Who do you think of when I say “First American Girls”? Is it the founding mothers like Abigail Adams and Martha Washington? They’re too old…and too far ahead in the American story. Is it the girls of Salem, Massachusetts, or the Pilgrim girls who came from England? Right age this time…but still a bit too late in the story.

In fact, our story goes back thousands of years – to the first girls inhabiting the American continents. Back then, the land wasn’t called “America” – in fact, we don’t know what it was called other than, perhaps, a word meaning “home.” It is these journeys – these searches for home – that are the first topic addressed in Exploring American Girlhood through 50 Historic Treasures. Co-authored by myself and our Head Girl, Ashley Remer, the book explores fifty artifacts and historic sites that reveal American history from an entirely new perspective: girlhood.

And it begins with some of the oldest known human remains in the Americas – which belong to two young girls. Today, I’d like to share their story with you.

Discovery of the Upward Sun River infants (Ben Potter)

Their names are unknown, but upon being found by archaeologists working along the Upward Sun River in Alaska, they were given the modern names Xach’itee’aanenh T’eede Gaay (Sunrise Girl-Child) and Yelkaanenh T’eede Gaay (Dawn Twilight Girl-Child) by the Healy Lake Tribe. The girls are over 11,500 years old, and died as mere infants at the height of what should have been a fertile summer. 

The Upward Sun River was part of prehistoric Beringia – a land between the Arctic and Pacific Oceans that was home to grasslands and large animals like mammoth and bison. The girls’ camp along Upward Sun River was occupied during the summer, in a seasonal cycle of migrations to follow herds of animals. The camp included firepits and activity areas, as well as houses and pit-hearths. Within the pit-hearth, buried under sand and ash, were the remains of the two girls and a 3-year-old child (whose sex has yet to be determined). 

The girls are the earliest human remains found to date in northern North America, and they have already taught us so much about how the American continents were populated. As we recount in the chapter,

“Their remains were unburned, largely complete, and placed in anatomical positions, meaning they were purposely buried in the pit-hearth. Xach’itee’aanenh was only a few weeks or months at death, while Yelkaanenh was a late-term fetus.  Both infants were completely covered in ochre, indicative of being in shrouds, and were near “four antler rods and two projectile points placed parallel to each other” covered in red ochre.   The antler rods were of particular interest to archaeologists because they were covered with decorations (X-incision designs) similar to prehistoric tools from Asia. In 2015, DNA analysis revealed the girls were close relatives, but had mothers who belonged to genetically distinct population groups.”

Beyond being the oldest human remains, these graves are also the first evidence of complex mortuary practices. They suggest that death was not relegated to distinct areas, like cemeteries today, but was embraced as part of everyday life. Additionally, the burials exhibit great care and devotion, directly refuting centuries of bias that children were not highly valued in pre-modern societies.

“Upward Sun River demonstrates that Paleo-Indian cultures recognized the value of their children, mourned when they died, and did so as closely-related family groups.”

The graves also refute “centuries of bias towards prehistoric hunter-gatherer groups, which were assumed to be male-dominated because modern societies are patriarchal. Most of the scientific community now considers prehistoric hunter-gatherer groups to possess social norms free from modern patriarchal bias, and the Upward Sun River infants provide additional support.”

Yet the girls’ greatest contribution has been to our understanding of how the continent was populated. DNA analysis revealed that the infants belonged to a previously unknown group – the Ancient Beringians – who share a common ancestor with, yet are distinct from, the groups who became Native Americans. The Ancient Beringians were from East Asia – migrating after the Native Americans, and eventually joining the northern ancestors of Native Americans to become one ancestral group. This link to East Asia was also evident in their mortuary practices – the graves are similar to ones found in prehistoric Russia, suggesting that Ancient Beringians brought with them cultural traditions from other regions of the world. 

In one gravesite, two young girls – have profoundly changed our understanding of who populated Ice Age America – and whether they valued children and, more importantly, girls. 

Their story is just the beginning of American girls’ story. Our book, Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures, goes on to discuss sites and artifacts of other pre-European girls, such as the girls of ancient Hawai’i, Cahokia in Illinois, and the Timucua in Florida. Yet theirs are not the only stories worth telling. In any book, choices have to be made about what to include and what to leave out – unfortunately, our book could only cover so much of the complex history of pre-European-Contact girlhood.

In fact, it even leaves out some of my personal favorites. Because our book was limited to what is now the United States, we were unable to tell the stories of girls found in other parts of the American continents. One is nicknamed Naia. She is a 12,000-year-old skeleton found deep in an underwater Mexican cave. Analysis of her skeletal remains show that she traveled long distances on foot, experienced severe and repeated nutritional stress, and had a very, very hard life. Her hip bones revealed that she had given birth well before her death, but her upper-arms were rail skinny, meaning she did not’ routinely undertake the heavy work of grinding seeds, working skins, or carrying heavy loans. Yet her leg muscles were developed, indicating she spent a lot of time wandering. At death, she was between 15 and 17 years old, probably having fallen into the deep pit that eventually filled with water and kept her bones preserved. Who was this strange wandering girl of ancient Central America? We may never know, but she does reveal that life 12,000 years ago was very hard, and that her story is far more complex than we give girls credit for.

Another young woman challenging centuries of patriarchal bias was found in the Andean highland site of Wilamaya Patjxa in 2018. Her 9,000-year-old burial also included a hunting toolkit of stone projectile points and animal processing tools, indicating that she possibly died hunting or was a hunter in life. Further study of prehistoric Andean burials backed the Wilamaya girl’s story, finding that between 30 and 50 percent of big game hunters found in burials were biologically female. Some researchers continue to insist that she – and other females with hunting grave goods – may not have been hunters. They say that grave goods may just be ritualistic, and not associated with an individual’s activities in life. But problematically, those questions are only raised when the burial is a female – no one raises such questions of ritual versus real life when it’s a male skeleton.

I, for one, think we need to put aside patriarchal bias. These girls lived thousands of years ago – in societies and environments radically different from our own. We are all human, but how humans live has varied widely throughout time and place. To impose our own biases on finds from thousands of years ago results in silencing stories that could reveal so much more about who we are, where we come from, and where we might go.

That is the hope I had when co-writing Exploring American Girlhood. That these artifacts and places will help us challenge long-held prejudices, coming to terms with the fact that girlhood in itself is as diverse, complex, and mind-boggling as the whole of human history. It is filled with tragedies and triumphs, everyday tasks and monumental undertakings. Their stories mirror our own, yet also open doors to new ways of thinking about girls in the past – and the present. 

The first American girls are just part of this incredible story.

-Tiffany Isselhardt
Program Developer

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