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Remains of ice-age infants unearthed in Interior Alaska among oldest in North America

  • Author: Laurel Andrews
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 10, 2014

Two ice-age infants discovered at an ancient campsite in Interior Alaska are the oldest human remains ever found in the North American Arctic and Subarctic, and among the oldest discovered on the entire continent, according to researchers with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The rare find unearthed at the Upward Sun River site -- a burial site that UAF researcher Dr. Ben Potter called an "incredibly important time capsule" -- will provide researchers an unprecedented glance into ancient social customs and a wide range of human behaviors.

Discovered in 2013, the remains of the two infants date from 11,500 years ago, near the end of the last ice age. The earliest known Alaskans date from 14,000 years ago.

One of the children discovered is thought to have died in utero, at about 33 weeks gestation. The other child is estimated to have been around 6 weeks old when it died. They are the youngest infants to have been uncovered on North America, according to Potter. The remains have been identified as Native Americans.

A 'rare window' into the past

The Upward Sun River site is described as an ancient residential campsite in Interior Alaska near the Tanana River east of Fairbanks. The infants were buried beneath a hearth in a residential structure thought to be a small house.

Two stone spear points and four antler rods were found buried with the infants. The points and rods were highly decorated with "X" incisions, Potter said, to a level not seen before. The rods are thought to have been attached to spear throwers, and a third stone tool unearthed with the infants may have functioned as a knife.

These artifacts are an "unprecedented series of grave goods which we really haven't seen for this period," Potter said during a teleconference Monday. Burials provide a "rare window" into cultures that had no written language, he added.

What makes the find so incredible is "not just the preservation but the context. These are found in an actual burial context ... I'm not aware of anything else like that." Potter said.

Former Tanana Chiefs Conference president Jerry Isaac said during the teleconference that the "funerary objects tend to tell the story that 11,000 years ago, people already had social sophistication in their lifestyle."

A productive site

The Upward Sun River site was first discovered in 2006, during testing for possible transportation routes between Fairbanks and Delta Junction that were later re-routed due to the discovery.

The entire area is rich in ancient ice age sites.

"There really is no area in the new world that is comparable to this," Potter said.

The site is roughly 20 meters wide by 600 meters long. It is located on a sand dune now resting beneath a boreal forest. The site is deep enough into the earth that it is buffered from the forest's acidic soil, and as a result the site is well preserved, Potter said. The environment has allowed for well-stratified sites that provide insight into how humans adapted during periods of climate change, Potter added.

Evidence of six separate human occupations has been found at the site, separated by hundreds to thousands of years. Most of the camps are likely to have been inhabited for only hours or days at a time.

The area with the house and burial where the infant remains were found is thought to have been occupied for weeks at a time or longer, in contrast to the short-term camps. Fauna found on the site show that people lived there in the summer, and had multiple fire pits and areas for tool making, cooking and salmon processing.

A wide range of significant features at the site "makes for a much more comprehensive, well rounded picture of these earlier inhabitants," Potter said.

Researchers found hundreds of salmon specimens and several salmon processing areas, allowing for a broader picture of the overall diet with the period.

"That's really exciting to archaeologists," Potter said.

The site shows that a "sophisticated subsistence economy" existed thousands of years ago, he said.

The two infants were found in a burial site below the remains of another cremated child. The finding surprised researchers, who were not expecting to find remains underneath the cremation.

"This is quite unexpected," Potter said.

In 2010, researchers found the remains of the cremated 3-year-old, which was the second ice age child discovered on the continent at the time. Researchers and Interior Alaska Native groups named the child Xaasaa Cheege Ts'eniin, which means "Upper Sun River Mouth Child," the Anchorage Daily News reported at the time.

Whether the two infants unearthed last year are related to Xaasaa Cheege Ts'eniin is unclear, but "we suspect they may be part of the same local band," Potter writes. Ongoing DNA analyses should shed light on the infants' relationships.

Potter believes the cremated child and buried infants died either during the same summer or during subsequent summers. That is somewhat unusual, Potter said, and "could have hit the group harder than normal."

Why was one child cremated and the others buried? A variety of factors could have come into play, including the ages of the children and who was present at the time, Potter said.

The findings were recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Balancing spirit and science

Potter said researchers are engaged with local and regional tribal organizations in an ongoing dialogue about the discoveries.

"It's very sensitive to … disinter buried remains and we did everything in terms of how to go about taking extreme care surrounding this finding," Potter said.

Interment is "always spiritual," Jerry Isaac said. There is always a "great deal of concern" regarding the spiritual aspect of unearthing remains.

"However, when we worked with the nearest local tribe, they were interested in certain things as well and wanting to know why Native people are prone to certain illnesses," Isaac said.

Isaac hopes the finding can shed light on pressing health issues that affect Alaska Natives, such as diabetes and cancer, seeking "proof that our main diets have a connection to our health and well-being."

Isaac said he was thankful that the discoveries had taken place.

William Mayo, executive director of tribal government and client services at TCC, said that some may struggle with unearthing interred remains.

"Many of the spiritual questions that it raises have not had the opportunity to (be addressed) within the Native community," Mayo said.

"There is interest, there is valid curiosity and interest scientifically," Mayo said. "I see the potential conflict in these values and there needs to be, seems to me, some thought and discussion given ... to how you successfully bridge these competing values."

He hopes people would act with patience and grace as the project moves forward.

The discovery is just one aspect of a long-term research project at the Upward Sun River site, Potter said.

"This is the beginning of what … these children can tell us," Potter said.