Archaeologists discover new insights into structure of early societies

A team of international researchers, including Professor Joel D. Irish from Liverpool John Moores University have discovered the youngest human remains ever found in the North American Arctic, which could lead to new thinking about how early societies were structured.

The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, with Professor Irish, of the LJMU Research Centre in Evolutionary Anthropology and Palaeoecology, examining the dental and skeletal remains of two infants buried some 11,500 years. He determined the probable age, and other information about the infants which helped to build up information about how the youngest members of the society were treated, the stresses faced as they tried to survive and how they viewed death and the importance of rituals associated with it.

Also found within the burials were unprecedented grave offerings. They included shaped stone points and associated antler foreshafts decorated with abstract incised lines, representing some of the oldest examples of hafted compound weapons in North America.

The paper emphasises how such finds are valuable to science because, except in special circumstances like those described, there is little direct evidence about social organisation and mortuary practices of such early human cultures, which had no written languages.

The artifacts—including the projectile points, plant and animal remains—may also help to build a more complete picture of early human societies and how they were structured and survived climate changes at the end of the last great Ice Age. The presence of two burial events—the buried infants and cremated child—within the same dwelling could also indicate relatively longer-term residential occupation of the site than previously expected.

The paper noted how "The presence of hafted points may reflect the importance of hunting implements in the burial ceremony and with the population as whole."

In the paper, the researchers describe unearthing the remains of the two children in a burial pit under a residential structure about 15 inches below the level of the 2010 find. The radiocarbon dates of the newly discovered remains are identical to those of the previous find—about 11,500 years ago—indicating a short period of time between the burial and cremation, perhaps a single season.

Professor Irish, based at the LJMU School of Natural Sciences and Psychology, was the second author on the paper. He commented on the findings:  

“The deaths are consistent with high levels of childhood death in highly mobile hunter–gatherers, which have been reported to be as high as 45% in recent arctic/subarctic groups. However, the nearly concurrent deaths of two infants and a child could have been more harmful than usual to the small group regarding long-term demographic effects, if additional births did not occur relatively soon.”

The University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Ben Potter, was the paper’s lead author.  He made the new find on the site of a 2010 excavation, where the cremated remains of another 3-year-old child were found. The bones of the two infants were found in a pit directly below a residential hearth where the 2010 remains were found.  He also led the archaeological team that made the discovery in fall of 2013 at an excavation of the Upward Sun River site, near the Tanana River in central Alaska.

 He said:

"Taken collectively, these burials and cremation reflect complex behaviors related to death among the early inhabitants of North America.”

The authors concluded that "The deaths occurred during the summer, a time period when regional resource abundance and diversity was high and nutritional stress should be low, suggesting higher levels of mortality than may be expected give our current understanding" of survival strategies of the period.”

Research was conducted by scientists at the Department of Anthropology, University of Alaska; LJMU’s Research Centre in Evolutionary Anthropology and Palaeoecology; and the Archaeology Department, University of Alaska Museum of the North.

The researchers worked closely with local and regional Native tribal organizations as they conducted their research. The National Science Foundation in the U.S. funded the work.

The research was support by two separate grants made by the Division of Polar Programs in NSF's Geosciences directorate:

Information about the research of Dr Joel Irish is available here

CONTACT FOR INTERVIEWS: Professor Joel D. Irish, Liverpool John Moores University, +44 (0)151-231-2387,

Clare Coombes, Press and Publications Officer, Liverpool John Moores University, T: 0151 231 3004 

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Quick facts

The paper emphasises how such finds are valuable to science because, except in special circumstances like those described, there is little direct evidence about social organisation and mortuary practices of such early human cultures, which had no written languages.
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