Melting Ice Uncovering Ancient Artifacts Faster than They Can Be Recovered

makenzie mountains ice patches photo

Image credit: T. Andrews/GNWT

As temperatures rise in the Yukon's Mackenzie Mountains, veritable treasure troves of ancient artifacts have been uncovered by melting ice. Now, high in the mountains of northern Canada, archeologists are racing to recover items from these sites that have been entombed in ice for thousands of years.

But the ice, unfortunately, may be melting too fast. Lacking manpower and funding, the research teams are struggling to recover the ancient hunting implements before they are destroyed by migrating animals and harsh weather.The ice patches are formed by seasonal snow that, until recently, remained frozen year-round. Caribou, insects, and other animals seek out the patches in summer as a refuge from the heat. This made them an ideal destination for ancient hunters. Tom Andrews, an archaeologist with the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife and lead researcher on the project, commented:

I'm never surprised at the brilliance of ancient hunters anymore. I feel stupid that we didn't find this sooner.

arrow head dart shafts photo

Image credit: T. Andrews/GNWT

Ice-patch archaeology is a new phenomenon that began gaining momentum in 1997 after shepherds discovered a 4,300-year-old-dart in a freshly uncovered mound of ancient caribou dung. Researchers flocked to the area and noticed that dung was layered with bands of seasonal snow—and many of the bands contained artifacts.

Inspired by these findings, Andrews patched together funding to mount his own search and—in 2000—found success with only a four-hour helicopter tour of the area. He explains:

Low and behold, we found a willow bow...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.

willow bow reconstruction photo

Image credit: T. Andrews/GNWT

Since then, his team has uncovered several artifacts dating back as far as 2,500 years. The research is also yielding important DNA and nutritional evidence—both of which are integral to forming a complete picture of the hunters that once called this region home.

"We're just like children opening Christmas presents. I kind of pinch myself," Andrews says, but at the same time, researchers are facing a dilemma. Once the ice has melted, the artifacts are threatened by trampling caribou herds, acidic soils, and harsh weather. As Andrews explains:

We realize that the ice patches are continuing to melt and we have an ethical obligation to collect these artifacts as they are exposed.

But without more funding and manpower, they are unable to reach every new area in time. "In a year or two," Andrews explains, "the artifacts would be gone"—and he has already watched as two of the eight original patches have disappeared.

Read Hunters of the Alpine Ice for the complete story
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