Child Burial Provides Rare Glimpse of Early Americans

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About 11,500 years ago, at a seasonal base camp in central Alaska, a 3-year-old child died. Its family burned the small body, perhaps ceremonially, in the house's central hearth, and then they moved on, never to use the home again.

Last year, archaeologists discovered the remains of the house and burial, providing a rare slice of life of the first Americans. Some aspects of the burial resemble those in both Siberia and North America, but in other respects the new find is completely unique. And it may ultimately reveal any genetic links between these early Alaskans and other so-called Paleoindians in North America.

At least 14,000 years ago, humans began moving from Siberia into Alaska, crossing a land bridge over what is now the Bering Sea and then colonizing both North and South America. But the bones and burials of these ancient Alaskans are vanishingly rare, as are the remains of their houses. While excavating at the site of Upward Sun River, near the Tanama River in central Alaska, archaeologist Ben Potter of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and his colleagues discovered the outlines of the foundation of a circular house, including a scattering of stone tools and animal bones on the floor and traces of posts that may have held up the walls and roof. As the team reports in this week's issue of Science, the center of the house was taken up with a large circular pit containing the fragmented, partially burnt bones of the child. ...

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