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500-year-old remains of 3 males unearthed in remote Alaska

Ben Anderson
Photo courtesy MTNT

Discovering prehistoric human remains in Interior Alaska is exceedingly rare, thanks to acidic soil in the region. So when three bodies -- an adult, young adult and child, all male -- were discovered in McGrath in early October, it was an unusual find. On Thursday, that unique find became even more so with the revelation that the bodies are likely more than 500 years old.

The remains were discovered in the village on Oct. 3 as a crew cleared a lot as part of an erosion control project along the Kuskokwim River -- which runs near the community of about 350 people situated 220 miles northwest of Anchorage -- stumbled across a human skull poking out from the freshly-cleared land.

Despite some in the community’s hopes that the remains might be those of a village elder who went missing about 30 years ago, Alaska State Troopers and an archaeologist concluded the remains were far too old to be the same person. Just how old was more of a surprise.

According to archaeologist Bob Sattler, the preliminary age dating was based on a layer of charcoal -- likely from a hearth or firepit previously located in the spot -- that was found above the remains, which was dated at between about 360-540 years old.

“We know the remains are older than this date, because they’re below it stratigraphically,” Sattler said. The remains were about one meter below the ground’s surface, and the hearth a foot or two above that. Scientists are currently working to determine a more specific age of the bones themselves.

Sattler said the bodies could be centuries or even millennia old.

At a press conference in Fairbanks put on in part by the McGrath Native Village Council and the Alaska Native corporation of MTNT, the remains were given a blessing and handed over to Tanana Chiefs Conference, where archaeologists will continue to study the rare find.

“Personally, I’m happy to see this event,” Tanana Chiefs President Jerry Isaac said as he accepted responsibility for the remains. He said that the indigenous people of Interior Alaska have traditionally had cremated their dead.

That, coupled with the highly acidic soil, have made prehistoric human remains discovered in Alaska’s Interior very unusual, Sattler said.

“The acidic soils in the forest typically will dissolve bones within a century,” he said. “Rarely do you find unburned bone in the interior.”

As a result, the early history of Alaska’s Interior Native people is hazy at best.

“Much remains to be found out about the lifestyle of our forebears,” Isaac said. “All we know is that we’re told we were nomadic, that they traveled from camp to camp in search of food.”

They were hunter-gatherers, not farmers, he said. But he expressed hope that these new remains could provide insight not only into history, but the health and physiology of the prehistoric people, and the compare it to residents of the area today.

MTNT CEO Vicki Otte noted that the remains could give insight into living on a “true subsistence lifestyle.” Tom Gillispie, another archaeologist with Tanana Chiefs, said that DNA testing could possibly reveal modern day descendants of the humans to whom the remains belong.

Gillispie and Sattler noted that the results at this point are “very preliminary,” and much further analysis will need to be conducted to possibly figure out how the three died and to examine the remains and dig site more closely. Among the questions: Why were these remains in particular so well-preserved in an area where bones usually vanish in a matter of decades?

“That’s part of the puzzle,” Gillispie said. “We don’t know why.”

They added that they’re working to secure funding to revisit the site next summer. Also discovered at the site was a small shard of obsidian, a volcanic rock that may have played a role in crafting tools. There is much to be gleaned from even just the small pit where the three males were laid to rest together.

Before the remains were transferred to Tanana Chiefs Conference, the bodies were blessed by Rev. Anna Frank, an Athabascan.

“The people who lived on this earth, the first people in this area, they have left for us values and principles for us to live by,” Frank said in her blessing. “All these gifts, they left for us.”

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com