During the last ice age, two infants in what is now Alaska were laid to rest, precious hunting tools at their sides. Now, more than 11,000 years later, scientists announce the discovery of the tiny skeletons and their extraordinary burial spot—underneath the fire pit of an ancient house.
The find, described on Monday, is the first to show that the earliest Americans did such complex burials. What's more, the burial site reveals a cultural link between residents of North America and those of far eastern Asia, a jumping-off point for the earliest migrants to the New World.
The infants' bones were found just below a previously discovered grave that held the cremated remains of a toddler.
Like the burial, the surrounding campsite is the first of its kind to be found. Artifacts show that a small band of Native Americans, long thought to be inveterate wanderers, spent at least part of the summer there, fishing for salmon and catching ground squirrels.
The gravesite allows scientists "to explore the treatment of the very youngest members of society," says University of Alaska Fairbanks archaeologist Ben Potter, who led the excavations at the site. Potter and his team describe the find in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"It's hard to describe the emotions surrounding this kind of discovery," says Potter.
Laid With Care
Scientists have found New World burials older than this one, but none of this vintage that were so elaborate or that were within a residential area.
The two babies—one an infant 6 to 12 weeks old, the other a nearly full-term fetus—were buried below the floor of a now vanished, partially underground dwelling at what's known as the Upward Sun River site, in Alaska's rugged interior.
After the burial, the babies' kin piled a thick layer of dirt atop the bodies, built a new hearth on the fill, and used the hearth for cooking and disposing of trash.
Either later that same summer or a subsequent summer, the scientists say, Upward Sun River was occupied by a small family group, probably the same one that had buried the two babies.
Once again, at a time of year when food should have been most plentiful, the camp's residents suffered a tragedy: the death of a three-year-old. This child's body, Potter and his team reported in 2011, was deliberately cremated in the fire pit just before the entire dwelling was abandoned.
The cause of death for all three is unknown, as is their gender, though some features of the skeletons suggest they were girls.
Why did the toddler receive different treatment in death—cremation—than the infant and fetus? Perhaps, Potter says, beliefs about the age when a human acquires a soul dictated the type of burial. Or perhaps funerary rituals were determined by whether a particular relative, such as the father, was present or absent.
Whatever the reason, the toddler was laid to rest without any grave goods, and the babies were buried with a collection of what look like hunting darts, fashioned from elk antler rods and carefully hammered stones. Still functional and therefore valuable, Potter says, they probably belonged to a close relative of the babies.
Burying a family member in or near living quarters may seem a strange choice today, but it wasn't unusual in prehistoric times. Several children have been found buried below 13,000-year-old houses in far eastern Russia, and the people of Çatalhöyük, one of the world's first urban centers, in what is now Turkey, buried their dead just below their homes.
First Settlers' Spiritual Side
The find is "extremely important" for understanding the peopling of the Americas, says archaeologist David Yesner of the University of Alaska Anchorage, who was not involved with the new study.
He says it should also motivate researchers in the far north to stop focusing their excavations on bluff tops, where many temporary hunting camps have been found, and start looking for long-term camps near rivers.
The site adds to our understanding of the inner lives of the people who were the first settlers in the Americas, says Ted Goebel, an archaeologist at Texas A&M University.
The burials present the "spiritual, ideological side of these early cultures," says Goebel, who, like Yesner, was not involved with the study. "It really presents us with a whole new picture of these people and makes us realize there's more to them than just moving from camp to camp."