummy away for good. Gill won't say their names.

All he has now are photos, test results and a desire to know more about the tiny infants -- residents of Wyoming long before ancestors of many of the state’s residents arrived on foot, horseback or train and heard tales of “little people” in the hills told by Indian tribes.

Nobody can truly answer the biggest question of all: Is Chiquita the only other? Or could Wyoming caves or attics contain more mummies scarcely found anywhere else?

Reach Jeremy Fugleberg at 307-266-0623 or jeremy.fugleberg@trib.com. Follow him on Twitter:@jayfug.

Copyright 2015 Casper Star-Tribune Online. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(19) Comments

  1. mmbar
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    mmbar - July 09, 2014 11:20 am
    I'm truly saddened and sickened hearing of the treatment of these remains. I have no other words.
  2. Hill Town Trader
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    Hill Town Trader - July 08, 2014 1:19 pm
    No, artifacts don't belong to the state.
  3. Lodgepole
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    Lodgepole - July 08, 2014 12:36 pm
    Whether you're being paid to stir up acerbic controversy...I really don't care.
    Your opinion of Native Americans...ditto.
  4. Bungus
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    Bungus - July 08, 2014 4:22 am
    So these long diatribes restate your claim, but they don't provide evidence for it. I take no SUNY professor at face-value.

    You do not provide any evidence that these researchers in this case have done anything like what is stated above.

    Natives didnt even want this baby until white people started valuing it. It was left for dead on a hillside.

    If we halted archeology b/c of the superstitions of Christians and others, the world would be much poorer.
  5. Lodgepole
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    Lodgepole - July 07, 2014 4:34 pm
    "If we don't hold onto our culture, in another 50 to 100 years we'll have a guy from the Smithsonian showing us how to build a sweat lodge."


    "Modern physical anthropologists profit from the large collections built through the plundering of Indian grave sites in the 19th and 20th centuries. But they are beginning to pay a price for the way those remains were acquired. Anthropology began to flourish in the U.S. during the post-Civil War period, when Indians were being decimated by the Indian wars, disease, and starvation. Accounts of 19th-century ethnologists and anthropologists reflect their urgent feeling that they were preserving cultures in danger of dying out. At the same time, many anthropologists and ethnologists expressed the common belief that whites were at a more advanced cultural stage than Indians. Implicit was the notion that whites were the proper keepers of Indian cultural artifacts and remains. Some collectors of remains apparently felt their higher purposes justified the robbing of Indian graves. Franz Boas, the noted anthropologist, described the practice as repulsive but necessary.

    Anthropologists still exhibit racist attitudes toward the Indians, argues Oren Lyons, a chief of the Onandaga tribe in New York and a professor of American studies at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo. "They put us in with the flora and fauna of the natural history museum," he says, "as though we're not exactly people." He criticizes anthropologists and museum curators for having a fixation with historical Indians, while ignoring the feelings of modern Indians.

    "They should have the consent of people before they do studies [on their ancestors' remains]," he says. "The development [of anthropology] has been from a very arrogant perspective."
  6. Lodgepole
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    Lodgepole - July 07, 2014 4:30 pm
    "We may not know whose bones they are," says SUNY professor Oren Lyons, "but we know whose bones they are not--the Smithsonian's."

    Suzan Shown Harjo, executive director of the D.C.-based National Congress of American Indians, has argued that Indians have a legal right to the bones: "Nowhere in the Constitution does it guarantee the scientific right of anthropologists to study Indian remains," she told the Associated Press. "It does talk about religious freedom, and the collection and display of human skeletal remains is violative of our religious freedom."

    Attorneys who have researched the topic say the legal issues surrounding remains are complex. A patchwork of federal and state laws governs the fate of bones depending on where they're uncovered. Although no tribe has tried it yet, eventually one may take the Smithsonian to court in order to get remains back, says Steve Moore, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colorado. But Moore says a legislative approach may be more productive right now than a legal one.

