The discovery of a burial site containing the remains of two infants gives archeologists a glimpse at the cultural practices of Native Americans at the end of the last Ice Age in Alaska. Around 11,500 years ago, a stillborn fetus and a 5-weeks-old infant had been buried side by side in a circular burial pit. Most of the archeological works at the site took place four years ago, but further digging uncovered the two bodies. An in-depth analysis has been published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
“Prior to these finds, we really did not have evidence of that facet of settlement and traditional systems for the early Americans who once inhabited this area,” says lead author Ben Potter, an archaeologist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. “These are new windows into these ancient peoples’ lifestyle.”
The Upward Sun River burial site, an area inhabited by Denali people at the time of the funeral, is positioned at the confluence of Yukon and Tanana rivers. Back in 2010, when archeologists discovered the remains of a three-year-old child, they claimed to have found the oldest burial site in North America. All the remains had been discovered in the hearth of a residential structure. The 2013 finding required digging for another 15 inches after the first body had been unearthed. Carbon dating showed that the two burials took place in a short period of time.
Near the two bodies, archeologists also found what they believe are the oldest examples of “hafted bifaces,” from North America, as well as antler foreshafts. Judging by the residual presence of salmon-like fish and squirrel in the same pit, researchers believe that the burials took place during the summer, when food was abundant. Such practices – cremating the older infant and burying the two younger ones – indicate longer residence than previously thought.
The two recently discovered bodies may belong to a pair of twins, according to the archeologists, although DNA analysis has not been finalized. They suspect that one of the twins died at birth, while the second died a couple of weeks later, meaning that we witness an attempt to reunite them. But there is no explanation for why the third child was simply cremated and buried over the first two without any offerings. However, the discovery deepens our knowledge about some of the first Asian people who migrated to Alaska.