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25 February 2011
Oldest subarctic North American human remains found

Some 11,500 years ago one of America's earliest families laid the remains of a 3-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 the early settlers who crossed from Asia to the New World, researchers report in the latest edition of the journal Science.
     University of Alaska Fairbanks archaeologist Ben Potter and four colleagues discovered the skeletal remains of an approximately three-year-old child in an ancient fire pit within an equally ancient dwelling at the Upward Sun River site, near the Tanana River in central Alaska. Radiocarbon dating of wood at the site indicates the cremation took place roughly 11,500 years ago, when the Bering Land Bridge may still have connected Alaska and Asia.
     The apparent age of the remains from the site, researchers said, would certainly make them the oldest human remains found in northern North America as well as the second-youngest Ice Age child on the continent. "This site reflects many different behaviors never before seen in this part of the world during the last Ice Age, and the preservation and lack of disturbance allows us to explore the lifeways of these ancient peoples in new ways," said Potter.
     The discovery of the remains was unexpected; in fact, it was evidence of an older occupation at the site - about 13,200 year ago - that first attracted the researchers to the site. Only while investigating this earlier occupation did evidence of the burial come to light.
     The pit contained not only the child's remains - the researchers estimate less than 20 percent of the skeleton survived the cremation - but also remains of small mammals, birds, and fish as well as plant remains. Because the human remains were in the uppermost part of the pit, above the animal remains, the researchers suspect the pit was not originally designed as a grave. Evidence also suggests the occupants abandoned the house after the cremation-burial.
     Based on the stratigraphy and other evidence, the researchers describe a possible sequence for how the remains came to be interred at the site. They hypothesize that a small group of people, which included adult females and young children, was foraging in the vicinity of this residential camp, fishing and hunting birds and small mammals. A pit was dug within a house, used for cooking and/or a means of disposing of food debris for weeks or months preceding the death of the child. The child died and was cremated in the pit, which was likely filled with surrounding soil soon thereafter. The house was soon abandoned, they concluded, due to the lack of artifacts found above the fill.
     Burying a child in a house is not unique to hunter-gatherer societies - the practice has been documented in eastern Asia, though the bodies were not cremated there. A dental expert with the team, Joel Irish, says many of the Alaskan child's teeth survived. They indicate he or she died at about age 3. There was no sign of foul play, but there were signs that the child indeed came from Asia - some of the front teeth had a slight shovel-shape.
     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. In any case, the child has been named Xaasaa Cheege Ts'eniin [haw-SAW CHAG tse-NEEN], which means 'Upward Sun River Mouth Child.' The name is associated with the local Native place-name, Xaasaa Na'. Both researchers and tribal leaders have said that the process of working together on this new find has fostered mutual respect and cooperation.
     William Fitzhugh, director of Arctic studies at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, agreed that "this is definitely a unique and important site." He said the most interesting aspects were the very early, well-dated home site and its broad range of small animal food remains, stone tools, hearth pit and a possible ritual cremation site, "all with strong associations to Siberia. Indeed, a great documentation of one of America's first families," said Fitzhugh.

Edited from EurekAlert! (24 February 2011), Mail Online, ArtDaily, NPR.org (25 February 2011)

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