The Red Haired Giants of Lovelock Cave
Some say that an early Native American tribe were giant cannibals.
by Brian Dunning
November 26, 2013
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Lovelock Cave duck decoys
Photo: Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
In western Nevada, on the outskirts of the Humboldt Sink, is a small cave. It's hot and dry and isolated, but it wasn't always so. It was once part of enormous Lake Lahontan, a Pleistocene-era lake some 13,000 years ago, and at the time one of North America's largest lakes. But it eventually dried up, leaving a number of smaller lakes, among which was Humboldt Lake. The cave was on its shore, and in it lived a race of natives who hunted and fished and enjoyed a life of plenty. But there's a shocking twist: Research this people, and you'll find that the archaeological and historical evidence tells us they were not common Native Americans. They were the Si-Te-Cah, a race of red-haired giants, ten feet tall, who terrorized their neighbors with cannibalism.
The cave is real, and you can drive to it via a long dirt road from nearby Lovelock, Nevada, a small farming town that has grown amidst the moist soil of the Sink. The stories are real, too; all you need to do is Google for "red haired giants" and you'll find a raft of websites repeating the same tale. Guano miners in the cave found so many relics that in 1912, they turned the site over to a University of California anthropologist who recovered thousands of artifacts. You'll read that an oral tradition passed down by Paiute Indians tells how they eventually defeated the Si-Te-Cah giants by trapping them inside their cave and smoking them to death. And you will read how the recovered artifacts included human bones, split open for their marrow, and bearing the marks of stone knives.
What you won't read is any record of these allegedly giant bones having ever been preserved for study. Some say that they're being covered up or deliberately hidden away in locked cabinets in secure sections of museum collections, but most sources that discuss the stories speculate that the bones were simply lost over time. It's a fact that earliest excavations of Lovelock Cave were exceedingly destructive, and unscientific in the extreme. So let's take a look at the known history of Lovelock Cave to see when and where these red-haired giants may have lived and died.
The cave was formed in limestone by wave action along the shore of Humboldt Lake, and its earliest evidence of human habitation goes back about 4,000 years, according to radiocarbon dating of the oldest artifacts. Today's anthropologists call those people the Lovelock Culture. The Lovelock Period lasted some 3,000 years, during which they left us a wealth of stunning artifacts — finely crafted baskets, exquisite duck decoys made from tule fibers, sagebrush and tule sandals, and so on. The cave was most intensively occupied from 1500 BCE until the year 440, when a collapse cut off easy access to most of the cave. From that point on, bats became the primary residents, burying the artifacts under a thick layer of guano.
By the time of the collapse, the Lovelock Culture had been supplanted by Northern Paiutes. The Paiute name for their predecessors was Saidaku, literally translated as "under tule", or "tule mat house dwellers" meaning that they lived in huts made of tule mats. The Paiutes continued their use of the outer part of the cave until 1829, when whites began populating the region. Any remaining Paiutes were killed or driven off in 1833 when an expedition led by Joseph Walker explored the area.
In 1911 a pair of men from Lovelock discovered the cave's vast guano deposits, and spent a year digging it out and shipping it to a buyer in San Francisco. From the beginning their work was impeded by the density of artifacts mixed throughout the guano. Most of it they discarded into a rubbish heap outside the cave. In 1912 the work proved to be no longer worthwhile, when a meter or two down, the proportion of ancient artifacts exceeded the proportion of guano. They contacted the University of California and told them the cave was theirs to take over if they wanted, and the department head sent anthropologist Llewellyn L. Loud to check it out. The Humboldt Sink was well known for its open archaeological sites pertaining to the Lovelock Culture, but this was a previously unknown location.
And it turned out to be the greatest yet. Nobody in the fields of anthropology or archaeology has ever received a greater bounty than Loud did on that day. To the amazement of the scientific community, he collected over 10,000 artifacts from the rubbish heap and various regions of the cave, mostly along the walls where the miners had not cut. Loud's workload was such that it took him 17 years before he was finally able to publish a comprehensive account of his findings.
In none of it did he report anything pertaining to giants.
In 1924 Loud and M. R. Harringon, with a number of Paiute assistants, continued the exploration. Again, no giants were mentioned.
Further expeditions in 1936, by N. Nelson and Heizer and Krieger collected relics, but no giants.
Krieger returned in 1949, 1950, and 1965. Still no giants.
In fact, many parties representing many universities and museums have worked at the site. Not a single one of them reported giants, although quite a lot of human remains were recovered and remain available for study in museum collections. A complete radiometric history has been constructed of Lovelock Cave. We have human remains from all periods, yet none of the literature happens to mention what you'd think would be an earthshaking fact: that they were giants.
