While excavating a Paleolithic burial pit containing the remains of a cremated 3-year-old child in Alaska, researchers have discovered the skeletons of two infants directly underneath. All three were buried around 11,500 years ago during the last Ice Age. The findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, offer a rare glimpse at the funeral practices and mortuary behavior of North America’s earliest inhabitants.
In 2010, a team led by Ben Potter from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, recovered the partially burned remains of the 3-year-old from a residential hearth at the Upward Sun River site near the Tanana River in central Alaska. The same team returned in 2013 to excavate below the residence, and that’s when they found the skeletons of two unburned infants buried in a circular pit 40 centimeters below the cremation hearth.
“Taken collectively, these burials and cremation reflect complex behaviors related to death among the early inhabitants of North America,” Potter says in a news release. They’re the youngest-aged human remains of their era ever found in the northern part of the continent, and their remains and burial offerings are helping researchers understand how early societies were structured, the stresses they faced, and how they viewed death, especially of their youngest members.
An examination of the dental and skeletal remains revealed that the first individual was a newborn who died about 12 weeks after birth, and the second was a late-term fetus. Their jaw and pelvic bones suggest both were female. The newborn was lying face up, with her knees tightly bent toward the chest. One hypothesis is that these two were twins, and their positioning suggests the grave was dug up after the newborn died in order to bury them together. Because they were radiocarbon dated to the same time as the previous discovery, the researchers think only a single season passed between their burial and the cremation of the three-year-old child.
The grave offerings they were interred with include the earliest known examples of North American stone projectile points, called hafted bifaces, and antler foreshafts decorated with abstract cut marks—together these made spears. “The technology links Alaska and the Yukon territory with Asia," Potter tells the Los Angeles Times. "It really looks Asian." The first North Americans were thought to have crossed a land bridge across the Bering Sea from northeast Asia. Because these tools took effort to make, burying them indicates the importance of rituals associated with death. Additionally, the artifacts were coated with red ochre, a common Paleolithic practice around the world.
The team also found the remnants of salmon-like fish and ground squirrels in the burial pit, which means the site was likely occupied by hunter-gatherers between June and August. That’s a time when resources were abundant, diversity was high (both small and large game), and nutritional stresses were low. However, the presence of three deaths within a single highly mobile foraging group in a short period of time suggests that these communities may have faced higher levels of mortality than previously expected. The team is currently working on analyzing the DNA.
Images: UAF photo courtesy of Ben Potter