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Top Articles from February 2011: Potter et al., A Terminal Pleistocene Child Cremation and Residential Structure from Eastern Beringia

It all started as an archaeological dream. This is exactly what happened to Ben Potter from University of Alaska in Fairbanks and grad student Joshua Reuther from Universtiy of Arizona, Tucson. On their last day of exvcavation at the dune site next to the river Tanana they came across a human skull. A dream story indeed. Several authors from both universities reported this sensational find in Eastern Beringia, Central Alaska in Science magazine in the 25th Feburary issue.

The cremated bones of a child were found in a pit-hearth inside a construction at the Upward Sun River Site (USRS).  Although there is some criticism from my side, mainly on the way it was presented, it is without doubt a discovery of enormous importance. Few human reains are known from the period when the Beringian Sea was as low as to allow human traverse from Siberia to North America nor in the following time of deglaciation.

A particular dearth exists on the Eurasian side. Only one site with human remains from that time period are known from Ushki Lake, Island of Kamchatka, Russia. On the North American side (according to the authors) only one cavesite is known to contain human remains from this time period (On-Your-Knees Cave) but this site is dated to 9200 BP (marine reservoir effect considered) and thus roughly 1000 years younger. USRS is radiocabondated to 11,500 cal BP from charcoal samples of the pit fill and pit base).

An approximately three (± 1) year old child was creamted on a pit-hearth. From the preserved bones, the child seemed to have been still aproximately in situ, it could be concluded that the child was placed on the fire in a supine position, only slightly inclined towards the right hand side.  One species of the fuel source has been identified as poplar (Populus balsamifera). Underlying samples were contemporaneous with the fill. Identified fauna from the pit-hearth included about roughly one third salmonids, one third voles, a quarter squirrels and some minorly represented species like hare and grouse. Whole animals were deposited in the pit-hearth but the squirrels seemed to have been cooked. The pit must have been backfilled soon after the cremation event and thus facilitated the excellent preservation of the cremation and animal bones. The event must have taken place in mid-summer, based on unfused epiphyses of squirrels and the salmon present. Directly associated with the semi-subterranean building were 350 lithic artefacts (mostly tertiary flakes related to tool maintenance) in a concentration to the east end of the building. apart from two small ochre fragments within the pit-hearth, no items that could be described as grave goods were found in the hearth.

Potter et al. 2011, Science 331, fig. 3

The authors then try to put this cremation into context which proves difficult since no remains were found within houses, and cremations are only know from two sites (Marmes, where at least ten where found with six of them inside a hearth, and Spirit Cave where two cremations were put into woven bags and buried in a cave). A comparison with Ushki L6 where two child inhumation burials underneath a hut floor were found in Layer 6 seemed more rewarding according to the authors. Although I personally see more similarities to e.g.  Marmes where several skeleton were burnt together with a great amount of animal bones (mostly small mammals and salmon, too) in a pit-hearth. Also the date for Marmes (10,500 years BP) is as close to USRS as Ushki’s are (10,350 years BP).

What I personally didn’t like about the essay was the rash interpretations of the authors. From the start they referred to the human remains and the construction as ‘the burial and house’, thus generating the idea of an actual ‘burial’ in a domestic context. Can we really infer this from the data given by the authors?

Less than 20 % of the child’s skeleton was present. The listing of the missing parts roused some conspiciousness. “Most vertebral centra and arches, the scapulae, clavicles, innominates, and almost all bones of the legs and feet are absent”. However, the remaining fragile bones, and we are talking of pieces up to 2 cm, were lying in situ. Someone must have removed very carefully the missing 80 % of the bones  of the burnt skeleton. The cremation in the pit-hearth could therefore very well addressed as pre-burial preparation, the ‘important’ bones being removed and the the actual burial could have taken place elsewhere, leaving the feature as an excarnation place. A separate excarnation in contrast to the actual burial would also very well explain the absence of ‘grave goods’.

The statement that the faunal remains belonged to “earlier episodes” is in my opinion questionable, since the dates all fall into the same age range. Other possible explanations are a funerary feast or ritual burning (after all we are talking about 213 -a third of all present species- voles and mice which were burnt complete in contrast to the squirrel stew) or anything in between. Strangely no radiocarbon dates were taken from faunal remains.

Stone tools are more more or less restricted to one side of the building, which according to the position of the postholes  might have been the back of the building, and consisted of flakes from tool maintenance. With hardly any other flakes or microblades this could be connected to a single event, namely the erecting of the building, specially built for the cremation/excarnation event. No domestic refuge seems to be existing that would support earlier domestic occupation.

The presented plan of the building shows a considerable charcoal staining around the building but is not addressed in the text at all.

Despite the suggestive and somewhat pre-occupied interpretation of the authors, this is a very exciting discovery and the excellent geoarchaeological  work and the detailed examination of the faunal and human remains will add immensely to our understanding of the peopling of North America and especially about ritual behaviour and treatment of the dead within these early settler communities in America.

Full citation of article: BA Potter et al., A Terminal Pleistocene Child Cremation and Residential Structure from Eastern Beringia, Science 331, 2011, 1058-62.

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