‘Twin’ Ice Age Infants Discovered in 11,500-Year-Old Alaska Grave

A tenderly decorated grave discovered in Alaska holds the remains of two infants dating back 11,500 years, the youngest Ice Age humans yet found in the Western Hemisphere, archaeologists say.

Interred together inside an ancient residence, one child was about 12 weeks old at the time of death, the other, a late-term fetus — the first known instance of a prenatal burial in the Americas.

Researchers say that the babies were memorialized with an array of goods that was, by Paleoindian standards, rather lavish.

The grave was ornamented with a coating of red ochre and a complement of hunting tools, including two large stone points and four long foreshafts fashioned out of carved elk antler.

The hunting tools, known as hafted bifaces, are the earliest examples of their kind found in North America.

Together, the remains and artifacts, all found within an Ice Age residence, provide unprecedented insights into the nature of life and the rituals of death among some of the continent’s earliest inhabitants, researchers say.

“This mortuary treatment is the first of its kind in the New World — no other Paleoindian burials share this feature,” said Dr. Ben Potter of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, referring to the burials being found inside a residence.

Alaska-infant-burial
Researchers excavate a double infant burial at the Upward Sun River site, Alaska. (Courtesy Ben A. Potter)

Potter and his team found the grave last year at a site known as Upward Sun River in central Alaska, while investigating a structure that appears to have been a seasonal fishing, hunting and foraging camp.

And they discovered the grave directly beneath a similarly grim feature that the team found in 2010: the cremated remains of a 3-year-old boy. [Find out what we learned from an even older child burial in Montana: “Genome of America’s Only Clovis Skeleton Reveals Origins of Native Americans“]

Why one body was cremated while the other two were not is one of the many mysteries posed by the find, Potter said.

The discrepancy could relate to the ages of the dead, or to their sex, as the two infants appear to have been female, and possibly twins.

“This is the first evidence of multiple individuals [buried] within a single feature with fundamentally different treatments, which may reflect situational factors, [such as] who was present or absent at each event, or the expectedness or unexpectedness of the deaths, or age-grade differences,” he said.

However, the burials did not occur very far apart in time.

hafted-bifaces-alaska
Four spear shafts, fashioned out of elk antler, and the two-side stone points that were attached to them together comprise the oldest examples of these hunting tools found in the Americas, experts say. (Potter et al., PNAS)

“It is most likely that all three children are part of a single community that used this exact feature,” Potter said of the structure.

“Since this appears to be a summer residential base camp, it is plausible that both burial events occurred during the same summer or during subsequent summers,” he said.

The stratigraphy, or layering of soils, around the remains is the clearest indicator of this, suggesting a rather rapid series of somber events, Potter explained.

The infants were buried first, their grave having been dug under the camp’s main cooking hearth. They were then covered with  the hearth’s original contents — soil, charcoal, and animal bones, mostly fragments from salmon and ground squirrels.

But with the subsequent death of the toddler, anywhere from a few weeks to a full year later, the boy’s remains were cremated in the hearth itself, and the site was abandoned.

Though bleak, these events produced an array of artifacts and other clues that offer tantalizing glimpses into the lifeways of ancient Alaskans, beginning with the hunting tools that were buried with the infants.

“The grave goods give us a rare window into ideology or belief systems of these ancient peoples,” Potter said.

“There is a clear importance ascribed to hunting implements, and they may reflect the importance of terrestrial hunting within the culture.”

The four antler shafts are “significantly longer” than others known from this era in North America, averaging about a half-meter in length, and Potter noted that they are similar in size to shafts found in eastern Siberia.

Three of the foreshafts were also carved with multiple X patterns, a design that’s “unprecedented” in North American hunting tools, he and his team say.

But the most significant aspect of the tools may simply be that all of their components were found together, in a setting dated farther back than any others yet found.

“The stone points and antler foreshafts were clearly hafted, giving us the oldest glimpse into functions of this compound technology,” he said.

“Most points or rods are found in isolation, and many hypothetical functions have been ascribed to the organic components.” [Read about a related find: “13,500-Year-Old Tool-Making Site Uncovered in Idaho Forest“]

Even the contents of the hearth, which separated the burials, retain clues to Paleoindian life, Potter said.

“The presence of salmon before the earlier burial and before the later burial indicate multiple episodes of salmon fishing, providing evidence for broader diets than just big-game for this early period,” he noted.

