Melting ice in Yukon reveals artifacts, clues to ancient life

Posted: Friday, January 16, 2004

WHITEHORSE, Yukon - Melting in the alpine last summer revealed the oldest artifact recovered from what is now an inventory of 18 archaeological ice patches on Yukon Territory mountains.

The shaft of a hunting dart used with an atlatl - a throwing board - has been radiocarbon dated at 9,300 years old.

It was on display this week with other artifacts recovered by scientists and students scouring the melting ice patches for clues into the way of life thousands of years ago.

The recovery of an atlatl dart from a receding ice patch near Kusawa Lake in 1997 began what has become an archaeological success story. A team of researchers from England's Oxford University have made the ice patches and the Yukon's gold fields their special focus, as they have found the quality of preserved archaeological material is second to none, said Yukon archaeologist Greg Hare.

Diane Strand, heritage officer for Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, said the artifacts have a profound effect on the aboriginal students who have helped discover them.

On display with the atlatl was a 1,400-year-old leather hunting pouch sewn with sinew. Both were recovered by Cody Joe, an 18-year-old student with the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations.

"We have had students go out there and they have had a real profound change about who they are and where they come from," said.

Strand pointed to one artifact that is not unusual because of its age, but because it provides her with an insight into the level of sophistication her ancestors possessed. Down both sides of the 1,260-year-old atlatl dart are two feathers running parallel, sewn to the side of the shaft with sinew that's threaded through the quill of the feathers.

It is amazing, Strand said, to think that well over a millennium ago, her ancestors had the tools to pierce the quill with such a fine hole without damaging the aerodynamics of the feather.

The dart is the youngest of the atlatl artifacts. Its date of 1,260 years old comes just after the first artifact from the beginning of the bow-and-arrow era in the Yukon, dated at 1,300 years old.

Bow-and-arrow technology, Hare said, swept North America 1,500 years ago. Available evidence suggests the technology began in the North and quickly moved south.

"It stuck within two generations," Hare said. "That is a really remarkable change in the archaeological record."

The oldest shaft is evidence, Hare said, that soon after the ice age ended 10,000 years ago, people already had adapted to hunting caribou high up on the ice patches. The caribou used the ice patches to escape flies in summer.

Unlike glaciers that move and grind archaeological evidence into dust, artifacts encased in ice patches remain stable and preserved, only to surface when summer heat melts away their cover.

The Oxford University team last summer scraped samples from the inside of the leather pouch to conduct DNA research. They also bored hole samples from soil immediately in front of the ice patches, from which they will search for DNA evidence of animals and people, from things as minute as a dried scale of skin that was shed thousands of years ago.

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