The red hair is true, but simply because the pigment in dark hair nearly always turns red after centuries of burial in certain temperatures and soil chemistry. This is evident in mummies from all over the world, and even evident in ancient Native American scalps. There is no science-based reason to suspect that the Lovelock Culture had red hair; it was almost certainly black, like all native Americans.
The cannibalism is also true, but based only on a very few human bones found at Lovelock Cave that had been split for the removal of their marrow. All others had not. The rarity of such bones there suggests that it was an exceedingly uncommon practice, probably only in times of great famine, and was certainly not the norm.
So where did this idea come from that the Lovelock Culture was a tribe of red-haired cannibalistic giants? Most sources claim it is a Paiute oral tradition. So I did my best to read as much Paiute legend that I could find, having no actual Paiutes on hand to recite oral traditions for me. I found their lore to be speckled with occasional mentions of lone giants in fanciful tales, I found no mention of a tribe called the Si-Te-Cah, a tribe of giants, or any red-haired anybody, cannibalistic or not. The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe maintains an active web presence and archives a number of tales, and although you'd think such a prominent urban legend would be mentioned in what they publish, it is not.
What I found, in fact, is that every mention of the Si-Te-Cah appears only in paranormalist books and websites that promote the claim that a Paiute oral tradition says the red-haired giant cannibals were real. Every mention of the Saidaku appears in scholarly books and articles about the Lovelock Culture, with no mention whatsoever of red hair or gigantism. If you're looking for the legend, search for Si-Te-Cah; if you're looking for the true history, search for Saidaku.
Author Adrienne Mayor, in her 2005 book Fossil Legends of the First Americans, speculates that the giant legend have have been due to misidentification of Ice Age megafauna bones in the region that led to beliefs in ancient giants. Mammoths and Giant Sloths have left their remains all over the western United States, and early discovers may well have had no better ideas for what they could have been. There's also a much more general and common folklore about giant Native American skeletons, stemming from the non-expert discovery of many skeletons nationwide that had been buried disarticulated, with the bones separated enough to make it look like a seven or eight foot tall person.
It turns out that all the stories can be traced back to a single primary source, a book written in 1882 by Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, the first Native American woman to copyright a publication. The book is Life among the Piutes [sic]: Their Wrongs and Claims. At the end of Chapter 4, she tells the story of how her people rose up against a small tribe of barbarians who would attack her people and eat them, hundreds of years ago. The Paiutes pursued them into a cave overlooking Humboldt Lake, and filled the entrance to the cave with firewood. The barbarians were given the choice to come out and join the Paiutes and cease their evil ways, but they refused to answer; and the Paiutes burned them. She wrote that they were said to have reddish hair, and said she owned a dress trimmed with their red hair that had been passed down through the generations. She never mentioned giants at all.
And so the story comes full circle, and the origin of what later writers exaggerated is ascertained, at least to some level of likelihood. Evidence tells us the Lovelock Culture was not largely cannibalistic, but there may have been some bands that were to some degree. And as a dress was passed down through the generations, the legend of their hair being red probably rose just as chemistry would predict. Alas, we never do find any evidence of gigantism, which is a shame because it would have been really neat; but what's also really neat is digging in and constructing a radiometric history of the Lovelock Culture. Having a better and more complete picture of the Paiutes and the Lovelock Culture, with a cultural history consistent with the archaeological history, is not only correct, it's far more respectful of Native American history than are wild Internet-based stories of huge giants running around eating people. That's not how the Lovelock peoples lived, and my guess is that the Paiutes probably don't wish to be perceived as promoting such nonsense.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Red Haired Giants of Lovelock Cave." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
26 Nov 2013. Web.
26 Oct 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4390>
References & Further Reading
BLM. Lovelock Cave Formerly Known as Sunset Guano Cave (NV-CH-18). Berkeley: Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 2005.
Hattori, E. "Lovelock Culture." Online Nevada Encyclopedia. Nevada Humanities, 16 Aug. 2010. Web. 20 Nov. 2013. <http://www.onlinenevada.org/articles/lovelock-culture>
Loud, L., Harrington, M. "Lovelock Cave." University of California Publication in American Anthropology and Ethnology. 1 Jan. 1929, Series 27, Number 1.
Mayor, A. Fossil Legends of the First Americans. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.
Sturtevant, W. Handbook of North American Indians. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1978. 463-464.
Winnemucca Hopkins, S. Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1883. 74-75.
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