Toddler’s skeleton changes knowledge of the past

Kelsey Gobroski / Sun Star Reporter
March 1, 2011

University of Alaska Fairbanks Assistant professor Ben Potter of the University of Alaska Fairbanks anthropology department discusses the Upward Sun River discovery with residents of Healy Lake, a nearby Native community, in a lab on the UAF campus. Photo by Maureen McCombs.

Last summer, archaeologists uncovered the 11,500-year-old skeleton of a cremated Ice Age toddler, the oldest subarctic North American to date. UAF archaeologists discovered the remains inside a structure built 10,000 years before the region’s earliest known house. Older artifacts also rest on the site. Scientists worked closely with Alaska Native groups to preserve the scientific and cultural implications of the discovery.

“People have been doing work up here for 80 years, and we’ve never found anything like this,” Potter said.

The findings appeared in the Feb. 25 edition of Science. Authors Ben Potter and Joel Irish, along with Alaska Native community representatives Joann Polston and Jerry Isaac, announced the find in the Brooks Building Gathering Room last Thursday, Feb. 24.

Over time, ancient Alaskan camps sprung up south of the Tanana River at a place known as Xaasaa Na’ [haw-saw naw], or Upward Sun River, beginning during a warm period about 13,000 years ago. Another temporary camp popped up during a cold snap 11,800 years ago. Three hundred years later, a family constructed a house and lived there until their toddler died.

People here probably didn’t build villages in the Ice Age. The fact that this family even built a house challenges notions about the mobility of early Alaskans, Potter said. The family probably didn’t live in the house more than a couple months, but the usual shelters of the time didn’t last longer than a few days.

Life back then probably centered around the hearth, Potter said. When the family’s 3-year-old died, they placed their child’s body in the pit, knees drawn up and back against the earth, Isaac said. They had transformed their hearth into a funeral pyre. Immediately after the cremation, they abandoned the house. The family may have moved elsewhere on the dunes, Potter said.

The archaeologists found one other site, a fourth and final camp that was abandoned 10,000 years ago.

Researchers credit Alaska’s most ancient human to a railroad survey.

Xaasaa Na’ rested near a proposed route from Fairbanks to Delta Junction. In 2006, archaeologists flagged the area when they found traces of artifacts. They returned in 2007 and found three settlements.

In 2010, the National Science Foundation’s stimulus funds provided $106,000 for further excavation, with an additional $13,000 for helicopter transportation, according to Potter’s website. They had three weeks. They discovered the house, and on the last day, a student stumbled upon the child, Potter said.

The human remains changed everything. They stopped working and applied for permission to continue digging in the area. When the archaeologists returned, they uncovered a skeleton mangled by fire. They used teeth to determine the child’s age and surrounding ash to date the cremation, Isaac said.

“This individual represents the second youngest individual found for this time frame in the western hemisphere,” Potter said.

Katie Blood, an anthropology senior, traveled with about a dozen people to Delta Junction to attend a field course near Gerstle River last summer. The experience prepared her for Xaasaa Na’, Blood said. Blood worked for Northern Land Use Research Inc., which sent her to help Potter’s team when he returned to excavate the child.

The mood there was different than Gerstle River, she said. There was an underlying tone of awe. “It took a while for it to sink in, exactly how significant this find was,” Blood said.

From, left, Justin Rains, Kevin Bartley, Rob Bowman, Katie Blood, Danielle Ellis, Jill Baxter-McIntosh and Lisa Smith work on excavation at the Upward Sun River site in Alaska. Photo courtesy of Ben Potter.

Each student excavated a square meter, she said. Later, she worked with a doctoral student to identify animal remains. Bird and fish bones are fragile and rarely preserve well, but this site was full of them.

The archaeologists would sometimes dig as long as light allowed. “We were trying to get in all the work that we could,” Blood said.

Joann Polston is Healy Lake Traditional Council’s first chief. The Salkachet Band eventually settled Xaasaa Na’. Many of the band’s living descendants are members of Polston’s council, according to press materials.

The scientific findings solidify Polston’s oral history. Her grandmother told her that people would cremate their dead when the weather was too harsh for a burial. This Ice Age family “used what they had available,” and transformed their home into a burial site, Polston said.

Polston serves on the Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC), a consortium of Interior Alaska Natives. “I am truly impressed with the level of respect and honor that the remains have been given to date,” Polston said.

No one knows whether the child’s family has any living descendents. Scientists are waiting to see whether DNA extraction is possible.

The actual skeleton could be dated, instead of just the surrounding ashes. They could find out the toddler’s sex. Scientists could track the diet of the mother if the child was weaned, Potter said. Ecosystem dynamics could be recreated.

Potter plans to return this summer for another three weeks. This is, remember, just one child — just one hearth — just part of a house. Only 42 square meters have been excavated on one dune.  Mount Hayes overlooks a field of dunes.

“This is the beginning of the story,” Potter said. “We’ve got a lot of good information, but stay tuned.”

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1 Response

  1. March 23, 2011

    […] and University of Arizona archaeologists led by Ben Potter who presented their findings at Upward Sun River ( site.  The program merely said, “the 2010 finds are […]

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