Friday, February 25, 2011

Burn, Baby, Burn!

National Geographic reported that they have recovered the remains of a child partially burned in the remains of what is likely the earliest known house in the Western Hemisphere:
In what's now central Alaska, one of the first Americans—only three years old at the time—was laid to rest in a pit inside his or her house 11,500 years ago, a new excavation reveals....What's more, if the remains yield usable DNA, the child could help uncover just who was living on the North American side of the land bridge that likely still connected the Americas to Asia at the time, experts added.

One thing that apparently isn't a mystery is how the child was memorialized.

"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," study co-author Joel Irish said. Charred wood from the pit allowed scientists to assign a radiocarbon date to the site.
Hmm, it sounds pretty fishy to me.  If a modern pit were found with a child partially burned and missing, I suspect the police would put out crime scene tape, and the only religious talk would center around cults and Satanism.  While I don't know anything more about the site than the article, I would think that a properly skeptical scientist would at least entertain and try to eliminate the notion of ritual cannibalism.
Now that an Ice Age Alaskan home has been found, scientists are poised to unlock secrets of how early North Americans lived and behaved, said Goebel, of Texas A&M University's Center for the Study of the First Americans.

It's already clear the residents had a taste for salmon—the remains of about 300 of the fish were found in the pit.

In addition to remains of young ground squirrels, the salmon are among evidence that the house was a summer residence for a seminomadic people. Both animals are abundant in the warmer months...."We picture these people as foragers hunting large game, like bison or elk. But the fishing element is kind of new, and it's kind of striking that there are so many fish."
How could a semi-nomadic people in Alaska not use salmon as food?  Even I can catch salmon by hand in clear Alaska streams.  (Yes, I've done it, just on a C&R basis).  Of course, dodging the grizzly and brown bears could have been an issue.

Unsurprisingly, the culture of the people who used the site seems similar to those on the Siberian side of the Bering Strait
Study co-author Irish, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, noted that some of the site's stone artifacts, construction style, and animal remains recall those found in today's Siberia..."The Alaskan record looks much more like Siberia or the Russian Far East record than it does anything in the lower 48" U.S. states, study co-author Potter added.DNA could clear up the picture considerably, and the ancient child's remains offer an unprecedented opportunity.

"We're really interested in using the record from Alaska to define how the first Ice Age humans crossed the Beringia land bridge," Goebel said...
This is cool, if somewhat gruesome, but then, that's the way much archeology is.

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