Upward Sun River Details

Upward Sun River (XBD-298)

Provided by Ben Potter, 12-10-2015

This site was discovered in 2006 during field surveys for a proposed extension of the Alaska Railroad, along with numerous other buried sites (Potter et al. 2008). In 2007, additional testing produced evidence of four components, the oldest dating to 13,300 cal BP. A Determination of Eligibility was developed based on extant data, in particular focusing on Criterion D (yielded information important in prehistory). The PI, Potter, received National Science Foundation funding to investigate the site, and as part of this investigation, the discovery of the oldest known human remains ever recovered from the Arctic/Subarctic of North America led to continued work by Potter at the site from 2010 to the present.


The Upward Sun River site, a translated term for the aboriginal Athabascan name for the river, Xaasaa Na’, is one of the most significant sites in North America. The geological integrity of the site is very high, allowing for detailed behavioral reconstructions from the numerous artifacts, features, and well-preserved organic remains. The site is deeply buried (over 10 meters of Aeolian sand and loess) with well-stratified, vertically isolated and constrained components. Six components span the late Pleistocene and middle Holocene. The oldest component (C1) contains numerous faunal remains and two hearth-centered activity areas, dating to the period of the earliest occupation of Beringia and the Americas. Component 3, dating to 11,500 cal BP, has produced the largest amount of cultural materials. Several activity areas are present in clear association, including a residential feature (one of only a handful in North America) and associated central hearth. Within this hearth, a 3-year old child was cremated (Potter et al. 2011). An earlier related pit was excavated through the center of an earlier hearth in this location, where two infants (a 6-week old and a late-term fetus) and associated grave goods were discovered (Potter et al. 2014). The grave goods included four antler foreshafts (3 of which were highly decorated). Two of the foreshafts were directly adjacent to willow-leaf points, representing the earliest hafted bifaces in the New World.


The integrity and complexity of this feature (burial pit, cremation hearth, and residential feature) provide the first clear evidence of Beringian mortuary behaviors, and the differences in treatment of the three individuals highlight complex behaviors that are likely rooted in Paleoindian ideologies. The importance of hunting implements, even in the context of a camp dominated by salmon processing, is intriguing. Identifying gender and age of site inhabitants in the archaeological record is notably difficult, but here at Upward Sun River, we can definitively identify females, young children, and infants. Component 3 is clearly a residential base camp, and provides a rare window into this aspect of the settlement system, which is so often dominated by short-term hunting camps.


Several ongoing projects on Upward Sun human remains and cultural materials have produced unprecedented information on early Beringian/Paleoindian adaptations. The earliest known anadromous salmon exploitation for the New World was established on the basis of zooarchaeological analyses (Potter et al. 2011) and genetic and stable isotopic analyses (Halffman et al. 2015). These data provide important new insights into Paleoindian seasonal land use, subsistence and antiquity of salmon exploitation that was later to become the most critical resource for many populations in the Pacific Northwest.


Genetic analyses indicate two different maternal lineages for the two infants (B2 and C1b), both of which represent the northernmost occurrence (Tackney et al. 2015). One of these, B2, reflects a population at the root of the B2 lineage. These haplogroups are presently found throughout western North America and South America. Nuclear genomic analyses are underway and will likely add significantly to our understanding of early population movements and affiliation.


Technological, zooarchaeological, geoarchaeological, geochemical, biochemical, and spatial analyses are currently ongoing. Among these, stable isotope analyses are focused on providing direct data on the mothers’ diet, which will add significantly to our understanding of overall lifeways of these ancient Beringians.


In sum, Upward Sun River has yielded very significant findings on many aspects of Beringian and more broadly Paleoindian archaeology, including technology, subsistence economy, settlement system, diet, mortuary behaviors, and genetic affiliation with other Native Americans. Ongoing and future work will continue to demonstrate the significance of this site.


References Cited

Potter, Ben A., Joshua D. Reuther*, Peter M. Bowers, and Carol Gelvin-Reymiller*

2008    Little Delta Dune Site: A Late Pleistocene Multi-component Site in Central Alaska. Current Research in the Pleistocene 25:94-97.

Potter, Ben A., Joel D. Irish, Joshua D. Reuther*, Carol Gelvin-Reymiller*, and Vance T. Holliday

2011    A Terminal Pleistocene Child Cremation and Residential Structure from Eastern Beringia. Science 331(6020):1058-1062.

Ben A. Potter, Joel D. Irish, Joshua D. Reuther, and Holly J. McKinney

2014    New Insights into Eastern Beringian Mortuary Behavior: A Terminal Pleistocene Double Infant Burial at Upward Sun River. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111(48):17060-17065. (doi: 10.1073/pnas.1413131111)

 Carrin Halffman, Ben A. Potter, Holly J. McKinney, Bruce P. Finney, A. T. Rodrigues, Dongya Y. Yang, and Brian M. Kemp

2015    Early Human Use of Salmon in North America at 11,500 years ago. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112(40):12344-12348. (doi: 10.1073/pnas.1509747112)

Tackney, Justin C., Ben A. Potter, Jennifer Raff, Michael Powers, W. Scott Watkins, Derek Warner, Joshua D. Reuther, Joel D. Irish, and Dennis H. O'Rourke

2015    Two contemporaneous mitogenomes from terminal Pleistocene burials in eastern Beringia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Early Online Edition, October 26, 2015.


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