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Human remains found in McGrath area offer insight into Interior Alaska life centuries ago

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Posted: Friday, November 9, 2012 12:05 am | Updated: 11:55 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — Underneath a beaded white cloth and surrounded by a simple display of flowers, a case containing one of the most important cultural and scientific finds of Interior Alaska’s ancient indigenous people sat on a moose hide draped over a classroom table Thursday at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center.

In the case were the skeletal remains of three ancient humans, all males — an adult, a young adult and a child — indigenous to the McGrath village area, where they were unearthed during a construction project in October. The bones are believed to be at least 500 years old and could provide a never-before-seen picture of the human history of the Interior.

Members of the Interior Alaska Native community came together to see the remains blessed and officially transferred to the care of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, which hopes to work with the University of Alaska and other organizations to unlock a veritable treasure trove of cultural and scientific information held within the remains.

Tom Gillispie, an archaeologist with TCC, assisted in the excavation this fall and said the find, termed the “Tochak McGrath Discovery,” is astonishing.

“It’s a picture of subsistence undiluted, a picture of subsistence that I don’t think we fully have yet,” he said. “There’s an enormous amount in people’s oral history, and this will help strengthen these stories in a new and different way.”

The remains were found during an erosion control project this fall and were excavated during a few days from a small site about 3 meters deep. Crews plan to return next summer for a more extensive exploration of an area roughly the size of a large classroom.

The area sits at the confluence of several rivers and streams and likely was a meeting place for ancient people as they migrated between seasons.

Vicki Otte, the CEO of local village corporation MTNT, Limited, the landowner where the remains were found, formally transferred the remains to Jerry Isaac, the TCC board president, “to study and learn everything they can for all of Alaska’s people.”

Isaac was thrilled about the prospect of learning the Interior’s cultural past.

“Much remains to be found out about the lifestyle of our forebearers,” he said. “We were told we were nomadic; we traveled from camp to camp in search of food. We’re the hunter-gatherer type of people; we’re not the farmers or the livestock type of people.”

During the winter, the remains will be put to scientific scrutiny. Gillispie and TCC senior archaeologist Bob Sattler said the remains will be carbon dated to determine their age and reconstructed to attempt to discern the cause of death.

Additionally, the bones could lend insight into aspects of the early people’s lives, such as what they ate, how long they lived, whether they were related and where they could trace their genetic roots.

He said it’s a unique opportunity because Interior Alaska indigenous people traditionally cremated their remains and the environment made it difficult to find anything else.

“It’s a combination of cultural and environmental causes,” he said. “It’s a vast, vast landscape, and finding a small site like this is very difficult. Everything conspires against a discovery of this kind. To have the machinery there was a beautiful piece of serendipity.”

The lack of prehistoric genetic material from the Interior has left a blank spot in the ancient history of indigenous people of Alaska, Sattler said. This find, if the science works out, potentially could be a boon to not only the larger scientific picture, but also for modern-day Alaska Natives.

Sattler said the bones likely have retrievable genetic material that could be used to learn more about the individuals’ lineage as well as discovering living descendants. Sattler described a potential project of collecting genetic samples of living Athabascans to see if there are living relatives of the three.

To Isaac, it was an important and emotional moment.

“We are a very spiritual type of people, and just being near the remains of this family here gives me the feeling that there’s a being nearby,” he said. “I don’t know if you guys feel that, but I’m tickling all over here just of me standing close. That’s the way the Native people of the Interior are.”

Isaac said the remains eventually will be returned to McGrath and be put to rest, but before then, the remains have a wealth of information to share.

When asked how the three males ended up where they did and why they weren’t cremated, Gillispie declined to speculate.

“We’re so early in the research it would be premature to attempt to decide what the story is now. That’s part of our work next year is to establish what archaeologists call context — that’s the geology, that’s the activity that people have taken on their landscape,” he said. “Right now, we’re not coming down strongly on any one interpretation; that’s premature. But it’s how science works.”

Despite the lengthy months and years of scientific work ahead, archaeologists and community leaders alike were buzzing with energy about the possibilities.

“I’m very, very excited,” Isaac said.

Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544 or follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.

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