Archeologists have discovered the remains of two ancient infants lying in a very old grave at the Upward Sun River site in Alaska. The children were laid to rest in a burial spot beneath an ancient dwelling's fire pit along with hunting tools during the last Ice Age.
The 11,500 year old grave isn't the oldest discovered burial ground in North America but the discovery is hailed as important as it revealed that the earliest Americans performed elaborate burial practices and observed high level of care when burying the dead. The discovery also offered archeologists opportunity to look at the cultural practices observed by people at the end of the last Ice Age.
"Prior to these finds, we really did not have evidence of that facet of settlement and traditional systems for the early Americans who once inhabited this area," said archeologist Ben Potter, from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, who led the archeological team that discovered the ancient grave in 2013. "These are new windows into these ancient peoples' lifestyle."
Prior to the discovery, Potter and colleagues have also excavated cremated remains of a three-year old child on the same site in 2010. The newly discovered skeletons were found in a pit directly below the hearth where the remains of the cremated child were uncovered earlier.
The artifacts found among the burials include animal remains and what may possibly be the oldest examples of hafted bifaces, or projectile points indicating the importance of hunting tools in the burial ceremony and for the ancient people who occupied the area at the time. The artifacts also give the researchers idea on the structures of early human societies and how they survived during the last Ice Age.
"The human remains, grave goods, and associated fauna provide rare direct data on organic technology, economy, seasonality of residential occupations, and infant/child mortality of terminal Pleistocene Beringians," the researchers wrote in their report published in the journal PNAS on Nov. 10.
Potter and colleagues are not sure why the toddler was cremated while the two babies, one was estimated to be between 6 and 12 weeks old while the other was a stillborn, were treated differently. The researchers, however, believe this has nothing to do with the gender of the children because all were female nor was it a seasonal variation in burial practices.
Potter and colleagues theorize that there may have been age-specific burial requirements. It is also possible that ceremonial burials only happen when certain family members are present.