Finding Ice Age Human Remains Is Really Hard

Archaeologist Ben Potter started as a graphic designer. Now he is excavating some of the most spectacular specimens in Alaska.

The land that now makes up Alaska and Siberia was connected by ​a narrow stretch of land that allowed people to move freely across it until 11,000 years ago when the ice started to melt and seas rose. This area was known as Beringia. In the area that now makes up Alaska, the landscape was harsh but resources were plentiful, so the inhabitants moved with the vegetables and animals they would eat. They lived their lives in moveable camps, building temporary shelters and hearths.

It was under the remnants of an 11,500-year-old camp that ​Ben Potter, an archaeologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, uncovered the remains of several young children. One three-year-old was cremated, but the relatively intact skeletons of two infants were found buried underneath a circular hearth.

According to the ​paper he and his team published in this month's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, these remains are the earliest and youngest ever found in the area, and could add to archaeologists' understanding of funeral practices among humans during the Ice Age.

I caught up with him about life in the Ice Age and what it's like to do field work in Alaska. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Potter with a 12,000-year-old bear mandible. Image: courtesy Ben Potter

MOTHERBOARD: How did you get interested in Arctic archaeology?
Ben Potter: My story kind of has many twists and turns. I finished high school with the full intention of doing graphic design and art—I had a portfolio and got a scholarship. I did my first two years of undergrad at a community college focusing on computer graphics and animation. But then I realized that art wasn't challenging me and didn't stimulate me intellectually. So I started to look at other aspects that might interest me and I found anthropology—it's holistic and takes a look at humans in the broadest way.

Once I was in anthropology, it was clear archaeology was the thing for me because it's the only social science where you can get at big-time human questions. How do we evolve, how do we adapt, what is our capacity as a species? These are hefty questions that I found stimulating.

Is it hard to do field work in Alaska? Have you found yourself in some difficult situations because of the landscape?
Alaska has a huge variety of landscapes; we're quite large. There are some areas I would like to be in, others less so. It doesn't rain as much in our area. We do get bugs but they're not terribly bad. Bears are just something you have to deal with and you prepare for it. Of course we have a shorter field season because the summer is so short, but the season we have is great because we have light for 24 hours.

This last time we went out to the excavation site at Upward Sun River [where we found the two infants]. We have to helicopter out to the site and bring in all the food and water, really ration the water because there's nothing out there. The last couple of times we've had people making specific meals and they did a great job. We've done it often enough—seven times now at one site—that we've got it down to a pattern with planning for everything. We had to break it up because you don't want people out there too long mostly because of the water limitations. So we would work for 10 or 12 days, then take two days off.

Bears are just something you have to deal with

Tell me a bit about the site where you uncovered the two infants.
That was at a site called Upward Sun River, in central Alaska. Prior to our survey, I was working for a cultural resource management firm, and no one knew much about this site. We developed a predictive model to see where we should put the most boots on the ground to look more closely, and we found 42 new prehistoric sites underground. This was one of those. During the first two years we dug 16 to 20 test pits and only three contained any material. One contained one piece of chip-stone [used for cutting animals and wood], then we found another few.

That's not bad, but it's not a lot. Turns out that first test pit was only about three meters away from the human remains, it was lucky we found it so quickly. In 2007 we wanted to dig deeper. We made sure the site was protected, it became an academic project, then I wrote a bunch of grants to explore the geology to better understand the landscape. Then 2010 we encountered the human remains.

Right. I read that you found the remains under a "residential structure" from the same period. What does that mean?
We don't like to use the term "house," but it was one in the sense people slept in them. We're probably talking about a tent feature. That seems like not a lot, but when you compare it to other small, outdoor hunting camps that had less, it's clear that people were there for a longer period of time.

You're implying that people were relatively sedentary?
No one up here was sedentary. To make a living in the boreal forest is really difficult. How they do it today is mind-boggling—it's 40 below, if you're outside for too long you're going to die. One of the elements of adaptation these people had was high mobility, the ability to move across the landscape so that they could acquire the resources they needed. We're excited because they were here for a longer period of time than a short-term camp, but it's not like it was a farming community where you were there year round. They were just residing there for a longer period.

The people who lived there knew how to make a living

So what was life like for the families of those infants?
We're working on building models for what life might have been like. Some of this comes from animal parts left at these sites, like bones, as well as technology they may have used. What we can say is that life was certainly pretty tough. The people were somewhat reliant upon the abundance of resources around them. They ate everything they could, like small rodents and fish, and of course big game like bison and elk. 

The fact that they could capture big game like that shows that they weren't under a huge amount of nutritional stress. They didn't go after all the elements they could, like bone marrow and grease. They were efficient hunters. The landscape was different during the last ice age; there were animals there that aren't there now, like bison. The people who lived there knew how to make a living. For later groups that didn't have those animals to hunt, life would have been tougher.

What are you working on now?
A lot of projects. Much of it relates to writing up what we've excavated over the past 10 years. It's coming out little by little, but I'd like to pull the pieces together to integrate everything we've learned. With some isotope analyses [to determine people's diet and place of origin] and plant macrofossil analyses, we could really bridge human behavior with broader climate events we see.

So do you feel you're getting closer to answering those big questions?
Oh absolutely, we've answered a lot of questions. We found that some were irrelevant and we found a whole bunch of new ones. That's the great thing about science: it never ends. Finding the answers to those questions we had is just as important as finding what we still don't know.