A team of archaeologists, led by Ben Potter from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, have discovered the remains of infants buried 11,500 years ago, during the last ice age. According to a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the infants represent the remains of the youngest humans ever uncovered in North America.
Science Daily reports that the excavation, funded by the National Science Foundation, took place at the Upward Sun River site in central Alaska, below a previous excavation site where the remains of a cremated 3-year-old were found in 2010. Below the toddler’s remains, one late-term fetus and one infant who likely died very shortly after birth were unearthed in a covered pit. The site is believed to have been below a residential hearth.
Researchers do not consider it likely that the infants’ group remained at the site for more than one season, leading to more questions about why the two infants’ burials differed from the toddler’s. According to The Washington Post, it is not likely the burial rituals differed in adherence to gender deference, as scientists believe all three remains to be those of a female. More tests have yet to be done to conclusively determine gender.
The infants’ burial sites, which Potter and his team discovered in 2013, offer some answers and even more questions about community life and structure, rituals and religion of these ice age nomads. According to Potter, part of what makes the find so seminal is the nature and context of the artifacts. Early Native Americans of their period were not previously known to use many of the recovered artifacts in the context of burial, such as shaped stone points and associated antler foreshafts, which had been decorated with incised lines.
The Upward Sun River site, discovered in 2006, is now located on a sand dune beneath a boreal forest. According to Alaska Dispatch News, the site’s preservation is due largely to its being situated deep in the earth, protected from the acidic soil of the forest. There is evidence of six individual occupations at the site—typically for only hours or days at a time—over the course of thousands of years.
The insight uncovered at the site reaches well beyond that of burial rituals, however. Fish and squirrel remains in the pit lead researchers to believe that this particular group would have been at the site in the summer months. The three deaths lead them to wonder at the resource stresses that may have led to so many deaths during a season when food is expected to have been more plentiful.
Certain ice age hunting artifacts discovered in the infants’ grave are among the oldest examples in North America of hafted compound weaponry. The paper notes that the weapons could suggest that the hunting implements had significance in the burial ritual, as well as within the society as a whole. As these early cultures were without written a language, little is known about their rituals and beliefs, making discoveries such as this a veritable goldmine for archaeologists and researchers.
By Sree Aatmaa Khalsa
Photo by: Capture the Uncapturable – Flickr License