THE FRIENDLY GHOST
WASHINGTON – 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 Friday's edition of the journal Science.
The bones represent the earliest human remains discovered in the Arctic of North America, a "pretty significant find," said Ben A. Potter of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
While ancient Alaskan residents were known to hunt large game, the newly discovered site shows they also foraged for fish, birds and small mammals, he explained. "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."
The site of the discovery, Upper Sun River, is in the forest of the Tanana lowlands in central Alaska, Potter and his colleagues report.
Potter said the find, which included evidence of what appeared to be a seasonal house and the cremated remains of the child, "is truly spectacular in all senses of the word."
"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," Potter said.
Now they have the remains of the residence, which they say was occupied in summer, based on the evidence of bones from salmon and immature ground squirrels.
The cremated human bones are the "first evidence for behavior associated with the death of an individual," Potter said. "This was a living, breathing human being that lived and died," he said.
Based on its teeth, the child was about 3 years old, according to archaeologist Joel Irish, also of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
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.
The child has been named Xaasaa Cheege Ts'eniin (or Upward Sun River Mouth Child) by the local Native community, the Healy Lake Tribe.
In addition to the human and animal bones at the site, the researchers also found stone tools used for cutting.
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, who was not part of the research team.
While these bones represent the earliest human remains in the U.S. Arctic, there is evidence people had passed through Alaska earlier. Indeed, human DNA has been extracted from dried excrement deposited in caves in Oregon some 14,300 years ago and the well-known Clovis Culture flourished in parts of the United States 13,000 years ago.