Paleo-Indians burying the deceased

Two infant graves dating back 11,500 years found in Alaska

(Read the article on one page)

A new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has announced the discovery of the youngest known human remains ever found in the Arctic – two Ice Age babies that were buried more than 11,000 years ago in Alaska. The discovery sheds lights on ancient funerary practices in the region and provides a unique insight into the cultural practices of North America’s early inhabitants.

Ben Potter, an anthropologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, led the research in cooperation with local and regional indigenous organizations. The new finding was made at the site of an earlier 2010 excavation in the Upward Sun River region of central Alaska, where the cremated remains of a 3-year-old had previously been found.

The Upward Sun River site is believed to have been occupied by the Denali people who inhabited central Alaska from 12,000 to 6,000 years ago, toward the end of the Pleistocene epoch, often referred to as the last Ice Age.

Ben Potter and colleague Joshua Reuther excavate the burial of two infants at Upward Sun River in Alaska

Ben Potter and colleague Joshua Reuther excavate the burial of two infants at Upward Sun River in Alaska. Credit: Ben Potter

The remains of the two babies were found in a pit below a hearth in a seasonal house where the 3-year-old had been found. Experts claim that the first infant died shortly after birth and the other was a late-term foetus. It’s possible they could have been twins. Evidence suggests they had been curled up in an upright position, wrapped, and covered in red ochre.

Within the pit, archaeologists found grave offerings consisting of projectile points and sharpened stones covered in red ochre, antler rods decorated with carved lines, and plant and animal remains, including salmon-like fish and ground squirrels.

Stone projectile points and decorated antler rods

Stone projectile points and decorated antler rods from the burial pit in Alaska. Credit: Ben Potter

"The deaths occurred during the summer, a time period when regional resource abundance and diversity was high and nutritional stress should be low, suggesting higher levels of mortality than may be expected give our current understanding" of survival strategies of the period, the authors write.

The site and its artifacts provide new insights into funeral practices and other rarely preserved aspects of life among people who inhabited the area thousands of years ago, including how they treated the youngest members of their society, and how they viewed death and the importance of rituals associated with it.

However, it also poses a bit of a mystery: Why were the two infants buried intact while the third child was cremated? Archaeologists have suggested that it could be a seasonal difference, or it is possible they treated the dead differently based on age. Another theory is that a prominent family member might have been absent when the three-year-old died, causing the family to choose a simpler cremation.

“Prior to these finds, we really did not have evidence of that facet of settlement and tradition systems for the early Americans who once inhabited this area,” says Potter. “These are new windows into these ancient peoples’ lifestyle.”

Featured image: Paleo-Indians burying the deceased. Painting by Frank Weir ( Texas Beyond History )

By April Holloway

Comments

Why does this sugest higher rates of mortality? The death of these three children at such a young age  may have happened only in one family.

Sunny Young

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

Detail of a star chart dating to the Middle Kingdom.
The calendar is one of mankind’s most important inventions. Calendars allowed societies to organize time for religious, social, economic, and administrative purposes. The calendar, or rather, two sets of calendars, were invented by the ancient Egyptians. One of these was a lunar calendar, which was used mainly for the organization of religious festivals.

Ancient Technology

Detail of a star chart dating to the Middle Kingdom.
The calendar is one of mankind’s most important inventions. Calendars allowed societies to organize time for religious, social, economic, and administrative purposes. The calendar, or rather, two sets of calendars, were invented by the ancient Egyptians. One of these was a lunar calendar, which was used mainly for the organization of religious festivals.

Ancient Places

Healing Temple of Aesculapius (Asklepios) by Robert Thom
In the ancient world, many cultures built elaborate temple complexes dedicated to their healer gods - Imhotep in Egypt and Asklepios in Greece for example. These gods were recognized as having the power to cure supplicants from a variety of ailments within sleep and sacred dreams. Those who desired healing might travel many hundreds of miles to reach such a temple

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article