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Archaeologists discover remains of Ice Age infants in Alaska

The remains of two Ice Age infants, buried over 11,000 years ago at a site located in Alaska, represent the youngest human remains ever discovered in the northern part of North America, according to a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The site and its artefacts shed new light on funeral practices and other rarely preserved 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 the autumn of 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 organisations as they conducted their research. The work was funded by The National Science Foundation.

Potter and his colleagues note that the human remains and associated burial offerings, as well as interferences about the time of year the children met their demise and were buried, could potentially lead to new ideas about how early societies were structured, the stresses they faced as they tried to survive, how they treated the youngest members of their society, and how they viewed death and the importance of the rituals associated with it.

Potter made the new discovery on the site of a 2010 excavation, where the cremated remains of another three-year-old child were uncovered. The bones of the two infants were found in a pit directly below a residential hearth where the 2010 remains were discovered.

     

“Taken collectively, these burials and cremation reflect complex behaviours related to death among the early inhabitants of North America,” Potter said.

In the paper, Potter, along with his colleagues, describe unearthing the remains of the two children in a burial pit under a residential structure approximately 15 inches below the level of the 2010 discovery. The radiocarbon dates of the newly discovered remains are identical to those of the previous find – approximately 11,500 years ago – suggesting a short period of time between the burial and cremation, possibly even a single season.

Also discovered within the burials were unprecedented grave offerings. These included shaped stone points and associated antler foreshafts decorated with abstract incised lines, representing some of the earliest examples of hafted compound weapons in North America.

“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.

The researchers also assessed dental and skeletal remains in order to determine the probable age and sex of the infants at the time of their death: One survived birth by just a few weeks, while the other perished utero. The presence of three deaths within a single highly mobile foraging group may demonstrate resource stress, such as food shortages, among these early Americans.

Finds like these are valuable to science because, except in special circumstances like those described in the paper, there isn’t a great deal of direct evidence regarding social organisation and mortuary practices of such early human cultures, which had no written languages.

The artefacts – including the projectile points, plant and animal remains – can also aid in the construction of a more complete picture of early human societies and how they were structured and survived climate changes 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 also show relatively longer-term residential occupation of the site than previously expected.

The remains of salmon-like fish and ground squirrels in the burial pit signify that the site was probably occupied by hunter-gatherers between June and August.

“The deaths occurred during the summer, a time period where regional resource abundance and diversity was high and nutritional stress should be low, suggesting higher levels of mortality than may be expected given our current understanding” of survival strategies of the period, the authors write.

Contributing Source: University of Alaska Fairbanks

Header Image Source: UAF photo courtesy of Ben Potter

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