Upward Sun River site

Upward Sun River (USR)
Xaasaa Na’
Alternate name Little Delta Dune, 49XBD-298
Location Tanana Valley, Alaska
Region Beringia
Type multi-component site
Periods Late Pleistocene
Cultures Paleo-Arctic Tradition
Site notes
Excavation dates 2010, 2013
Archaeologists Ben Potter

The Upward Sun River site, or Xaasaa Na’, is a Late Pleistocene archaeological site associated with the Paleo-Arctic Tradition, located in the Tanana River Valley, Alaska. Dated to around 11,500 BP,[1] Upward Sun River is the site of the oldest human remains discovered on the American side of Beringia.[2] The site was first discovered in 2006.

The layer with the human remains at Upward Sun River is most similar to the level 6 layer from Ushki Lake, Kamchatka.[3][4][5][6][7] Both sites are the only Beringia burials found so far from that period.[5][6]


The name of the site, Upward Sun River, is a direct translation of the Middle Tanana (Athabascan languages) name for the site, Xaasaa Na’.[8] The Middle Tanana name was recorded from the mother of a mother-daughter pair, two of the last remaining speakers of Middle Tanana, during an interview in the 1960s.[8]

Human remains

The first excavation at Upward Sun River in 2010 yielded the cremated remains of a 3 year-old individual.[1] The individual had been cremated inside a hearth, which was then filled in, with an abandonment of the site quickly afterwards.[7] This individual was given the name Xaasaa Cheege Ts'eniin (Upward Sun River Mouth Child) by the local Healy Lake Tribe.[5] Researchers were unable to recover DNA from this individual.[2][9]

Infant burials

In a 2013 excavation of the site, researchers discovered the remains of two infants in a layer directly underneath the cremated individual.[1] The two individuals were covered in red ochre and buried together in a pit burial with grave goods, including four decorated antler rods, two lithic dart points and bifaces.[10] The antler rods and dart points were likely part of a weapon system.[4] The two infants are probably female.[11][4]

One of the individuals was a prenatal, possibly stillborn 30 week-old fetus, while the other was a 6 to 12 week old infant.[11] The prenatal individual is the only prenate and youngest Late Pleistocene individual to be recovered in the Americas.[1]

All three died during the summer.[12][2] Their teeth show features most similar to those found in Native Americans and Northeast Asians.[11][6]

mtDNA evidence

Researchers were able to extract the entire mitochondrial genome from both individuals.[9] mtDNA analysis shows that the two infants were not maternally related.[9][2] The two infants carry mtDNA lineages that are only found in the Americas.[9] USR1, the 6 to 12 week old infant, comes from C1b.[9] The prenatal infant, USR2, carries Haplogroup B2.[9]

Both individuals represent the northernmost discovery of these mtDNA lineages, and shows that the mtDNA diversity in the ancient population is higher than in the modern, lending credence to the Beringia Standstill Hypothesis.[9]


Around 300 bone fragments from salmonids were recovered at Upward Sun River, representing the earliest surviving evidence of salmon eating in North America.[13] DNA analysis types the salmon remains as coming from Oncorhynchus keta (chum salmon).[13] Isotopic analysis shows that the salmon were anadromous.[13]

Other material remains

An obsidian flake discovered as part of the grave goods found in the infant burial was chemically identified to come from the Hoodoo Mountain primary source site in Kluane National Park, Yukon, Canada, a location 600 km (370 mi) away from the Upward Sun River site.[12]

See also



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