Late Pleistocene burials from the Upward Sun River site

For anyone who missed it, the National Science Foundation posted the following video earlier this week on excavations by the University of Alaska, Fairbanks at the Upward Sun River site in Alaska. The video discusses the discovery of two infant burials situated in a pit feature beneath a residential structure. While the find isn’t directly related to Tennessee Archaeology, it’s an incredible discovery and has the potential to shed significant new light on our understanding of the First Americans.

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According to the excavators, an analysis of the skeletal and dental remains reveal that one of the individuals died shortly after birth, while the other was a late-term fetus. These burials have been dated to approximately 11,500 years before present (calibrated), and according to the study authors are the “youngest-aged late Pleistocene individuals known for the Americas.”

The burials were located about 40 cm beneath the remains of a cremated 3-year-old identified in 2010. Unlike the cremation, there was no evidence of burning in the matrix surrounding the newly-discovered individuals. Based on radiocarbon dates and context, the investigators suggest that the infant burials and cremation were roughly contemporaneous, possibly occurring within a single season or during successive seasonal occupations.

Grave goods from infant burials at the Upward Sun River site in Alaska. Image after Potter et al. 2014 (www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1413131111)

Grave goods from infant burials at the Upward Sun River site in Alaska. Image after Potter et al. 2014 (www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1413131111)

Red ochre was present throughout the burial matrix surrounding the newly-discovered remains, and also coated the associated grave goods. These consisted of three projectile points and four antler rods, two of which exhibit incised X-patterns along their length. All four of the rods were beveled and exhibited wear patterns from hafting, and the ends of two rods were in contact with stone points. This positioning suggests that the points were affixed to the antler rods at the time of internment, and that these compound tools functioned as the foreshafts of a atlatl darts. As noted by the investigators, these finds “represent the earliest known hafted bifaces in primary context in North America.”

You can read more about this incredible find in the PNAS article or via Smithsonian Magazine.

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