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11,500-year-old grave of fetus and infant discovered in Alaska

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This is how parents coped with loss at the end of the last Ice Age

Ben A. Potter

Four years ago, a group of archeologists discovered the remains of a cremated 3-year-old near central Alaska’s Upward Sun River. The child’s body had been burned after its death in a cooking pit located in the family’s tent-pole house about 11,500 years ago, researchers said. In the hours following the burning, the family covered the pit with dirt and moved on, leaving the burial site and their home behind. But what at first appeared to be a one-time burial site has now been confirmed as the location of two infant burials, and one late-term fetus burial, which means that the oldest human remains ever found in the North American subarctic now belong to a human fetus, and a child that was likely less than a year old when she died.

"Child burials are exceedingly rare."

"Child burials are exceedingly rare," says Brian Robinson, an anthropologist at the University of Maine who did not participate in the study published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And "this is certainly the best excavated and reported."

The fetus and the infant were buried together, the researchers suggest, about 15.7 inches below the cremated 3-year-old. The infant’s skeleton was largely complete, so the researchers were able to see that it was lying face up with its knees flexed and its arms folded over its chest, hands close to its face. According to the researchers the infant was likely less than 20 weeks old at the time its death.

They were wrapped in shrouds and buried with grave goods

When the fetus died, it was probably between 28 and 40 weeks along. The archeologists suspect that it was placed upright with its knees close to its chest, but the position of its limbs at the time of burial was hard to determine. As a result, the researchers propose an alternative sequence of events where the fetus might have been buried, exhumed and then re-buried with the infant later on. Either way, it looks like both the infant and the fetus were wrapped in shrouds before their final burial, and then placed in the grave with a knife, two dart tips, and four antler rods. They were probably both female, the researchers write in the study, but they’ll need to find and analyze genetic material to confirm their sex.

Potter, B. Et al. (2014)

Although the discovery isn’t the earliest ever found in North America, it’s still among the richest in terms of context. According to Robinson, the excavations "are excellent" and the context that the researchers provide is "exceptional," because it allowed them to reconstruct the order of the burials. Moreover, the preservation of salmon bone in the burial site demonstrates the quality of the researchers’ recovery methods. "This is a fortunate and rare set of circumstances indeed," he says.

"We are so often limited to comparing stone artifacts, often with questionable context, in our understanding of the early peopling of North America," Robinson says. But this time, the context is there, and it will give the researchers a ton to work with in the coming months. "Burial ritual," he says, "provides insights to human belief and organization that are largely unobtainable in other ways."