A new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals that the remains of two Ice Age infants, buried more than 11,000 years ago at a site in Alaska, represent the youngest human remains ever found in northern North America.
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, according to Ben Potter, a researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the paper's lead author.
Potter led the archaeological team that made the discovery in fall of 2013 at an excavation of the Upward Sun River site, near the Tanana River in central Alaska. The researchers worked closely with local and regional Native tribal organizations as they conducted their research. The National Science Foundation funded the work.
Potter and his colleagues note that the human remains and associated burial offerings, as well as inferences about the time of year the children died and were buried, could lead to new thinking about how early societies were structured, the stresses they faced as they tried to survive, how they treated the youngest members of their society, and how they viewed death and the importance of rituals associated with it.
Potter made the new find on the site of a 2010 excavation, where the cremated remains of another 3-year-old child were found. The bones of the two infants were found in a pit directly below a residential hearth where the 2010 remains were found.
"Taken collectively, these burials and cremation reflect complex behaviors related to death among the early inhabitants of North America," Potter said.