Children of the Upward Sun River: 11,500-Year-Old Remains Shed Light on Alaska’s Earliest Inhabitants
Upward Sun River is the name of an archeological site found in the Tanana River Valley in the interior of Alaska. The site was made famous in 2010 with the discovery of the remains of a young girl and then in 2013 with the discovery of two infant remains, buried perhaps 11,500 years ago. The name, Upward Sun River is the direct translation of the Middle Tanana name for the area, Xaasaa Na, as recalled by the last two remaining speakers of the language in a 1960s interview. The bodies provide unique insight into the ancient inhabitants of Alaska. They are also the oldest and youngest remains found in the Americas – oldest in the sense of when they were buried, youngest in the sense of their age.
Course of the Tanana River, formed by the shorter Nabesna River (left) and Chisana River (right), then flowing northwest to meet the Yukon River ( Public Domain )
The first child found was a three-year-old girl, affectionately named Xaasaa Cheege Ts'eniin (Upward Sun River Mouth Child). One of the infants found in 2013 was a six- to 12- week old baby, the other a stillborn fetus perhaps 30 weeks old. The body of Xaasaa Cheege Ts'eniin was found in the remains of a fire pit, suggesting that the prehistoric Americans living in the area were at least semi-sedentary. Before it was used as a grave, the fire pit served as a hearth for a family’s permanent home in the Tanana River Valley. Upon the young child’s death, however, the family buried her in the pit and seems to have left the place for good. The girl’s teeth show striking similarities to the teeth of northern Asians, as well as to the teeth of Native Americans. This supports the theory that the America’s first inhabitants came to the continent via a land bridge across the Bering Strait that connected Siberia and Alaska.
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Genetic settlement of Beringia ( CC BY 2.5 )
The infants found in the Tanana River Valley were also discovered in an abandoned fire pit. They were buried in the same pit with items that may have had spiritual significance. The infants were covered in red ochre and surrounded by four decorated antler rods. There were also fish bone fragments, most likely from chum salmon, but these probably came from meals cooked over the fire pit and may not have been connected with the burial ritual. This is the only instance of a multiple burial from the early Ice Age of America, leading some experts to believe that the babies were buried at the same time.
Ben Potter and colleague Joshua Reuther excavate the burial of two infants at Upward Sun River in Alaska. Credit: Ben Potter
Both infants carry DNA lineages that are only found among Americans yet interestingly, the infants are from genetically distinct peoples. Researchers are able to extract the mitochondrial genome from the bones of the babies. The infant belongs to human mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) haplogroup C1b, one of the five mtDNA haplogroups of indigenous Americans. The fetus belongs to mtDNA haplogroup B4b (sometimes mistakenly labeled as B2), another one of the five indigenous American mtDNA haplogroups.
An illustration of an 11,500-year-old grave in central Alaska that contained a rare double burial of two infants. Photo credit: ( Ben Potter, University of Alaska Fairbanks )
Although both haplogroups are only found in American peoples, they derive from different Asiatic sources. (A haplogroup is the scientific name for a genetic population of people who share common paternal and/or maternal ancestors.) The mtDNA haplogroup C is common in the peoples of Siberia, such as the Yukaghirs and the Nganasans.
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It is believed to have first arisen 24,000 years ago in the Caspian Sea region and is believed to have arrived in America about 12,800 years ago. The mtDNA haplogroup B is common in the peoples of China, as well as in the Turks, the Mongols, and the Tungusic peoples of Siberia. It is believed to have first arisen 50,000 years ago in Southeastern Asia and is believed to have arrived in America about 12,000 years ago. The presence of both genetic populations in Alaska greatly supports the theory that successive waves of people crossed the Barring Strait tens of thousands of years ago.