A rare glimpse of an American tragedy that took place 11,500 years ago

Over eleven millennia ago, a group of early Americans built a roomy summer home along the shores of the Upward Sun River in central Alaska. They fished, hunted small game, and ate dinners of meat and vegetables cooked over a large fire at the center of their house. Anthropologists who discovered the remains of the house got an intriguing glimpse of how people lived their daily lives in Pleistocene-era America. But they also found evidence of what appears to be a family dealing with untimely death.

The story begins on a landmass very different than the one we know today. As you can see from the map above, there was a significant land bridge connecting Asia to the Americas. And ice sheets stretched much farther down into North America than they do today.

A rare glimpse of an American tragedy that took place 11,500 years agoS

A group of anthropologists working Alaska announced their findings today in Science, highlighting how rare it is to find any evidence of the daily lives of early human settlers in the Americas. They carefully excavated the remains of the house, digging just enough to figure out the probable dimensions of the dwelling, as well as where the firepit was. The house probably sheltered several individuals, possibly one extended family. Animal and plant remains found at the site made it clear the house was only occupied in summer.

They also discovered, on examining the layers of the home's central firepit, that the house was abandoned shortly after a three-year-old child's body was cremated in it. Beneath the child's remains, they found plenty of evidence that the pit had been used for cooking food. But after the cremation, the pit had been filled in and abandoned. It seems likely that the family burned the remains of a child who died, and then left the house forever.

A rare glimpse of an American tragedy that took place 11,500 years agoS

Write the researchers:

A small social group, including adult females and young children, foraged from their residential base camp in mid-summer, acquiring locally available fish, birds, and small mammals. The pit was dug within the house and functioned as a cooking hearth, cooking debris disposal area, and/or cache pit. The child died and was placed within the pit, with little evidence of disturbance after cremation. The pit was backfilled soon after burning, and the relative lack of artifacts atop the pit fill suggests immediate abandonment of the house.

Here you can see the 3D representation the researchers created of the dig site.

The way the child was burned, as well as the kinds of tools at the site, look more like what anthropologists have found in Asian sites (like Ushki, on the map above) dating from the same period - not from sites in North America. So it's possible these were recent immigrants to the area. But, the researchers caution, there are so few preserved items from this period in history that there just isn't enough information to determine whether these people were part of a thriving local culture or were recent transplants.

No matter who they were, it's clear that they lived the way many Americans do today, going to cooler areas near water during the summer. And they responded to tragedy the way many families do now, too: By mourning the dead and then moving on.

Read the full scientific paper via Science.