    "My feeling is that the important issues aren't legal, they're moral," he says. "The most important instrument is the media and ultimately Congress. Congress should decide where the ownership line is drawn."
  7. Lodgepole
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    Lodgepole - July 07, 2014 4:17 pm
    "Throughout the history in America, since the European invasion, our ancestor’s remains have been collected in federal repositories, museums and Universities. These were not just ancient remains, but, hands, feet, scalps, and other body parts collected and displayed as trophies. In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed. This is a federal law that allows tribe’s nation wide to reclaim over 200 thousand of their ancestors and sacred objects. These claims go through the National Park Service. Indian people are viewed as a natural resource, not as people.

    The genocide continues against Indian people today. The land given to Indians was thought to be sterile, but contains many valuable minerals. The government to mining companies who leave behind contaminated soil and water leases Indian land. Toxic and nuclear waste is dumped on reservations. The federal government feels these poisons wont impact any "significant communities." Our people have higher rates of cancer and disease. The promised health care has all but been taken from us.

    The Smithsonian Institute sent hoards of ethnologists into the Native community in the 18th and 19th centuries to record what was left of a "Vanishing Race."
  8. Lodgepole
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    Lodgepole - July 07, 2014 3:56 pm
    http://www.academia.edu/3106552/Repatriation
  9. Outdoor
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    Outdoor - July 07, 2014 2:44 pm
    Fun to see a little follow up on the first mummy story.
    http://trib.com/lifestyles/weekender/did-a-mummy-prove-the-legend/article_89ec3ff7-852a-52b1-a235-78fe97cd4b1a.html
  10. landerreader
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    landerreader - July 07, 2014 1:39 pm
    Does anyone know how the Antiquities Act of 1906 and the1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) apply here? I thought that these type of artifacts belonged to the local Native american tribes.
  11. Roy
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    Roy - July 07, 2014 10:02 am
    And just why on Earth do you think that is racist? Your comment makes no sense at all.
  12. Todd
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    Todd - July 07, 2014 9:39 am
    The blond hair may be due to albinoism, not uncommon among some American Indian tribes.
  13. wyomingtex
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    wyomingtex - July 07, 2014 9:36 am
    Seriously Uinta...throwing the race card???
  14. Bungus
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    Bungus - July 07, 2014 5:19 am
    Chiquita means "little girl"...seems fitting
  15. Bungus
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    Bungus - July 07, 2014 5:18 am
    I don't see these scientists as "playing" with it. And surely that man realized anthropology and archeology are performed everywhere? Have you ever heard if Oetzi the snowman? I'm totally fine with my ancestors being dug up if we can learn something useful. It's when people treat these artifacts as private possessions that it becomes a problem.

    Besides, considering she died as an infant and lacked a skull it is improbable that she has descendants.
  16. Lodgepole
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    Lodgepole - July 06, 2014 9:43 pm
    Blond hair could be the result of being exposed to the sun...maybe in some window while being preserved under glass.

    A good friend of mine who's now gone, was an important figure in the 1990 passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

    He would tell the folks at the Smithsonian...how would you like it if it was your grandfather or grandmother being kept in a box on the shelf and played with?

    He would find this repulsive and I think it's putrid.
  17. GOPRealist
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    GOPRealist - July 06, 2014 8:25 pm
    I'd like to know why this poor little girl hasn't been laid to rest?
  18. old ranchers daughter
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    old ranchers daughter - July 06, 2014 12:40 pm
    Don't artifacts belong to the state? Is there some way to legally take possession and give it the thorough testing needed? I would hope the family which has it would let the academic community study it. Why do they insist on keeping it ? Are they hoping to sell it?
    Once the testing is done allow it to be reburied with proper respect .
    I grew up in Casper and heard stories of the Pedro mummy for years-wish both could be tested to see if it was a very small gene pool that caused this to happen or famine during a particular time.
  19. Uinta
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    Uinta - July 06, 2014 10:19 am
    I'm a little dismayed by the name "Chiquita." Maybe I should give everyone the benefit of the doubt and assume it was a name given by the sheepherder in 1929. If not, the use of that name is faintly racist. But again, giving folks the benefit of the doubt, I'm old enough to know that these names were thrown around in the west in the 30's and 40's without much thought. I'm still a little dismayed.
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