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Meet Chiquita: Wyoming's 500-year-old mummy

By: JEREMY FUGLEBERG, The Casper Star-Tribune, AP
July 6, 2014 Updated: July 6, 2014 at 11:04 am
Caption +
Chiquita, a 500-year-old mummified infant found in Wyoming, was born with anencephaly, a condition in which a fetus’ brain and skull do not develop fully. George Gill and Maxine Miller, of the University of Wyoming, examined Chiquita in the 1990s and determined that she was Native American and born around the year 1500. Measuring only inches in height, Chiquita was purchased from a sheepherder around 1929 and bears similarities to the Pedro Mountain mummy, an anencephalic infant discovered south of Casper in the 1930s. Photo by University of Wyoming via Casper Star-Tribune

CASPER, Wyo. — 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?


Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune,

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