A new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has announced the discovery of the youngest known human remains ever found in the Arctic – two Ice Age babies that were buried more than 11,000 years ago in Alaska. The discovery sheds lights on ancient funerary practices in the region and provides a unique insight into the cultural practices of North America’s early inhabitants.
Ben Potter, an anthropologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, led the research in cooperation with local and regional indigenous organizations. The new finding was made at the site of an earlier 2010 excavation in the Upward Sun River region of central Alaska, where the cremated remains of a 3-year-old had previously been found.
The Upward Sun River site is believed to have been occupied by the Denali people who inhabited central Alaska from 12,000 to 6,000 years ago, toward the end of the Pleistocene epoch, often referred to as the last Ice Age.
The remains of the two babies were found in a pit below a hearth in a seasonal house where the 3-year-old had been found. Experts claim that the first infant died shortly after birth and the other was a late-term foetus. It’s possible they could have been twins. Evidence suggests they had been curled up in an upright position, wrapped, and covered in red ochre.
Within the pit, archaeologists found grave offerings consisting of projectile points and sharpened stones covered in red ochre, antler rods decorated with carved lines, and plant and animal remains, including salmon-like fish and ground squirrels.
“The deaths occurred during the summer, a time period when regional resource abundance and diversity was high and nutritional stress should be low, suggesting higher levels of mortality than may be expected give our current understanding” of survival strategies of the period, the authors write.
The site and its artifacts provide new insights into funeral practices and other rarely preserved aspects of life among people who inhabited the area thousands of years ago, including how they treated the youngest members of their society, and how they viewed death and the importance of rituals associated with it.
However, it also poses a bit of a mystery: Why were the two infants buried intact while the third child was cremated? Archaeologists have suggested that it could be a seasonal difference, or it is possible they treated the dead differently based on age. Another theory is that a prominent family member might have been absent when the three-year-old died, causing the family to choose a simpler cremation.
“Prior to these finds, we really did not have evidence of that facet of settlement and tradition systems for the early Americans who once inhabited this area,” says Potter. “These are new windows into these ancient peoples’ lifestyle.”