Child’s remains offer look at Ice Age Alaska

By Brian Vastag
Washington Post / February 25, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Some 11,500 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, a child died near a river in what is now central Alaska. The people living in a tent-pole house — presumably the parents — placed the child’s body in their home’s cooking pit and lit a fire. After two to three hours of burning, they covered the remains with dirt and left.

That is the dramatic story emerging from the study of the oldest human remains ever found in Alaska.

“The cremation was the last event to take place in the hearth,’’ said Ben Potter of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who led the team of archaeologists investigating the site on a broad sandy plain southeast of Fairbanks.

Their study of the site appears in this week’s issue of Science.

The cremation left about 20 percent of the child’s bones, enough for a detailed analysis of the scene. Coloration of the skull shows that the fire was not hot enough to destroy the entire body, said Joel Irish, also of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Because no other evidence of use of the cooking pit was found above the body, Potter and Irish concluded that the family left soon after the cremation.

“This is a child people loved, took care of,’’ Potter said. “The fact the house was abandoned speaks to that.’’

The child’s teeth show that he or she was 2 to 4 years old, while stone knives at the site — and a peculiar scalloped feature of the child’s teeth — connect the child to the wide-ranging band of early North American immigrants who researchers say migrated from Siberia during the last Ice Age, when the Bering Strait could be crossed on a land bridge, to colonize a wide swath of northern North America.

Until now, no one had found a permanent or semipermanent house associated with the hardy people who survived in a subarctic region that was even colder then than it is today. Other sites from around the same period look instead like temporary hunting camps.

Archaeologists discovered the site in 2006 and found the child’s remains last summer.

In contrast to battles between archaeologists and Native Americans over the study of other ancient remains, leaders of two Alaskan tribal groups embraced the find, saying they are working closely with the archaeologists.