Upward Sun River Site Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently asked questions related to the science and heritage of ancient human remains in Interior Alaska

Prepared by Dr. Ben Potter (University of Alaska Fairbanks) and Robert Sattler (Tanana Chiefs Conference)

Media contacts:
Tanana Chiefs Conference (www.tananachiefs.org)
Marmian Grimes, University of Alaska Fairbanks
Peter West, National Science Foundation

Science of the Xaasaa Na’ site (Upward Sun River site)

Q: What was found at Upward Sun River in 2013?
A: The Upward Sun River site is an ancient campsite in Interior Alaska where the discovery of a child cremation in 2010 provided unique insights into the lifeways of early Americans. In 2013, a team of archaeologists discovered a burial with two infants dating to 11,500 years ago, situated below the earlier cremation. This age puts the children at the very end of the last Ice Age. Hunting tools (spear points) were found associated with the two infants. The Upward Sun River site was not a cemetery, but rather a residential camp with multiple firepits and activity areas (toolmaking, cooking, etc.).

Q: What is the nature of the relationship of these two children to the previous child (Xaasaa Cheege Ts’eniin)?
A: Currently, we do not know, but we suspect they may be part of the same local band. Ongoing DNA analyses should help clarify the relationships.

Q: How does this age relate to the earliest Alaskans/Americans?
A: The earliest known Alaskans (represented by stone tools) date to 14,000 years ago. These children are about 2,500 years after the very earliest known Alaskans, and they are the earliest human remains in northern North America.

Q: Why is the site important?
A: The site is significant for many reasons. Ice age human remains are extraordinarily rare in the entire Western Hemisphere. They provide a wealth of information about ancient populations, and in this case, very ancient social customs. The remains are from within excellently preserved contexts, helping us understand a wide range of human behaviors, including subsistence and technology. The association of the burial, the house, outdoor hearths, and associated tools and food remains allow for the exploration of site structure and organization for the first time in this region. Beringia (the geographic area including the Russian Far East and Alaska and the land bridge that connected them) is positioned along the route for colonization of the New World, and thus is important to understand ancient movements of plants, animals and people.
This site provides valuable information that bridges many disciplines: human remains (genetics, relationships to modern peoples, etc.), stone tools (cultural affiliation, relationships to other ancient groups), faunal remains (subsistence economies, seasonality, etc.), and well-stratified (layered) sediments (paleoenvironments, climate change).

Q: Are the ancient children related to living populations?
A: At present, we don’t know precisely. However, we can say that all three individuals are definitely Native American (as expected), based on the shape and features on some of the teeth. Work is ongoing to explore this question, but it generally understood that some of the dental traits occur in approximately 80-85% of modern Native Americans and people of northeast Asia.

Q: Is there potential for DNA preservation?
A: There is excellent potential to amplify ancient DNA from both infants, and work is ongoing to retrieve DNA (nuclear DNA, mtDNA, and Y-DNA).

Q: What can be learned from ancient DNA?
A: Information from nuclear, mitochondrial, and Y-chromosome DNA can provide information on the children’s lineages relative to other ancient and living populations. These types of data provide genetic “finger-prints” and in this case, may demonstrate genetic relationships to living people in the Americas or northeast Asia. We hope to ultimately explore genetic diseases and other health-related issues with genetic components (e.g., diabetes).

Q: Have ancient DNA studies previously been conducted in Alaska?
A: Yes, DNA has been successfully extracted from slightly younger ancient human remains found in Southeast Alaska and the results demonstrate associations to early Americans along the coast of California and Central America. The work is continuing as local residents are volunteering to participate by submitting samples of their saliva on Q-tips, a technique used worldwide for DNA testing. Other recent finds include the Tochak individuals found near McGrath in the upper Kuskokwim River region and being analyzed by Tanana Chiefs Conference researchers. Modern DNA studies are getting started on the North Slope, Southeast Alaska and Western Alaska. This discovery may stimulate local participation in DNA studies in Interior Alaska.

Q: What are the children’s cultural affiliation?
A: These children are affiliated with a widespread Beringian prehistoric culture termed “Denali Complex”, based on tool types, radiocarbon dating, and comparisons with other sites in the region. This group was present from at least 12,000 years ago to 6000 years ago, and some connections have been found between this group and the later groups in the region (e.g., Northern Archaic) after 6000 years ago.

Q: How old were the two children when they died?
A: Based on the stages that the teeth were coming out of the jaw (called tooth eruption sequences), we estimate the that one child was 6-12 weeks old, surviving birth, while the other child was a neonate (>30 gestational weeks), meaning either a still birth or a premature newborn.

Q: What kinds of artifacts were found with the burial?
A: Two stone spear points associated with four antler rods were recovered with the infants. The antler rods were decorated with “X” incisions along their length and were likely foreshafts that would be attached to darts (or spears) launched by spear-throwers, a very efficient weapon likely used to hunt large game like bison and wapiti. A third stone tool may have functioned as a knife.

