Melting Yukon ices reveals 5,000-year-old archaeological treasures

Melting Yukon ices reveals 5,000-year-old archaeological treasures

An odd, barnyard-y smell in the ice patch uncovered a treasure trove of ancient tools

Photograph by Mike Thomas

Photograph by Mike Thomas

Greg Hare, a veteran archeologist with the Yukon government, has been instrumental in assembling one of the finest collections anywhere of superbly preserved ancient hunting tools. Expounding on the trove of more than 200 artifacts stored in his Whitehorse lab, Hare might seem, with his scholarly manner and standard-issue khakis, all no-nonsense scientist. But ask him how hunters actually wielded these weapons, and he turns boyishly animated in his eagerness to demonstrate.

Pointing out an almost 5,000-year-old throwing dart that rests under glass in several painstakingly collected pieces, he reaches for an exact replica on a nearby shelf. He fixes one end of the slender, roughly two-metre-long willow dart into a notch in a wooden board that he grips in one hand. “It gives you an extension on your arm,” he explains, “allowing you to hurl this dart with great force and distance.” Hare heaves back, slow-motioning a throw, complete with a phwew sound effect at the point of release.

A short section of a dart shaft was the very first artifact found to launch the remarkable, ongoing saga of Yukon ice patch archeology. Back in 1997, a local husband and wife were hunting Dall sheep up in the southern Yukon mountains, when they smelled something barnyardy, and found that the odour was coming from a mound of melting caribou dung. The strange thing was that caribou hadn’t been seen in the area for many years. That led to a sequence of investigations, including radiocarbon dating of the dung and then that first fragment of a dart, and finally to a grasp on what was happening: Climate change was eating away at the edges of mountain ice patches, revealing droppings left by caribou herds thousands of years ago—and tools lost by the hunters who had once pursued them.

According to Hare, climate conditions on about two dozen Yukon mountains have proven to be almost uniquely suited to preserving organic material. Unlike glaciers that move, slowly grinding down any artifacts trapped in them, the Yukon ice patches tend to remain stable. Or at least they did, until gradual warming over the past several decades began to shrink them and reveal treasures. Among the finds: wooden darts as old as nearly 9,000 years, some complete with stone points, sinew bindings, bits of feather and traces of ochre decoration; a finely carved, barbed antler projectile point from about 1,200 years ago; and a size-four moccasin, 1,400 years old, amazingly intact, and believed to be a boy’s. “Some of it is very beautiful,” Hare says.

In the first years after those sheep hunters caught a whiff of something, the ice patch archeology project was soon organized around annual helicopter trips into the mountains. The window of opportunity is limited: Sometimes there is only one week every August, when the short Yukon summer has melted away the previous winter’s snow cover and perhaps exposed newly mushy portions of the old ice beneath. First Nations were partners from the outset, and Aboriginal field assistants often made key finds. But last summer’s search was cancelled entirely, when Yukon Native groups went to court to block a routine archeological permit. Rather than engage in a legal battle, the Yukon government withdrew the application. Neither the archeologists nor the First Nations leaders involved would explain the clash to Maclean’s, with both sides saying they’re close to finalizing a new memorandum of understanding.

Diane Strand, the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations’ heritage director and a key negotiator in the dispute, says she looks forward to bringing elders and young people from her community to work again with the archeologists this summer. “Going out on a patch, doing the work together, and then coming together around a campfire, that’s going to feel good,” Strand says. Hare has similar hopes. “In the early days, every time you found something it was a ‘Holy crow!’ moment,” he says. “But it’s been 15 years. My objective now is more than anything else to get young First Nations students up there experiencing being on the ice and having the opportunity of finding something.”

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Melting Yukon ices reveals 5,000-year-old archaeological treasures

  1. Great article, hopefully you can followup when the new MOU is in place. It sounds like the dialog that has taken place between the government and natives could become a case study for how to get such negotiations right.

  2. After reading the headline of the article, I knew for certain that “global warming” would be mentioned somewhere in the following article.

