WASHINGTON - Some 11,500 years ago one of America's earliest families laid the remains of a 3-year-old child to rest in their home in what is now Alaska.
The discovery of that burial is shedding new light on the early settlers who crossed from Asia to the New World, researchers report in today's edition of the journal Science.
The bones represent the earliest human remains discovered in the Arctic of North America, said Ben A. Potter of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
While ancient Alaskans were known to hunt large game, the newly discovered site shows they also foraged for fish, birds and small mammals, he said. "Here we know there were young children and females. So, this is a whole piece of the settlement system that we had virtually no record of."
The site, Upper Sun River, is in the forest of the Tanana lowlands in central Alaska, Potter and his colleagues report.
Potter said the find, which included evidence of what appeared to be a seasonal house and the cremated remains of the child, "is truly spectacular."
The remains of the residence are said to show it was occupied in summer, based on the evidence of bones from salmon and immature ground squirrels.
The cremated human bones are the "first evidence for behavior associated with the death of an individual," Potter said.
Based on its teeth, the child was about 3 years old, said archaeologist Joel Irish, also of the university. Potter said researchers hope to obtain a DNA sample to determine gender.
The child has been named Xaasaa Cheege Ts'eniin (or Upward Sun River Mouth Child) by the local Native community, the Healy Lake Tribe.
While the bones represent the earliest human remains in the U.S. Arctic, there is evidence people passed through Alaska earlier. DNA has been extracted from dried excrement deposited in caves in Oregon some 14,300 years ago and the Clovis Culture flourished in parts of the United States 13,000 years ago.
The find adds to knowledge of the people of Beringia, extending from eastern Siberia into Alaska and connected by a land-bridge across the Bering Strait, aiding the movement of people from Asia into North America.