Remains of Ice Age Infants Discovered by UAF Archeology

By Eric Bennett


Near the where the Tanana River and Little Delta River meet, the remains of two infants buried around 11,000 years ago were uncovered. Found in a pit located beneath a residential hearth, these two infants and the artifacts they were buried with could reveal aspects of the culture and life they were born into, according to a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


University of Alaska Fairbanks professors Ben Potter and Josh Reuther excavate the burial pit at the Upward Sun River site. UAF photo courtesy of Ben Potter.

“The children have an opportunity to speak to us,” Ben Potter, Assistant Professor, Chair of the UAF Anthropology Department and lead writer of the paper on the discovery said, “We want to learn from them.”

Of the two infants, the first was found to have died about a few weeks after birth while the second died before being born, which makes it a little more difficult to identify its features and the position it was buried. DNA tests will need to be done before the sex and relation of the two can be absolutely confirmed, but pre-test observations suggest that they were both females.

Buried along with the children were bone fragments of animals such as salmon, bison and wapiti (elk) as well as bifaces (small, pointed stones) and antler foreshafts, which were likely hunting implements.

More notably, the antler foreshafts were engraved with a series of “X” patterns, which shows that whoever made them had the idea to create something, art, that was not strictly for survival, according to Potter.

Everything mentioned was discovered in 2013, but only recently was the paper published detailing what was found. Potter said that, “It would be irresponsible,” to simply announce that they found buried infants. Much work and analyzing must be done to create answers and careful descriptions of the discoveries.  The paper itself was written “months ago,” but still had to go through the peer review process, which takes time. “In science, slow and steady wins the race,” Potter said.

This collection of remains reveals a lot about the mortuary and overall life behaviors of the people who lived in the area. The fact that two infants were buried in the same location over a period of time tells that the people may have had a more long-term residence at the location than previously thought.

The remains of animals and tools suggest the diet of the people who lived there as well as the importance of hunting within their culture, seeing as though the tools were still functional, but placed in a way that was not intended to be removed once buried.

His first reaction to the discovery was “overwhelming,” Potter said. “You know the significance immediately. This is the kind of things we would love to have understood about this time period.”

While the discovery is important for the understanding of past life, the process of digging is helping students learn about the process of uncovering history.

“It’s the intersection of good science and learning,” Potter said. He wants the dig site to assist in undergrad research and training. The ones who are good at it can potentially get a job at the site.

“It helps the university, the students and the public learn and gain world-wide acclaim.”

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