Around 11,500 years ago, at a place that is now called the Upward Sun River, in the region that has since been named Alaska, two girls died. One was a late-term fetus; the other, probably her cousin, was six weeks old. They were both covered in red ochre and buried in a circular pit, along with hunting weapons made from bones and antlers. “There was intentionality in the burial ceremony,” says Ben Potter from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, who uncovered their skeletons in 2013. “These were certainly children who were well-loved.”
Now, several millennia after their short lives ended, these infants have become important all over again. Within their DNA, Potter’s team has found clues about when and how the first peoples came to the Americas.
They did so from East Asia—that much is clear. Today, Russia and Alaska are separated by the waters of the Bering Strait. But tens of thousands of years ago, when sea levels were lower, that gap was bridged by continuous land, hundreds of miles wide and covered in woodlands and meadows. This was Beringia. It was a harsh world, but you could walk across it—and people did.
The Upward Sun River infants, who have been named Xach’itee’aanenh T’eede Gaay” (Sunrise Girl-Child) and “Yełkaanenh T’eede Gaay” (Dawn Twilight Girl-Child) by the local indigenous community, were found at a crucial point along this route. Few human remains have been found from such a northerly or westerly part of the Americas, or from such an ancient time. “It’s hard to impress upon you how rare they are,” says Potter. “The window into the past that these children provide is priceless.”