By Claire Eamer
In 1997, as aspen leaves glowed golden and fireweed burned dark red in the early Yukon autumn, Gerry Kuzyk climbed the steep side of a mountain west of Whitehorse. Kuzyk had taken time off his job as a Yukon government biologist for a few days of sheep hunting, and the high bare slopes are where you find mountain sheep. If you’re lucky.
Kuzyk was lucky that day, but not quite in the way he expected. He made his way towards one of the pockets of permanent ice that nestle on the shady sides of Yukon mountains. Ice patches are made by season after season of snow that never quite melts, but compresses into layers of ice. The ice patches aren’t massive enough to flow like glaciers, but they are big enough to cool the air around them and provide animals like sheep and caribou with welcome relief from summer heat and insects.
As Kuzyk got closer to the ice, he saw something dark spilling from its edges. And he smelled it. Caribou dung, he thought, and lots of it. The ice patch was melting, releasing a huge quantity of half-frozen caribou poop. Kuzyk was puzzled because caribou hadn’t been seen in that area for the better part of a century.
A few days later, Kuzyk went back to the ice patch, this time accompanied by caribou biologist Don Russell. Russell confirmed that the dung had come from caribou. Then he bent over, pulled a stick from the mess, and asked, “What’s this?”
That was the beginning of a new chapter in archaeology: ice patch archaeology. The stick was a dart, a sort of short spear launched by a throwing stick called an atlatl. It still had the remains of three feathers bound to it with sinew, probably by the hunter who lost it about 4,300 years ago. The caribou dung itself had accumulated over even more thousands of years, frozen and preserved in the ice, just like the dart.
Ice patch archaeology is one of the unexpected consequences of global warming. Around the world, ice of all kinds is melting and revealing treasures from the ancient past, from pristine projectile points to lost bits of ancient clothing—not to mention the bones, horns, antlers, and droppings left by a variety of animals over more than 10,000 years.
This year, ice patch archaeologists are coming back to where it all started. Frozen Pasts – the 3rd International Glacial Archaeology Conference will be held June 3 to 8, 2012, in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. One of the conference hosts is the Kwanlin Dun First Nation, some of whose members might well be descended from the hunter who lost his atlatl dart so long ago.
For more information about Yukon ice patch archaeology, click here or here.
And here are a few other places where ice patches have revealed treasures: the Northwest Territories, the American Rockies, and Norway.