Sunday, March 13, 2011

Oldest subarctic North American child's remains found

A newly excavated archaeological site in Alaska contained the cremated remains of one of the earliest inhabitants of North America. This find may provide rare insights into the burial practices of Ice Age peoples, while shedding new light on their daily lives, according to a paper published Feb. 25 in the journal Science.

he skeletal remains appear to be that of a three-year-old child (approx.), found in an ancient fire pit within a house structure at the Upward Sun River site, near the Tanana River in central Alaska. Radiocarbon dating of wood at the site indicates the cremation took place roughly 11,500 years ago, when the Bering Land Bridge may still have connected Alaska and Asia. Initial observations of the teeth by bioarchaeologist Joel Irish provide confirmation that the child is biologically affiliated with Native Americans and north-east Asians.

The apparent age of the remains from the site, researchers said, would certainly make them the oldest human remains found in northern North America as well as the second-youngest Ice Age child on the continent.

Working in partnership

The find is also notable because archaeologists and Alaska Natives are working hand-in-hand to ensure the excavation and subsequent examination of the remains will benefit science and heritage studies in a way that is respectful of traditional Athabascan culture.

“This site reflects many different behaviours never before seen in this part of the world during the last Ice Age, and the preservation and lack of disturbance allows us to explore the lifeways of these ancient peoples in new ways,” said Potter.

Both the burial and the house itself are the earliest of their kind known in subarctic North America, according to the researchers. Discovery of burial sites of this age in North America is very rare; the buried remains of children are even more so.

The discovery of the remains was unexpected according to the site director, Dr. Potter. In fact, it was evidence of an older occupation at the site—about 13,200 year ago—that first attracted the researchers to the site. Only while investigating this earlier occupation did evidence of the burial come to light.

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