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Ancient remains of a child provides glimpse into lives of earliest Americans

The partial skeleton of a three year old child, uncovered in central Alaska, dates back to 11,500 years ago. It’s one of the oldest human remains found in North America.

Archaeologists have uncovered the cremated remains of a child that lived 11,500 years ago at the Upward Sun River site, near the Tanana River in central Alaska. The partial skeleton, its antiquity determined using radiocarbon dating of wood at the site, is one of the oldest remains found in North America. It was discovered in what is believed to be a temporary summer dwelling for nomadic families that may have spent the season hunting for small game in the area. The discovery was reported by Ben Potter, of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, and his colleagues in the journal Science.

In a press release, Dr. Potter said,

The site is truly spectacular in all senses of the word. The cremation is quite significant, but the context of the find is important too.

Before this find we knew people were hunting large game like bison or elk with sophisticated weapons, but most of sites we had to study were hunting camps. But here we know there were young children and females. So, this is a whole piece of the settlement system that we had virtually no record of.

Fragments like these are among the remains discovered at the Upward Sun River site in Alaska. Photo credit: Maureen McCombs, University of Alaska Fairbanks

The child’s remains, about 20 per cent of the skeleton, was found in a large oval-shaped pit, about 27 centimeters (10.6 inches) deep, located at the center of the home. It’s thought that the pit was initially used for cooking and waste disposal because the remains of salmon, ground squirrel, ptarmigan, and other small animals were found in it. The child’s skeleton, however, was at the top of those contents. Archaeologists believe that the child was cremated in the pit that was subsequently sealed, and the house abandoned.

There’s not enough of the remains left to identify the sex of the child, but based on teeth found at the site, the researches believe the child to be about three years of age. No symbolic objects were found among the remains. But that doesn’t mean that the child’s death was treated without reverence. Said Dr. Potter,

All the evidence indicates that they went through some effort. The burial was within the house. If you think of the house as the center of many residential activities: cooking, eating, sleeping, and the fact that they abandoned the house soon afterward the cremation, this is pretty compelling evidence of the careful treatment of the child.

Skylar Chase stands with her grandmother, Healy Lake Traditional Council First Chief Joann Polston, as she looks at remains and artifacts from the Upward Sun River site. Photo credit: Maureen McCombs, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Some researchers studying early American populations believe that the first inhabitants of North America may have arrived from Siberia via the Bering Land Bridge. This would have occurred towards the end of the last ice age, around 13,000 years ago, when the sea level was lower than it is today. Because of possible ties between the ancient child’s people to current-day Native Americans, the Healy Lake Tribe and other Alaska native people have been working closely with the archaeologists in the excavation of the ancient home and study of the child’s remains. The Healy Lake Tribe have named the child ‘Xaasaa Cheege Ts’eniin,’ which means ‘Upward Sun River Mouth Child.’

Check out this video that contains more details about the find, including interviews with members of the Healy Lake Tribe.

A child died 11,500 years ago, and was cremated in a pit at the center of what appears to be a summer dwelling. His — or her — partly charred partial skeleton was found by a team of archaeologists from the University of Alaska, working with members of the Healy Lake Tribe. Teeth found at the site placed the child’s age at about three years. The child was likely a descendant of the first humans that may have entered North America from Siberia, about 13,000 years ago, crossing a land bridge between the two land masses that had been left exposed by the lower sea level towards the end of the last ice age. The child was named ‘Xaasaa Cheege Ts’eniin’ by the tribe, which means ‘Upward Sun River Mouth Child.’

Joshua Reuther, Ben Potter and Joel Irish excavate the burial pit at the Upward Sun River site in Alaska. Photo courtesy of Ben Potter.

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