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Child Burial Provides Rare Glimpse of Early Americans

24 February 2011 2:02 pm
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Ben A. Potter/Universtiy of Alaska, Fairbanks

The dead tell tales. Excavations at Upward Sun River (upper left) unearthed a child cremation, one of only a small number of Paleoindian sites with human remains (see map).

About 11,500 years ago, at a seasonal base camp in central Alaska, a 3-year-old child died. Its family burned the small body, perhaps ceremonially, in the house's central hearth, and then they moved on, never to use the home again.

Last year, archaeologists discovered the remains of the house and burial, providing a rare slice of life of the first Americans. Some aspects of the burial resemble those in both Siberia and North America, but in other respects the new find is completely unique. And it may ultimately reveal any genetic links between these early Alaskans and other so-called Paleoindians in North America.

At least 14,000 years ago, humans began moving from Siberia into Alaska, crossing a land bridge over what is now the Bering Sea and then colonizing both North and South America. But the bones and burials of these ancient Alaskans are vanishingly rare, as are the remains of their houses. While excavating at the site of Upward Sun River, near the Tanama River in central Alaska, archaeologist Ben Potter of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and his colleagues discovered the outlines of the foundation of a circular house, including a scattering of stone tools and animal bones on the floor and traces of posts that may have held up the walls and roof. As the team reports in this week's issue of Science, the center of the house was taken up with a large circular pit containing the fragmented, partially burnt bones of the child.

Underneath the human burial, the team found the charred remains of fish including salmon, small mammals such as ground squirrels, and birds such as grouse—all apparently cooked in the hearth before the child was buried in it. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal puts the pit at about 11,500 years old; the eruption of the child's teeth suggests that it was about 3 years old when it died. The burial contained no grave goods, but two small pieces of ochre may have been part of a ritual burial ceremony.

The team surmises that the site served as a summer residence for a small social group, in contrast to more temporary hunting camps typical of many other Paleoindian sites. The pit probably served as both a cooking hearth and a place to dispose of food scraps. But once the child died and its body was cremated there, the people apparently abandoned this house and hearth.

From this era, archaeologists know of only one other burial in Alaska and also only one in Siberia. Two children were buried, one with ochre, in separate houses at the 13,000-year-old Siberian site of Ushki, although those bodies were not cremated. Cremations are known from two North American sites slightly later than Upward Sun River, Marmes in Washington state and Spirit Cave in Nevada, but they were not in houses. Upward Sun River is the only known site with a cremation inside a house, Potter says. "The constellation of behaviors is thus far unique in North America."

Archaeologist John Hoffecker of the University of Colorado, Boulder, agrees. "It's a tremendously interesting find," Hoffecker says. "This is the first time we've seen anything like this so early."

Thanks to good cooperation with local Native peoples, who in some other cases have been wary of scientific analysis of ancient remains, Potter and his team are now analyzing ancient DNA from the child's bones, about 20% of which were not burned. (The local Healy Lake Tribe named the site Upward Sun River, or Xaasaa Na' in the local Athabascan language, and Potter changed his own name for the site to reflect theirs.) If scientists succeed in getting DNA from the child's bones, they might be able to compare it with other Paleoindian bones found farther south. That could give more detailed clues about the routes that the earliest Americans used as they spread down through North America and how closely related these early Alaskans were to ancient humans of the lower 48. "That would be a bombshell," Hoffecker says.

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