Ancient tooth offers insights into first inhabitants of the Americas

Jan 9, 2019

A paper published in November 2018 analyzes the oldest ancient artifact found in the Arctic -- a 9,000-year-old child’s tooth.

The tooth was discovered, and forgotten, way back in the 1940s at Trail Creek Caves, right outside of the city of Deering. Jeff Rasic, an archeologist working with the National Parks Service, tells KNOM what makes its rediscovery so special.

“There’s hardly any human remains known from all across the Arctic… The next oldest human remains come from Greenland and they’re about 4,000 years old,” Rasic said. “There are other ancient human remains from central Alaska, Interior Alaska, but this is the oldest in the Arctic.”

The tooth’s age is really only part of the story though, according to Rasic.

Through advanced DNA analysis, scientists were able to uncover a wealth of knowledge.

DNA analysis of the tiny specimen revealed that the tooth belonged to a member of a population called the Ancient Beringians.

“So this population of people existed in the area at that time and then persisted after the land bridge was severed, after sea levels rose and severed the land bridge. These ancient Beringians persisted to at least 9000 years ago, the age of the Trail Creek specimen.”

The Trail Creek Caves tooth is highlighted in a paper that looks at 14 other ancient specimens from across North and South America. The tooth provides context for a bigger archaeological picture.

“People resided in Beringia, in Alaska for some time, and then some group travelled further south and went on to colonize all of North and South America. So this population in Alaska is an offshoot of this major branch in the family tree of all Native Americans.”

A lab at the University of Alaska Fairbanks was able to examine the chemical signatures of the tooth, shedding light on its ancient owner’s diet, as well as their movement around the region.

“They had a very strong emphasis on terrestrial food sources,” Rasic said. “And at that time caribou were really the main option people had… other animals, bison and mammoth, were extinct by 9,000 years ago.”

But examination of the tooth revealed no signs of fish or marine mammals being a part of the Beringian’s diet.

“Which was a little bit of a surprise,” he said. “In this case we have one data point that says this person 9,000 years ago was eating no marine mammals. They weren’t hunting seals or walrus, even though the site is not that far from the coast.”

Jeff Rasic is the team leader for the Natural and Cultural Resource Program for Gates of the Arctic National Park. He has done archeological research across northern Alaska.

The information he shared with KNOM, along with the contributions of several other scientists, was published in a paper in the Journal of Science in November of 2018, titled “Early Human Dispersals Within the Americas.”