About 11,500 years ago one of the Americas’ earliest families laid the remains of a three-year-old child to rest in their home in what is now Alaska. The discovery of that burial is shedding new light on the life and times of early settlers who crossed from Asia to the New World, researchers report in yesterday’s edition of the journal Science.
The bones represent the earliest human remains discovered in the Arctic of North America, a “pretty significant find,” Ben Potter of the University of Alaska Fairbanks said.
While ancient Alaskan residents were known to hunt large game, the newly discovered site shows they also foraged for fish, birds and small mammals, he explained.
“Here we know there were young children and females. So, this is a whole piece of the settlement system that we had virtually no record of,” he said.
The site of the discovery, Upper Sun River, is in the forest of the Tanana lowlands in central Alaska, Potter and his colleagues report.
Potter said the find, which -included evidence of what appeared to be a seasonal house and the cremated remains of the child, “is truly spectacular in all senses of the word.”
“Before this find, we knew people were hunting large game like bison or elk with sophisticated weapons, but most of the sites we had to study were hunting camps,” Potter said.
The cremated human bones are the “first evidence for behavior associated with the death of an individual,” Potter said.
Based on its teeth, the child was about three years old, according to archaeologist Joel Irish, also of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
While the researchers were not able to determine the sex of the child from the bones, Potter said they hope to obtain a DNA sample that might give them the answer.
The child has been named Xaasaa Cheege Ts’eniin (or “Upward Sun River Mouth Child”) by the local Native community, the Healy Lake Tribe.
In addition to the human and animal bones at the site, the researchers also found stone tools used for cutting.
William Fitzhugh, director of Arctic studies at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History said the most interesting aspects of the site were the very early, well-dated home and its broad range of small animal food remains, stone tools, hearth pit and a possible ritual cremation site.
While these bones represent the earliest human remains in the US Arctic, there is evidence people had passed through Alaska earlier. Indeed, human DNA has been extracted from dried excrement found in caves in Oregon from about 14,300 years ago and the well-known Clovis Culture flourished in parts of the US 13,000 years ago.
The new find adds to what is known about the people of Beringia, the region extending from eastern Siberia into Alaska, which was connected by a land-bridge across the Bering Strait thousands of years ago, aiding the movement of people from Asia into North America.
Researchers said the stone artifacts, house structure and the types of animal remains more closely resemble items found at Siberia’s Ushki Lake than to anything from the US’ lower 48 states.
While Potter reported that the child probably died before being cremated, Michael Kunz, an archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management in Fairbanks, suggested another possibility: “I don’t think that there is any more evidence that the burned remains of the child indicate a cremation than they indicate that the child may have been cooked and eaten.”