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article imageMelting of arctic snow reveals ancient hunting artifacts

By Stephanie Dearing     Apr 28, 2010 in Environment
Yellowknife - Melting ice patches in the Canadian Arctic are revealing hunting tools dating back to over 2,000 years ago, allowing archaeologists to learn a little more about earlier inhabitants of North America.
The Canadian Arctic is normally covered by ice and snow, but climate change has been changing that fact. The ice melt has allowed for ancient artifacts to be recovered.
Researcher Tom Andrews put together a team and got funding from the International Polar Year in order to study eight identified ice patches in the MacKenzie Mountains, striking archaeological pay dirt. The team found and recovered a variety of ancient hunting tools, all of different ages. Andrews was delighted by the findings, saying "We're just like children opening Christmas presents. I kind of pinch myself."
Andrews has been conducting ice patch studies since 2000, shortly after he learned an unexpected finding in the Yukon, which only occurred because the ice had melted. Funded by the International Polar Year, Andrew's interdisciplinary team "... combines archaeology, biology and geology to investigate ancient hunting artifacts and animal remains preserved in alpine ice patches. The field research will focus on recovering artifacts and biological samples from ice patches in the Mackenzie Mountains. This information will help manage caribou populations in the Northwest Territories and contribute to the sustained health and cultural well-being of Aboriginal communities that rely on caribou for traditional subsistence activities."
Ice patch archeology is a new archaeological discipline rooted in the Yukon in 1997 where "... sheep hunters discovered a 4,300-year-old dart shaft in caribou dung that had become exposed as the ice receded. Scientists who investigated the site found layers of caribou dung buried between annual deposits of ice. They also discovered a repository of well-preserved artifacts." Andrews said when he heard about the findings in the Yukon, "We began wondering if we had the same phenomenon here."
Inspired by the Yukon findings, Andrews began to study satellite images of the MacKenzie Mountains, identifying likely locations where ancient tools might be recovered. In 2005, he was able to follow up by hiring a helicopter to explore two locations. Andrew's hunches paid off handsomely, netting the recovery of a willow bow. That discovery allowed Andrews to obtain funding allowing his team to explore eight ice patches identified as being of interest.
The searches of the melting ice patches have yielded up 2,400-year-old spear throwing tools, a 1,000-year-old ground squirrel snare, and bows and arrows dating back 850 years. Andrews said, ]"The implements are truly amazing. There are wooden arrows and dart shafts so fine you can't believe someone sat down with a stone and made them."
A birch arrow found in the MacKenzie Mountains.  The arrow is in four pieces with a stone projectile...
A birch arrow found in the MacKenzie Mountains. The arrow is in four pieces with a stone projectile point. The arrow is 270 years old.
T. Andrews/GNWT
In addition to the archeology, team members have been studying dung, and DNA evidence, while also working with the Shutaot'ine or Mountain Dene to obtain their experience and learn their traditional knowledge.
Andrews said his International Polar Year funding is now depleted, but he is anxious because the continued melting means more artifacts are exposed. "We realize that the ice patches are continuing to melt and we have an ethical obligation to collect these artifacts as they are exposed. In a year or two the artifacts would be gone."
Picture shows a 340 year old willow bow reconstructed from several fragments found near the ice in t...
Picture shows a 340 year old willow bow reconstructed from several fragments found near the ice in the MacKenzie Mountains.
T. Andrews/GNWT
Dr. Andrews has written up over five years worth of experiences while engaged in Ice Patch archeology in a book called Hunters of the Alpine Ice: The NWT Ice Patch Study.
Just as the MacKenzie Mountains were a popular place for hunting historically, the mountain range is just as important today. Andrews speculates that in the past, hunters followed the caribou to the mountains and the ice patches, where the animals would gather to seek refuge from the heat and insects.
Study of the Arctic is undertaken through the auspices of the non-profit Arctic Institute of North America based at the University of Calgary. "... The institute's mandate is to advance the study of the North American and circumpolar Arctic through the natural and social sciences, the arts and humanities and to acquire, preserve and disseminate information on physical, environmental and social conditions in the North."
More about Climate change, Arctic snow melt, Artifacts, Archeology, Tom andrews
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