OLDEST HUMAN REMAINS IN NORTH AMERICA
A new archaeological site in Alaska unearthed the oldest human remains discovered by scientists in North America. The site was an ancient fire pit within an ancient dwelling in Upward Sun River near the Tanana River in central Alaska. The skeletal remains appeared to belong to a 3-year-old child cremated some 11,500 years ago. Radiocarbon dating of the wood at the burial site coincided with that date, which was about the same time that the Bering land bridge probably still connected Alaska with Asia. Testing on the child’s teeth confirmed a biological connection with Native Americans and Northeast Asians.
This land bridge (Beringia) extended north and south for thousands of miles, covering an area that is now the Bering Strait and its surrounding seas. This glaciation provided a passage from Asia to North America for humans and migrating animals. It is estimated that this land bridge existed for several thousand years at different times, and it is believed that hunting bands from Asia pursued ice age migrating herds across Beringia reaching Alaska. Once in Alaska, these first American hunters, and their descendants, continued to follow the big-game animals of the Pleistocene Age along ice-free routes of the Alaskan coasts, through the Yukon and river valleys. They moved south of the glaciers to Central and South America as well as to the Atlantic Coast. Archaeological finds verified the existence of Homo sapiens in much of North and South America some 13,000 years ago; however, some were also now found to be earlier.
Until about 12,000 to 11,000 years ago, our ice-age emigrants were all foragers that depended on wild food for sustenance. They were skilled hunters, killing megafauna like the mammoth, mastodon, elk, and large bison as well as smaller animals. They fished and gathered shellfish, insects, wild fruits, vegetables, tubers, seeds, and nuts. Prehistoric stone tools and animal bones discovered from archaeological hearths of emigrant camps suggested the lack of knowledge for growing fruits and vegetables.
The foraging culture demanded an expansive land area approximately 7 to 500 square miles for their food supply, and they had to move whenever this supply depleted. Individual bands usually were small in number, typically no more than 30, because larger groups of people quickly exhausted the area’s food resources. Their housing were simple huts, tents, or lean‑tos because they needed to be transported on foot to the next region. Each band was tied to other groups through kinship over a wide area, and often that network of groups assembled for short periods each year.
The Clovis people (9,050-8,800 BC), named for the New Mexico site from which they were found, were once thought to be the first inhabitants of the New World. Their tools were well known for their characteristic “fluted” flint point that could pierce the skin of a mammoth. Originally, they were considered by science as the ancestor to all native cultures of North and South America (Paleo‑Indian).
The Folsom culture of North America (8,000-9,000 BC), first found in 1908 at Folsom, New Mexico, excavated in 1926, also was known for their projectile “fluted” flint points. Like the earlier Clovis culture, they too were considered Paleo-Indian, big-game hunters and gatherers. Most of the Folsom artifacts have been found throughout the Great Plains.
However, recent discoveries in Oregon, Alaska, Texas, Washington, and California proved that humans existed in North America 2,500 years earlier than already believed. In Oregon, a team of researchers found small spearheads and hunting tools along with human feces in the Paisley Cave complex that dated back approximately 13,000 years ago. From an archaeological dig in Washington, another team of researchers used a bone point fragment from an ancient mastodon rib, which confirmed hunters roamed North America about 800 years earlier than previously believed. Scientists in Texas have unearthed from an archaeological dig at Buttermilk Creek, stone tools and other ancient artifacts dating back 15,500 years, making this site the oldest settlement ever found in North America.
Numerous artifacts, including stemmed projectile points and crescents, have been uncovered by researchers in three sites on California’s Channel Islands. These artifacts interpret a story of a sea‑based culture among its inhabitants from 12,200 to 11,400 years ago. Tools and remains of animals from 12,000 years ago have been uncovered on islands off the coast of California that described a culture of superior tool technology as well as a marine economy.
In June 1931, a highway repair crew were working at leveling earth with a grader blade near Pelican Rapids in Otter Tail County, Minnesota, when they discovered a human skull. The crew carefully unearthed the skull and surrounding bones from layers of silt, sand, and putrefied shells, which were either clam or mussel. The bones, along with a conch shell pendant and an elk’s horn dagger, were sent to the University of Minnesota.
The examination of the human remains revealed that the pelvic bone belonged to a young, mature female who had never experienced childbirth. Her burial site also shows that this “Minnesota Woman” was not formally buried, but rather suffered a death by drowning in a glacial lake.
This information perplexed the researchers because there had been no water in the burial area for approximately 10,000 years. And at that time, Glacial Lake Pelican was formed by melted arctic ice that combined all the lakes in the Pelican River Chain, including some higher ground. It also bordered Glacial Lake Agassiz, which was at that time the largest glacial lake. Scientific evidence suggested that the “Lady of the Lake” was proto-Indian – a race of humans who lived very near the glaciers at the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age.
In the south from Arizona and western New Mexico, the Cochise culture existed about 9,000 to 2,000 years ago and was named for the ancient Lake Cochise, which is now a dry desert basin called Willcox Playa. They were a desert culture of gatherers, collecting wild plant foods and not much hunting. Initially (6,000 or 7,000 BC to 4,000 BC), they were found to have used various scrapers and milling stones for grinding wild seeds, but there were no knives, blades, or projectile points found. Although some animal remains were found, it is assumed that some hunting was done. Then from 4,000 to 500 BC, projectile points appeared indicating an increase in hunting as well as traces of a primitive maize that suggested the beginnings of farming. From 500 BC to AD, mortars and pestles replaced the milling stones. The Cochise culture has been noted as the basis for other developing cultures that followed.
After writing the piece about Mammoth Cave, I grew curious about the prehistoric Indian of North America. I didn’t learn about them in school, so I thought I would do some research into their existence. I have two books in my library that mention America’s earliest people, which became the start of this piece; however, I needed to do further research on the internet to confirm the information that I did have as well as to add the latest discoveries that may have occurred since these books were published.
I’ve always had an interest in archaeology, so researching and writing this article was like digging up my own discoveries of ancient human remains buried for thousands of years. I can only imagine the moment of excitement when a research team or scientist uncovered the remains of a fossil relic, artifact, or organic material and discovered it to be a key to a mystery or secret from antiquity. What an exciting moment!
I learned that prehistoric humans were resourceful and skilled. Their tools and weapons proved their ability to adapt and survive in a primitive and dangerous environment. Not only was the extreme weather conditions difficult to endure, but the megafauna they hunted were also an extreme prey to kill. I can’t imagine these prehistoric hunters with primitive weapons hunting mastodons, mammoths, or large bison but they did, and they were successful. It seemed nothing was impossible for them.
They were the New World’s first pioneers. They blazed a trail over the frozen land bridge and moved their clans beyond the horizon – over mountains, down valleys, along seacoasts, and through forests to the east. As hunters and gatherers, they continually moved along their trails, leaving their culture behind. They became a long-forgotten story, but I found them connected to the next ancient culture on the history timeline – the prehistoric Indian farmer.
Jenks, A.E. 1936. Pleistocene Man in Minnesota. Univ. of Minn. Press.
Josephy, Jr., A.M. 1968. The Indian Heritage of America.
Morris, R.B. (Ed.). 1953. Encyclopedia of American History. Harper & Brothers, New York, N.Y.