‘Out of the blue’: Surprise human remains and artifacts tell an ice age tale

In 2010 and 2013, Alaskan archeologist Ben Potter led teams that discovered the remains of three ice-age Alaskans near the Tanana River.

In 2010 and 2013, Alaskan archeologist Ben Potter led teams that discovered the remains of three ice-age Alaskans near the Tanana River. The remains of the toddler and two infants were sufficiently sensational that international news coverage occasionally lost sight of the overall significance of the finds.

When Potter speaks at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre March 15, he plans to share aspects of the discoveries that were overlooked in the media. “I hope to discuss some of the unanticipated finds to a Yukon audience,” he says.

In 2010 Potter and his colleagues from the University of Alaska Fairbanks were following up on previous research, trying to understand some of the earliest occupations in Alaska near the Tanana River. “We knew there was an occupation about 11,500 years ago and one about 13,300, which represents some of the very earliest people in the New World,” he says.

Potter wanted to understand the life ways of ancient people whose remains had rarely been found in Beringia, and then only in Kamchatka, Russia. He and his crew were excavating a 100-square-metre area of the Upward Sun River site in central Alaska, hoping to learn how the site formed and whether it had been disturbed by natural events since then. “To really understand the behaviour of people that were there, we needed to rule out natural disturbances,” he says.

The team put one-by-one-metre test pits at either end of the main site, each about 10 metres away. It was in one of these small units that they found the first of these human remains “just out of the blue.” It was a three-year-old child who had been cremated.

At that point, they stopped the investigation and headed out to confer with the local tribal group, the landowner. “There’s really no reason why this can’t be a positive relationship for all,” says Potter, who has also worked in cultural resource management archeology in the private sector, helping to protect heritage sites from development. He ascribes much of the success of his research to the co-operation and understanding of the local native people.

When the team returned to recover the remains, they learned they had been in “a cultural feature” that appeared to be part of a larger structure.

The next year, 2011, with fresh U.S. National Science Foundation funding, the crews returned to expand their work beyond the test units. They came to understand that they were in a residential site, and that the feature the team had previously found was a hearth within a residence.

“Among the last things they did – when the child died, they cremated it, backfilled the hearth, and then abandoned the site,” Potter says. The archeologists had dug through the easily visible charred layer of the hearth to the remains, but were still noticing what Potter calls “some irregularity.” They didn’t have time that season to dig more deeply and had to await the next cycle of excavation.

They expanded the operation in 2013. It was a chance to compare and contrast known indoor ice-age activities with outdoor ones. “This really gave us an opportunity to expand horizontally to understand the use of space,” he says.

After they dug past their previously excavated work at 40 centimetres, the researchers found the two infants at 80 cm. These were not cremated. One had died before birth, the other shortly after. Interred with the youngest were unprecedented grave goods that help to provide hints of how people survived in a period of climate change that stretched from the late Pleistocene epoch into the Holocene – a period of about 6,000 years.

Potter does not call the dwelling remains a house. “House” can suggest all manner of things, including year-round occupancy, walls, foundations and rafters. “This was likely some sort of tent feature,” he says.

“Nearly all of the prehistoric sites we’ve ever encountered in the Yukon and Alaska in these very early periods, 7,000 years or older, tend to be what we call ‘short-term hunting camps,’” he says. Hunters would have brought recently captured game there – meat that could be processed quickly and transported to base camps elsewhere. Hearths might be present and perhaps evidence of work on stone tools.

In more recent times, with the improvements to salmon-storage methods, people could stay in one place longer. Evidence such as post holes, the presence of women and children, and remains from food preparation all suggest the dwelling was part of a residential base camp, says Potter.

The deaths of the children likely happened close together in time, as the burials all took place in one hearth. They were not found in sediments that would have taken a thousand years or more to drift down and accumulate. Plant and animal remains in the soil indicated the season and limited the times of burial to within about 16 weeks, most likely in just one summer. “And there’s no reason to suspect that these were not the same people occupying the same place,” says Potter.

The grave goods found there include stone projectile points and spear foreshafts – segments of hunting implements that tell their own stories. Foreshafts are smaller, replaceable ends of primary spearshafts. They were affixed to a stone point on one end and to the main spear or dart on the other. We can now determine that from the way they were carefully arranged beside an infant in the hearth.

Three of the foreshafts in the grave were decorated. Archeologists have found some tick marks on similar shafts elsewhere before, says Potter, but these Tanana-area ones, with such delicately engraved marks up their sides, “are really quite extraordinary.”

We can only speculate as to why hunting weapons were buried with an infant, he says. Perhaps it was a gesture of a grieving parent, a sacrifice of an important possession.

The site presents puzzles that will take much more study and analysis to solve. But the finds are already helping to answer questions that tantalize all anthropologists, including how ancient people coped with long-term and sudden changes to their environments.

“We’re from the African savannah; being in the Subarctic is about as far away as you can imagine from where we evolved,” says Potter. To see how humans have accomplished such a journey is his life’s work, he adds.

Ben Potter will discuss more highlights of his discoveries at the Upward Sun River site at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre on March 15 at 7:30 p.m.

This column is co-ordinated by the Yukon Research Centre at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at http://www.yukoncollege.yk.ca/research/publications/your-yukon