Q: What did these people eat and how did they live?
A: We have explored a number of sites in the region, and these inform us about ancient lifeways. These ancient Alaskans were mobile peoples who lived by hunting, fishing, and gathering. We know they hunted bison, wapiti (elk), moose, sheep, small game like ground squirrels and hare, waterfowl and other birds. These early peoples also fished, particularly for seasonally abundant salmon. Animal remains at Upward Sun River include salmon, ground squirrel, snowshoe hare, and ptarmigan/grouse.

Q: At what time of the year was the site occupied?
A: The site was occupied in the summer. We know this because of the presence of salmon and unfused epiphyses (the end of arm or leg bones) of ground squirrels.

Q: How long did these people occupy the site?
A: There are six separate occupations at the site. All occupations (except the 3rd) are interpreted to be short-term camps, and likely were occupied for hours or perhaps days. The third occupation, with the house and burial, is interpreted to be a longer-term residential site, which may have been occupied for weeks at a time, perhaps longer. The six occupations are separated by hundreds-to-thousands of years. The earliest Alaskans are considered to be highly mobile foragers, effectively and resiliently living off of a wide variety of subarctic resources, like bison, elk, caribou, salmon, small mammals, and birds.

Q: What were people doing at the site?
A: At present, we infer they were hunting small game like ground squirrels, hare, and ptarmigan or grouse available locally and fishing for salmon in the nearby Tanana River, probably using the shallow channels along the edge of the main channel. The subsistence harvests were brought to the site, processed and cooked. Faunal data from within the hearth indicate the remains accumulated during multiple cooking events.

Q: What was the climate like when people were at the site?
A: The earliest occupation (13,200 years ago) was during a relatively warm period during the last Ice Age (termed the Allerød interstadial), while the second (11,800 years ago) and third (11,500 years ago, associated with the burials) were associated with a somewhat colder period (termed the Younger Dryas). However, there were no glaciers near the site (they were many miles away in the Alaska Range). Plant remains indicate immature soils were developed (including willow, poplar, and aspen, all of which grow in the area now). Between these ancient soil-forming periods, wind blown silt (or loess) was deposited, suggesting colder more arid periods. The second, fourth, and probably the third components were associated with the ancient soils, suggesting they may reflect better subsistence opportunities in the local area. Decreases in sedimentation occurred after the last site occupation (at about 8000 years ago) suggests the area became more heavily vegetated, probably with widespread spruce forests (the fifth and sixth occupations date these more recent periods). The soils changed from unweathered soils to more modern more developed boreal forest soils, similar to that in the present. Other sites in the region indicate occupation until recent times.

Q: How was the site discovered? Were there any previous investigations?
A: The site was among several discovered in 2006 through shovel testing during a survey relating to several proposed transportation routes between Fairbanks and Delta Junction. In 2007, in order to test the lower sediments, a 16 square meter area was excavated to test the lower sediments. Two earlier occupations and one later occupation were found (there are four total occupations at the site). The earliest dated to 13,300 years ago, among the earliest in Alaska. The proposed transportation corridor alignments were changed to avoid the Upward Sun River site. In 2008, a proposal was made to expand the excavation to understand more about the geology of the site and the lowest cultural occupation; this proposal was funded by National Science Foundation in 2010. After the first cremation, we worked to expand the excavation to understand the residential base camp in 2011 and 2013 – and this is when we encountered the new burial.

Q: Was finding the burial expected?
A: No. Up to now, no other known cremation site has contained a second (in this case earlier) burial within the same feature. This site and its remains are unprecedented in the broader archaeological record of Alaska. The site has no surface pits or any other type of recognizable ground feature to indicate what lies beneath the forest floor.

Q: What was done when the human remains were found?
A: When we found the human remains, we followed the inadvertent discovery protocols agreed upon by the State of Alaska, National Science Foundation, the local Native Alaskan tribe and Tanana Chiefs Conference. We immediately stopped the excavation, reported the find to Native and State representatives, and consulted with everyone regarding the next step. It was agreed by all that the human remains should be protected by careful, meticulous excavation and recovery. This was also the first step to help understand the context of the finds.

Alaska Native people and their ancestral Heritage associated with Xaasaa Cheege Ts’eniin (Upward Sun River Mouth Child)

Q. How do Alaska Natives differ from Native Americans in the lower 48 states?
A: The aboriginal land claims in Alaska were settled in 1971, considerable more recently compared to treaties with Indians in the mid-continental states. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act established corporations rather than Indian reservations. However, in the 1990s Alaska Native villages were recognized by the US government as federally recognized Tribes and were extended many of the programs afforded to Indian communities nationwide. Unlike reservations in the lower states, Alaska Native Tribes do not own land and are considered “landless” Tribes. The for-profit corporations established through the land claims settlement possess nearly all the Alaska Native land ownership in Alaska. Generally speaking, Alaska Natives in rural villages throughout Interior Alaska live in their ancestral, or traditional lands. Alaska Natives were not subjected to the “Indian Wars” and relocation as were many Indians in the contiguous U.S.

