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Archaeologists Discover Remains of Ice Age Infants in Alaska

publication date: Dec 12, 2014
author/source: National Science Foundation

A team of international researchers, including Professor Joel D. Irish from Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), have discovered the remains of two infants, buried some 11,500 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 rarely preserved aspects of life among people who inhabited the area during that early time, according to Ben Potter, the paper’s lead author from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Potter led the archaeological team that made the discovery in fall 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 organizations as they conducted their research. The National Science Foundation in the U.S. funded the work.

The researchers note that the human remains and associated burial offerings, 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, how they treated the youngest members of their society, 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 3-year-old child were found. The bones of the two infants were found in a pit directly below a residential hearth where the 2010 remains were found. "Taken collectively, these burials and cremation reflect complex behaviors related to death among the early inhabitants of North America," Potter said.

In the paper, the researchers describe unearthing the remains of the two children in a burial pit under a residential structure about 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—indicating a short period of time between the burial and cremation, perhaps a single season.

Also found within the burials were unprecedented grave offerings. They included shaped stone points and associated antler foreshafts decorated with abstract incised lines, representing some of the oldest 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.

Irish, second author on the paper, examined dental and skeletal remains to determine the probable age, and other information about the infants; also for the youngest individual, the possible size and weight at the time of the death was estimated: one survived birth by a few weeks, while the other died in the womb.

According to Irish, “the deaths are consistent with high levels of childhood death in highly mobile hunter–gatherers, which have been reported to be as high as 45% in recent arctic/subarctic groups.” However, he also said that “the nearly concurrent deaths of two infants and a child could have been more harmful than usual to the small group regarding long-term demographic effects, if additional births did not occur relatively soon.”

The paper emphasizes how such finds are valuable to science because, except in special circumstances like those described, 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 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 indicate relatively longer-term residential occupation of the site than previously expected.

"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.

Research was conducted by scientists at the Department of Anthropology, University of Alaska; LJMU’s Research Centre in Evolutionary Anthropology and Palaeoecology; and the Archaeology Department, University of Alaska Museum of the North.

more about national science foundation



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