Fairbanks researchers say they've uncovered the oldest cremated human remains ever discovered in northern North America at a site near the Tanana River in central Alaska.
The 3-year-old is only the second Ice Age child discovered on the continent, according to the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Archaeologists discovered the remains in a fire pit in an abandoned living area from 13,200 years ago and dated the child's death to about 11,500 years ago, according to research by UAF's Ben Potter and his team in today's edition of the journal Science.
In one of many interviews Thursday, Potter remembered the find early in the morning of last June 5.
"It was our last day at the site," Potter said by phone from Fairbanks. "That was it for the excavation."
But in a small, 1-meter-square test plot away from the main excavation area, the team started to uncover skeletal fragments and teeth.
"I knew the moment I held the first human remains, identified the tooth, OK, clearly, we knew the age right away, so actually I was thinking of this day that moment, because I knew it was big," Potter said.
LEARNING THE CHILD'S STORY
Excavation work at the Upper Sun River site halted as the archaeologists consulted with other researchers, Alaska Native leaders and members of the community. They picked up work again at the site in August, Potter said.
So far, they've uncovered a semicircular area where the researchers think a small house stood, Potter said. It was likely a full circle, a shallow depression in the ground, with poles around the outside holding up animal skins or a sod roof, he said.
Inside, where the remains were found, four poles appear to have stood around another smaller depression in the ground, which served as a cooking area, "the center of domestic activity," Potter said.
The researchers found debris from salmon and other food toward the bottom of the pit; the human remains were near the top, and they'd been covered in dirt shortly before the house was abandoned, Potter said.
Looking at the child's teeth, UAF bioarchaeologist Joel Irish said in initial observations that the remains had traits of North Americans and Northeast Asians.
Researchers and Interior Native groups have given the child the name Xaasaa Cheege Ts'eniin, which is associated with the Native place name, Xaasaa Na, and means "Upper Sun River Mouth Child."
Interior Alaska Native groups are working with UAF to learn more about the child's story.
"This find is especially important to us since it is in our area, but the discovery is so rare that it is of interest for all humanity," said Tanana Chiefs Conference President Jerry Isaac, in a statement issued by UAF.
Healy Lake Traditional Council Chief Joann Polston said she wanted to know everything she could about the child.
RESPECTING THE REMAINS
Reports to media by other archaeologists that the remains indicated cannibalism are false, Potter said, because no food debris or other trash was found above or on top of the child.
It's difficult to attempt to get inside the heads of the ancient humans, but Potter thinks the circumstances of the child's burial and the subsequent abandoning of the living area points to the emotions of the house's inhabitants.
"I do think that a reasonable interpretation of that would be that they cared for the child and the child was important to them," Potter said.
Archaeologists like Potter often see limited evidence of past human life, just the remnants of leftover debris and trash, he said.
Uncovering human remains is different, he said.
"Obviously the respect is there," Potter said. "It brings home, this early, that you're dealing with an actual individual, an actual person."
Out of respect for the Native name, Potter said his team has not used any nicknames to describe the child.
"The way I do archaeology, I think of what I would want if my child was excavated in the future, you know, 10,000 years from now, and respectful considerate actions by the scientists and by everyone I think would be what I would want," Potter said. "In this, the Native community and the scientists were in agreement that we want to continue the respect that we have for the remains, and the fact that this was a child that someone loved."
Though the remains were cremated, researchers think DNA might still be present in them. Isaac said he intends to have his own DNA compared to the remains.
A small group of humans probably lived at the site hunting and fishing. They used a pit in the dwelling for cooking and leaving food waste, and after the group cremated the child, the pit was filled with dirt and the living space abandoned, according to the researchers' hypothesis.
How rare is the find?
"I don't want to say once in a lifetime, because I'm still hopeful. But yeah, this is extraordinarily rare," Potter said.
Reach Casey Grove at email@example.com or 257-4589.
By CASEY GROVE