Ben Potter, UAF: Xaasaa Cheege Ts’eniin,
Ice Age Child's Remains Discovered
February 25, 2011
A newly excavated archaeological site in Alaska contained the cremated
remains of one of the earliest inhabitants of North America. The site
may provide rare insights into the burial practices of Ice Age people
and shed new light on their daily lives.
Reuther, Ben Potter and Joel Irish excavate the burial pit at the Upward
Sun River site in Alaska.
University of Alaska Fairbanks
archaeologist Ben Potter and four colleagues published their discovery
in the Feb. 25 edition of the journal Science.
The skeletal remains appear to be that of an approximately
three-year-old child, found in an ancient fire pit within an equally
ancient dwelling at the Upward Sun River site, near the Tanana River in
central Alaska. Radiocarbon dating of wood at the site indicates the
cremation took place roughly 11,500 years ago, when the Bering Land
Bridge may still have connected Alaska and Asia. Initial observations of
the teeth by UAF bioarchaeologist Joel Irish provide confirmation that
the child is biologically affiliated with Native Americans and Northeast
The apparent age
of the remains from the site, researchers said, would certainly make
them the oldest human remains found in northern North America as well as
the second-youngest Ice Age child on the continent.
The find is also notable because archaeologists and Alaska Natives are
working hand-in-hand to ensure the excavation and subsequent examination
of the remains will benefit science and heritage studies in a way that
is respectful of traditional Athabascan culture.
“This site reflects many different behaviors never before seen in this
part of the world during the last Ice Age, and the preservation and lack
of disturbance allows us to explore the lifeways of these ancient
peoples in new ways,” said Potter.
Both the burial and the house itself are the earliest of their kind
known in subarctic North America, according to the researchers.
Discovery of burial sites of this age in North America is very rare; the
buried remains of children are even more so.
The discovery of the remains was unexpected, Potter said. In fact, it
was evidence of an older occupation at the site—about 13,200 years
ago—that first attracted the researchers to the site. Only while
investigating this earlier occupation did evidence of the burial come to
The initial excavation of the site was supported by the National Science
Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs with funds awarded under the
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
“This exciting, groundbreaking and multi-faceted research is in the best
traditions of the social science research that NSF supports in the
Arctic,” said Anna Kerttula de Echave, the project’s program officer at
the NSF Office of Polar Programs. “Equally significant is that the
approach taken by the researchers reflects the importance, in modern
arctic science, of collaborating with Native people as full partners in
In the paper, the researchers note that the pit contained not only the
child’s remains—the researchers estimate less than 20 percent of the
skeleton survived the cremation—but also remains of small mammals,
birds, and fish as well as plant remains. Because the human remains were
in the uppermost part of the pit, above the animal remains, the
researchers suspect the pit was not originally designed as a grave.
Evidence also suggests the occupants abandoned the house after the
like these are among the remains discovered at the Upward Sun River site
in Alaska. Photo by Maureen McCombs, University of Alaska Fairbanks
The child has been named Xaasaa Cheege Ts’eniin [haw-SAW CHAG tse-NEEN],
which means “Upward Sun River Mouth Child.” The name is associated with
the local Native place-name, Xaasaa Na’ [haw-SAW NA], or Upward Sun
River. The site was formerly known as Little Delta Dune.
Both researchers and tribal leaders have said that the process of
working together on this new find has fostered mutual respect and
The local federally recognized tribe, Healy Lake Traditional Council,
and its affiliated regional consortium, Tanana Chiefs Conference,
sanctioned Potter and his colleagues’ excavation and analysis. Through
consultation initiated at the time of the discovery, Healy Lake and TCC
support the scientific examination of both the site and the remains
“I would like to learn everything we can about this individual,” said
First Chief Joann Polston, of Healy Lake Traditional Council.
TCC President Jerry Isaac added that
“This find is especially important to us since it is in our area, but
the discovery is so rare that it is of interest for all humanity.”
Although burned, some of the child’s remains may retain DNA. Isaac
intends to have his own DNA compared to the find. Polston would like
expand the opportunity to any Alaska Native in the region.
on the stratigraphy—or examination of layers of materials in the fire
pit—and other evidence, the researchers describe a possible sequence for
how the remains came to be interred at the site.
They hypothesize that a small group
of people, which included adult females and young children, was foraging
in the vicinity of this residential camp, fishing and hunting birds and
small mammals. A pit was dug within a house, used for cooking and/or a
means of disposing food debris for weeks or months preceding the death
of the child. The child died and was cremated in the pit, which was
likely filled with surrounding soil soon thereafter. The house was soon
abandoned, they concluded, due to the lack of artifacts found above the
Potter noted the find is significant also because it crosses a number of
disciplinary boundaries; the artifacts, features, stratigraphy,
preservation and human remains allow for the integration and synthesis
of stone tool technology, cultural affiliation, subsistence economy,
seasonal use of the landscape, paleoenvironments and climate change in
Ice Age northern North America.
Co-authors of the paper are Irish and Carol Gelvin-Reymiller, both of
UAF, and Joshua Reuther and Vance Holliday of the University of Arizona.