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The remains of two Ice Age infants, buried more than 11,000 years ago at a site in Alaska, represent the youngest human remains ever found in the North American Arctic, according to a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The site and its artifacts provide new insights into funeral practices and other aspects of life among people who inhabited the area thousands of years ago, according to Ben Potter, a researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the paper’s lead author.
Potter led the archaeological team that made the discovery in late 2013 at an excavation of the Upward Sun River site, near the Tanana River in central Alaska. The researchers worked closely with local and regional Native tribal organizations as they excavated the site. The National Science Foundation funded the work.
Potter and his colleagues note that teeth, bones and burial artifacts, as well as inferences about the time of year the children died and were buried, could lead to new thinking about how early societies were structured, the stresses they faced as they tried to survive, and how they viewed death and the importance of rituals associated with it.
Potter made the new find on the site of a 2010 excavation, where the cremated remains of another young Ice Age child were found. The bones of the two infants were found in a pit directly below a hearth where the 2010 remains were found.
“Taken collectively, these burials and cremation provide the first evidence for complex behaviors related to death among the early inhabitants of North America,” Potter said.
In the paper, Potter and his colleagues describe unearthing the remains of the two children in the hearth of a residential structure about 40 centimeters, or 15 inches, below the level of the 2010 find. The radiocarbon dates of the newly discovered remains are identical to those of the previous find—about 11,500 years ago—suggesting a short period of time between the burial and cremation.
Also found among the burials were grave offerings. They included shaped stone heads of what may be some of the oldest examples of hafted bifaces, or projectile points, found in North America. Antler foreshafts, to which the points were likely affixed, were also found very close to the remains.
“The presence of hafted points may reflect the importance of hunting implements in the burial ceremony and with the population as whole,” the paper notes.
In addition to radiocarbon dating, the researchers also have examined dental and skeletal remains to determine the probable age and sex of the infants at the time of the death.
While the results of DNA testing of the remains are not yet available, Potter said that, based on the initial detailed examination, it is possible that the children were twins, one of whom died shortly after being born and the other a late-term fetus. If the infants were not twins, then their concurrent deaths may indicate resource stresses, such as food shortages, among these early Americans.
Such finds are valuable to science because, except in special circumstances like those described in the paper, there is little direct evidence about social organization and mortuary practices of such early human cultures, which had no written languages.
The artifacts—including the projectile points, plant and animal remains—may also help to build a more complete picture of early human societies and how they were structured and survived at the end of the last great Ice Age. The presence of two burial events—the buried infants and cremated child—within the same dwelling could indicate relatively longer-term residential occupation of the site than previously expected.
The remains of salmon-like fish and ground squirrels in the burial pit, meanwhile, indicate that the site was likely occupied by hunter-gatherers between June and August.
“The deaths occurred during the summer, a time period when regional resource abundance and diversity was high and nutritional stress should be low, suggesting higher levels of mortality than may be expected give our current understanding” of survival strategies of the period, the authors write.
ADDITIONAL CONTACTS: Ben Potter, 907-474-7567, firstname.lastname@example.org.
NOTE TO EDITORS: Potter and collaborators will be available to answer media questions during an audioconference briefing at 12:30 p.m. Alaska time (4:30 p.m. Eastern). Photos and video clips, as well as an audio recording of the briefing, will be available online at https://news.uaf.edu/potter_2014/.
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The research was support by two separate grants made by the Division of Polar Programs in NSF’s Geosciences directorate: