Early tests show McGrath skeletons are hundreds of years old

casey.grove@adn.comNovember 10, 2012 

The skeletons of three centuries-old Alaska Natives discovered in McGrath last month likely lived and died before Caucasians ever made contact, archaeologists say.

A worker clearing Native corporation land to make a gravel-storage site in the Interior Alaska town found a skull in early October. In the silty, sandy ground, an archaeologist and McGrath's local Alaska State Trooper carefully uncovered the bones of three males: an adult, a younger adult and a child.

They quickly learned that the trio was from an earlier time and had not died because of any foul play, according to MTNT, the corporation that owns the land where the remains were found and represents the local Athabascans.

Their first estimates in October put the bones at between 100 and 1,000 years old, archaeologist Joan Dale said.

But more recent analysis of charcoal buried just above one of the skeletons has been dated to between 1470 and 1650 A.D., making the bones at least 362 to 542 years old -- if not older, said Vicki Otte, chief executive officer of MTNT. Otte announced the results of the radiocarbon dating at a community meeting and potluck in McGrath on Wednesday.

"It's just really exciting, to think that they lived in that area so many years ago," Otte said. "All the wonderful things that we enjoy today, they didn't have. They didn't have shoes and cars. They had to walk hundreds of miles just to be able to eat."

There are important lessons to learn from the ancients' wholly subsistence lifestyles, she said.

The charcoal came from a fire hearth about eight inches above the skeletons, and melted animal fat and other material in the old hearth likely helped preserve the bones, said Dale, the archaeologist. Ancestral remains in any condition are rare for that part of Interior because of the acidic soil, let alone such well-preserved remains, she said.

For example, the nearly complete sets of teeth recovered showed the early Alaskans had good dental health, said Betty Magnuson, first chief of the McGrath Native Village Council. McGrath residents viewing the bones Wednesday were surprised by that, Magnuson said.

"The young people couldn't believe the condition of their teeth, these beautiful teeth," she said. "Vicki looked at them and said, 'That was before sugar.' "

After the remains received a Catholic and a nondenominational blessing in McGrath, MTNT flew them to Nikolai on Thursday for a Roman Catholic blessing, then on to Fairbanks.

The skeletons are now in the custody of Tanana Chiefs Conference at a lab. The plan is to carefully take a fragment of bone from the femurs to more precisely date them, determine their relationship to Natives living today as well as any family relationship among the three people, Otte said.

"As we go along, every step of the way, it gets to be more exciting and more exciting for us," Otte said. "It would just be really exciting if it came back that my DNA matched theirs. And then when they date the remains, if they come back to be 1,000 years old, it would be so heartfelt to know that those were my ancestors or the ancestors of the people in Nikolai."

A small dwelling, thought to have been a temporary camp, was also discovered in McGrath near the remains as well as caribou bones, fish skeletons and stone flakes from tool making, Otte said. Archaeologists will wait until next summer to excavate further, she said.

"It's almost like they won the lottery. All these years picking up little pieces of artifacts and things, and then to find something like this," Otte said. "It's an archaeologist's dream."

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.

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