Q: Who are the groups or organizations working on the project?
A: The scientific project is conducted by researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and funded by the National Science Foundation, Office of Polar Programs in Washington DC. The land is administered by the State of Alaska and the Office of History and Archaeology issued a permit for archaeological testing that led to the discovery. Before the investigation took place, a Memorandum of Agreement was signed by representatives of the National Science Foundation, State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources, the Healy Lake Traditional Council (the local federally recognized Tribe), and Tanana Chiefs Conference (the regional non-profit corporation to which Healy Lake Tribe is one of 42 affiliated members). Close consultation among all of these groups has been continuous throughout the process from discovery to this public announcement, and will continue in the future.

Q: Which Alaska Native Tribe is in the area?
At the time of Euro-American contact in the 1880s there were several Athabascan bands using adjacent territories along the Tanana River. The specific area of this site was in the territory of the Salchaket band, who spoke what is best termed the Middle Tanana Athabascan language. Introduced disease and consequent population pressures ultimately caused, the few remaining Salchaket people moved into adjacent villages and towns.

Q: Where did the Alaska Native placename come from?
A: The name for the site is a geographic place-name recorded in the 1960s during oral history interviews with two Native elders (a mother and daughter), who were from Salchaket village. These Native knowledge bearers were two of the last speakers of Middle Tanana language. The mother had first-hand knowledge of Xaasaa Na’ and associated uplands. She is buried in an elevated cemetery several miles away, overlooking the valley where the ancient remains were found.

Q: What does the Alaska Native placename mean?
The place name Xaasaa Na’ ‘upward sun river’ applies to the river where the discovery is located. In Middle Tanana (and in other Athabascan languages) one can say xasaghįį’ąą ‘the sun came up’. There is a set of three geographically-linked place names with prefix xa(a) ‘upward’ and the noun sa(a) ‘sun’:

  • Xaasaa Na’ ‘upward sun river’
  • Xaasaa Cheege ‘upward sun river mouth’
  • Xasatl’aadi ‘the one of the upward sun headwaters’

Related to those Alaska Native place-names, a pyramid-shaped peak in the Alaska Range named Mount Hayes is visible from both the north and south sides of the Alaska Range for distances of 150 or more miles. A highly iconic place name Xasatl’aadi has been used since antiquity as a geographic point of reference for that mountain. Language-specific variants of the placename for Mount Hayes are used in the surrounding Athabascan languages: Ahtna, Tanacross, Middle Tanana and Lower Tanana.

Q: What can be learned scientifically or medically about the individual?
A: With sophisticated medical science techniques, a very small portion of bone may yield information that makes clear whether the person was a boy or girl, whether the person was eating migratory salmon that originated in the oceans thousands of miles away, and the radiocarbon age estimate in calendar years before present. Preserved DNA would provide the opportunity for any living person to determine whether they are genetically related to this ancient person.

Q. What is the history of burial practices among Athabascan people of Interior Alaska?
A; The people in the region traditionally practiced cremations. The influence of missionaries in the 18th and 19th centuries led to a change in burial practices and the people began to bury their dead without cremation. Some early ground burials are encased in birch bark and, more recently, the dead have been buried in locally made wood coffins. It is common through the region to build picket “spirit” fences or miniature houses around the burial chambers of the deceased.

Q: How is this find related to NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act)?
A: NAGPRA specifically relates to discoveries of human remains on Tribal lands owned by Indian organizations or under jurisdiction of the federal government or Alaska Native corporations and Native allotment lands. This find is on land currently administered by the State of Alaska. However, in the spirit of NAGPRA, Tribal consultation guidelines developed under the law were followed to initiate dialogue between scientists and local tribal leadership. Consultation began immediately following the discovery with the local federally recognized Tribe that has historic subsistence and ancestral ties to the area where the discovery is located.

Q: Why was this find exhumed rather than left in place?
A: At the time of discovery, only a small portion of the find had been excavated. Once the scientists determined that the tiny bone fragments were human, they halted excavation, and immediately initiated consultation with the local Tribe. Through subsequent Tribal consultation, an understanding of the unique opportunity this discovery provided to further understand the deep human history of the region outweighed a more traditional approach of leaving the remains in the ground. It was also concluded that the rarity of this find make it vulnerable to vandalism and possible desecration based on previous experiences at local Indian cemeteries.

Q. Where are the remains now?
A. The remains of these ancient children are being conserved in an environmentally controlled setting with physical security to protect against theft of vandalism. The location is being kept confidential to ensure the protection of the remains. The treatment and final disposition will be determined through further consultation between the lead federal agency, the State of Alaska, scientists, the local federally recognized Tribe and affiliated Tribal organizations.