And indeed, simple survival in ancient Alaska — even during the relative time of plenty in the summer months — may have been far harder than experts have thought, as the children’s graves attest.

“While we caution that the sample size is small, the evidence of deaths of three very young individuals at a time of year when we expect the least amount of resource stress — that is, the highest abundance of resources — may indicate that nutritional stress was higher than our models indicate,” Potter said.

“The significance of the site is multifaceted,” he added.

Future research may provide more details about the very short life-stories of those buried at Upward Sun River.

But the site also holds a potential trove of information about the children’s community, its history, and its genetic and cultural influences on the people of Ice Age North America. [Who were the first Americans? “Ancient Feces From Oregon Cave Aren’t Human, Study Says, Adding to Debate on First Americans“]

“The potential for ongoing and future studies on ancient DNA and stable isotopes will provide a wealth of direct data on genetic affiliation with modern populations and ancient samples, [as well as on the] paleodiet of the [children’s] mother(s) and mobility,” Potter said.

He and his colleagues report their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


ResearchBlogging.org

Potter BA, Irish JD, Reuther JD, & McKinney HJ (2014). New insights into Eastern Beringian mortuary behavior: A terminal Pleistocene double infant burial at Upward Sun River. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 25385599

Leave a Reply to Joseph Rojas Cancel Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Discussion

  1. Richard Wisecarver

    The foreshafts are likely made moose antler not elk antler. The European call moose, elk. . The Bering Sea Central Yupiks value bearded sea as the most important game, but actually eat far more fresh and salt water fish. Herring, halibut, pike, white fish, burbot, sheefish, black fish and needle fish and a few salmon are eaten in large amounts in the Nelson Island region, other coastal areas and Salmon, pike, burbot and white fish are the most important foods in the riverine areas. Bearded seals and caribou are the important ritual animals. Ritual animals are not always the primary source of food. Steel, antler, ivory or whale bone are still used today are used for foreshafts on modern Yupik sealing toggling harpoons. They range from about 5 to 12 inches. The primary quarry of the Nelson folks is based on what ever fish or game will produce in the most efficient way. Seal of one species or another can be hunted year around, but men focus primarily on the most productive animal of that particular part of the year. Seal are taken in the early spring and nearly fall, but every skiff has a sealing harpoon all thru the summer and if the wind blows the ice off shore in the winter, hunters will explore the temporarily open leads for the odd seal. Almost all Alaskan hunters be they Aleut, Yupik or Athabaskan in rural Alaska are highly opportunistic. In would assume their ancestors were as well.

  2. Arcantica

    I understand people are interested in this stuff, but for gods sake leave them alone. It’s plain disrespect to dig up gravesites, regardless of how ‘ancient’ they are. People ceremoniously placed these bodies for cultural reasons. Have some respect. Our curiosity for knowledge should not excuse our trespasses to desecrate graves.

  3. Courtney Agenten

    This burial reminds me of the Clovis Child found at the Anzick site in Montana. I think burials of the first peoples in North America are profoundly moving, especially for school children to learn about. Two enduring understandings for students are
    1) Burial sites provide a human connection to the past and can reveal the culture of ancient people. The Ice Age burial of these infants is a human connection to the past and reveals how ancient people expressed their love and grief.
    2) Studying ancient human remains has ethical implications.

    In a curriculum guide I wrote for Project Archaeology, I ask students: How did ancient people express their love and grief when a member of their family passed away? What are the ethical implications of studying ancient American Indian remains? Here is a link to the guide for any interested teachers out there: http://projectarchaeology.org/downloads/investigating-first-peoples-montana-common-core/

  4. Joseph Rojas

    Actually the moose foreshafts is a great idea! Except for the migrating elk from which the settlers are thought to have followed across the land bridge from Siberia.
    The first reported petrified elk remains have been found in interior Alaska June 2014, which included a antler with partial skull intact. The carbon date proved 2000 years old and previous studies had shown the healthy population of elk in Alaska was thought to become extinct around 7000 years, to as recent as 4000 years ago.
    There have been other elk remains discovered north of the brooks range and if more info is needed, the UAF museum in Fairbanks is a great place to search.

  5. Biddy

    And, criss-crossed hatch marks are found on Mammoth Ivory fore-shafts in Florida

arrow
loading