I recently read about an anthropological discovery in Northern Alaska that could shed light how Ice Age people in that part of the country lived.
During a recent excavation, the cremated remains of an Ice Age child were uncovered. This find (extraordinary even if you aren’t into anthropology or history) represents the oldest cremated remains ever found on the North American continent. It has been estimated, via radiocarbon dating, that the little girl who was three-year-old when she died more than 11,500 years ago.
WOW! It was the charred wood from the pit at the home site where she was located that allowed scientists to determine the date. Along with her human remains –which were only partially cremated - the spot itself offered a revealing glimpse into the daily lives of Ice Age Americans, according to National Geographic’s Brian Handwerk who wrote a about it several months ago.
What wasn’t a mystery was how the child was memorialized.
University of Alaska, Fairbanks Department of Anthropology Professor Joel Irish noted in a National Geographic article about the discovery, "You can see that the child was laid in the pit—a fire hearth inside the house—and the fire was started on top of the child."
It was believed that after the cremation, the child's hunter-gatherer clan apparently filled the 18-inch-deep hearth with soil and abandoned the dwelling. It was clear, the article stated, that she died before burial and was “placed in a position of peaceful repose.”
The child has been named by a local Native Alaskan community. The Healy Lake Tribe call her Xaasaa Cheege Ts'eniin, or Upward Sun River Mouth Child, after the native name for the site where she was found. Speculation is that she was indigenous to the area and had Northern American and Northeast Asian features.
The girl’s body was only partially cremated. Scientists said that it was nearly impossible and very dangerous to keep a fire hot enough to incinerate a body.
Rohnert Park’s Ron Henderson, Funeral Director at Fred Young Funeral Home in Cloverdale, explained to me that cremation – a way of handling a body after death – requires intense heat over an extended period of time. Definitely not something migratory people could do back then.
Clearly cremations have occurred throughout human history. This type of memorialization appears around the world and throughout history, Ron said. In Sweden, for example, a majority of Iron Age and Viking Age funerals were cremations. Until the first century A.D. in the western Roman empire, it was associated with military honors.
While this partial-cremation confirms the existence of Ice Age funeral rites, it also allows for other possibilities. Research on the girl’s DNA could provide important clues about evolution and genetics and about how Alaskans lived so long ago.