According to reports from the National Science Foundation, the recent archaeological discovery of the graves of two infants in Alaska has prompted researchers to conclude that this could lead to a new understanding of ancient people’s perception of death and burial. The 11,000 year old graves of two infants, possibly twin brothers, were disturbed during an excavation in Alaska, and the teeth and a few other remnants of the infants represent the youngest people ever discovered in the ancient Arctic. At least one of the infants had been cremated, and both were laid to rest with stone tools as their burial belongings. The chiseled stone points that accompanied the remains of the infants were strikingly reminiscent of another collection of ancient tools found at a similar grave site in south-central Montana. The 1968 disturbance of the 10,600 year-old remains of a toddler boy, who was buried with over 118 stone and bone Clovis tools, indicated that ancient Americans believed strongly in ceremonial interment, and this more recent unearthing further demonstrates that point.
As a member of the Apsaalooke Tribe, and as a professional educator and historian, these ancient and richly endowed graves that were dedicated to very young children are not surprising or puzzling to me. In most traditional tribal cultures, the extended family, and in particular children and elders, are cherished. Despite the fact that all tribal communities in the Americas suffered catastrophic loss during the age of colonization, the remnants of that cultural heritage is still alive today, and is manifested throughout Indian Country in many ways; most of which are on display at every community event, including ceremonies, family reunions, and traditional dances, aka pow-wows. Elders are always given special care at tribal gatherings, and children are never excluded from participation. Celebrating the beauty of tribal culture and the strength of tribal families is still common in the 21st century, surviving in the face of the many social problems that continue to plague Indian communities. I believe that the roots of these earliest values are reflected in these ancient burials.
Theoretical speculation abounds about what the Indians were thinking when they placed important objects in the ground with deceased babies and covered them permanently. A growing strand of conventional wisdom says that the valuable tools included within the graves demonstrated that ancient Americans believed in an afterlife, in which these young lives would continue to grow and survive. Ostensibly, the afterlife required stone weapons, and the boys’ families wanted them to have those tools at his disposal, thus they respected the circles of life and death by behaving with good faith and true intention. This conjecture about the meaning behind the graves seems slightly overdone. I question that it’s realistic to believe that we can ever know with any degree of certainty what the exact circumstances were, or what those ancient individuals were specifically thinking when they buried their children after losing them tragically. If they had left written journals, we would have something definitive to reflect upon, but because of the nature of the oral tradition, the details have been lost to history. What represents a more perplexing enigma to me, is why archaeologists are projecting themselves so far back to find answers that are actually right in front of us.
There are countless ways to perceive and understand these remarkable graves, and the social science community tends to divide knowledge of the cultural phenomenon in order to best articulate its meaning. Both the Alaskan graves and the Anzick grave have been largely taken completely out of the context of contemporary tribal people – as if they were almost entirely unrelated peoples and cultures. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The oral traditions of North American Indian people place the highest value on family and spiritual wealth. Both of those elements are clearly on display in the ancient burials, just as they are clearly on display today if we look closely and take the time to see how ancient circles remain unbroken.
Post by Dr. Shane Doyle
Shane Doyle, EdD, is currently a post-doctoral researcher for the Centre for Geogenetics and adjunct instructor at Montana State University-Bozeman. Dr. Doyle helped lead the organization of the reburial of the Anzick Clovis Boy on June 28, 2014.