RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Archaeologists in Alaska have been given a rare glimpse into family life and death for some of the very first North Americans. The scientists have discovered the remains of a settlement created by people who probably migrated from northern Asia about 12,000 years ago. They got here by crossing the so-called Bering Land Bridge. These people left behind the foundations of a house, tools and the cremated remains of a child. NPR's Christopher Joyce has the story.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: The Land Bridge was a strip of dry land that connected what is now Russia and Alaska during the last Ice Age, when sea levels were lower. Asians walked across it to Alaska, the front doorstep to the rest of the continent. Most archaeologists say that's how people got here.
Now scientists have found the foundations of a home left behind by some of those migrants. Ben Potter, from the University of Alaska, says it dates back 11,500 years.
Dr. BEN POTTER (University of Alaska): Collectively, the archaeologists in the region, we've done 70 years or more of research and nothing remotely similar has been found to this time period so it's quite overwhelming.
JOYCE: Signs of human occupation have been found in North America dating back even earlier. But in this case the archaeologists have more - the foundation of a house dug into the ground, and inside, a pit built for a hearth for cooking and lots of animal bones, from salmon to squirrels and rabbits. And, stunningly, the remains of a child that had been cremated in the cooking hearth. Potter recreates what he thinks happened.
Dr. POTTER: They were using the house, using the hearth, then the child died. The child was laid on the surface of the hearth. We can identify this because all of the food elements are below the human remains. They immediately backfilled and probably abandoned the site at that point.
JOYCE: So, in a sense, they just turned the house into a crypt.
Dr. POTTER: Yeah.
JOYCE: Burying a child in a house is not unique to hunter-gatherer societies. The practice has been documented in northern Asia, though the bodies were not cremated there. A dental expert with the team, Joel Irish, says many of the Alaskan child's teeth survived. They indicate he or she was about three years old at death. There was no sign of foul play, but there were signs that the child indeed came from Asia - some of the front teeth had a slight shovel-shape.
Dr. POTTER: And that is a northeast Asian, Native American trait. So the child does have some affinity to native populations.
JOYCE: Scientists believe the land bridge was covered over with water just about 500 years or so after the time this house was abandoned. So these could have been among the last people to arrive over the land bridge.
Their life might well have been quite different from the immigrants who got here earlier. Archaeologists say culture and tools changed rapidly once people got here. But these Alaskans, or Beringians as they are called, were still rooted in Asian culture and tool-making.
Dr. POTTER: I think the significance of the remains that we found are to indicate that Beringia, eastern Beringia still represents a fundamentally different way of life than the first migrants into the lower 48 in the sense that our technology, at least some elements, do resemble some of the Asian influences.
JOYCE: The research appears in the journal Science.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.