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Skeletons recovered in Interior Alaska offer clues to life 1,000 years ago

  • Author: Ben Anderson
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 21, 2013

A set of three nearly complete skeletons discovered last October in Interior Alaska had been buried in the area for at least a millennium, archaeologists with Tanana Chiefs Conference announced Thursday. The remains that turned up during a construction project in the Interior community of McGrath have yielded much more information, including information about how residents of the area may have lived centuries before the first Russian settlement in what would become the state of Alaska.

Scientists had estimated last year that the remains, two adult males and a child of unknown sex, were likely more than 500 years old, based on the remains of a hearth or firepit discovered in the earth above the bodies.

Bob Sattler, an archaeologist with the Interior tribal consortium Tanana Chiefs Conference, said that the area has evidence of occupation for the last 5,000 years or so, but these three skeletons are the first to be discovered from this timeframe.

During the announcement of the find -- dubbed the Tochak McGrath discovery -- last year, Sattler said the soil of Interior Alaska rarely turns up viable remains, due to the acidity of the ground in the region.

"Human remains are more common in the coastal regions, usually found in middens," Sattler said in an email. "For their preservation, these were buried rapidly after the people died."

Radiocarbon dating pinned down the age of the remains at between A.D. 800 and 1,200. One of the men was determined to be between 35 and 40 years old, while the other was about 20 at death. The child was between 2 and 3 years of age.

Though it was only a hypothesis, Tanana Chiefs reported the three people may have drowned, then quickly been covered by sediment, which allowed for their preservation. After burial, life went on above the ground, with a multitude of other remains found in the area including evidence of an extended human occupation between 350 and 500 years ago.

Analysis of the remains said that they shared DNA with many of the first peoples of North and South America, along with ancestors from northeast Asia. Overall, the three people were in relatively good health at the time of their death, though the older male showed some signs of osteoporosis, and both males showed some wear on their teeth, likely due to grit picked up in the food preparation process, researchers concluded.

Meanwhile, their diet, out of necessity, was one of subsistence.

"Chemical evidence in their bones indicate the Tochak people relied heavily on salmon as a food source," said a fact sheet on the discovery. "Stable isotope levels of nitrogen and carbon in the adults suggest that salmon was a primary source of protein in their diet."

Near the finds in the upper strata, which indicated other people had occupied the area more recently, were the remains of subsistence animals like beaver and black bear, the fact sheet said.

Tanana Chiefs has begun discussions with local leaders on establishing a voluntary DNA screening program in the upper Kuskokwim area and around McGrath -- a community of about 340 people -- to see if any modern Alaska Natives living there today may be distantly related to the long-dead individuals who were discovered.

There's much more to be studied with the remains, and the site where the skeletons were discovered continues to be examined for possible additional excavations.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com

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