    What needs to be remembered however, is that the time these items were dropped, or the caribou crapped on the mountainside….the earth was far warmer then, than it is now. Unless of course, you believe the ancient folk who made these artifacts dug through the ice to bury them in the permafost And if my history is correct….9000 years ago, the burning of carbon fuels was not really an issue.

    Seems ike the climate changes all by itself. Whodathunk it.

    • ” Unless of course, you believe the ancient folk who made these artifacts dug through the ice to bury them in the permafost …”

      Apparently you read this sentence, “Climate change was eating away at the edges of mountain ice patches, revealing droppings left by caribou herds thousands of years ago—and tools lost by the hunters who had once pursued them.”
      but couldn’t comprehend it.

      • Lenny,

        I suggest you try to understand what the implications of the artice are. They are not specifically stated, but they relate to my point; which as usual, you fail to grasp. I will not e providing the cliff notes version…..if you still don’t get it, that is your failing. Not mine.

        • It isn’t hard.
          In a colder climate Dropped tools get covered with snow, which doesn’t melt annually but instead accumulates and turns into ice.
          The climate warms, the ice melts and the tools are revealed.

          • You really are a duffus.

            The items were dropped BEFORE there was ice in the region. The ice that is now melting, and has revealed these items (and caribou poop) has been there for thousands of years.

            this of course, means the items were dropped, the poop was pooped…..when the area was MUCH warmer than it is today. It is only now that the ice is melting and revealing these artifacts.

            Lenny…..what this means, as you can’t seem to grasp, is that the world was a much warmer place long ago. Long before people started using fossil fuels. As i wrote earlier…..climate has been changing forever, and it has very little to do with human influence.

            You lack even the most basic grasp of logic; similar to David Suzuki when he raised the alarm that caribou bones were starting to come out of the permafrost. “The permafrost is melting…the permafrost is melting!!”

            Of coure, Davey had the same faulty idea as you seem to have.

            “Um..David…..if the permafrost is melting and revealing the bones of animals who died thousands of years ago….umm….how did the bones end up in the permafrost in the first place?”

            the answer of course (as I know you won’t ge it, Lenny)…is that when these animals died, the area was warm enough that the bones sank into the soft, WARM mud. It was only later when the planet cooled (it’s called an ice-age, and they happen a lot) that the mud in which these bones were now encased froze….and became permafrost.

            I know you still won’t get it…..but that is your failing, not mine.

          • Ahhhhh, no.
            Not only is there no indication from the article that there was “no ice in the region” when the items were dropped, but “poop” being covered with snow which subsequently does not melt until the present obviously demonstrates that it is now warmer. It’s so obvious that it’s a little embarrassing to have to explain it.
            If you have children of any age they may be able to help you with this.
            And the only “permafrost” in this story is that created in your fevered imagination.

          • Lenny,

            You cannot possibly be that obtuse?

            But then again……based upon your previous postings,I guess you are.

            From your own comment:

            “Not only is there no indication from the article that there was “no ice in the region ”

            Lenny, I suspect the writer of the column would assume something so obvious to a person of average intelligence did not realize you would be reading it. Maybe next time he’ll spell it out for you more clearly.

            My observation that you are a duffus is confirmed.

          • It should be easy, then, to tell me what evidence makes it “so obvious”.
            And here’s a little science experiment you can conduct yourself:
            Head up to the those Yukon mountains and see if that spot where the caribou poop was found 17 years ago is now covered in snow. Then make your own deposit.
            In a year you can return and see if your poop has decomposed or if it has been preserved under a multi-year layer of snow.
            Then apply every ounce of your preadolescent analytical power and see if you can make any sense of it all.

          • Lenny,

            If it is not yet obvious to you then you are beyond help. I can’t fix your level of stupid.

            Hint: (it’s warm out, caribou are eating the grass/plants/lichen on a mountain side….they take a dump. Some hunters are tracking them (and this is THOUSANDS of years ago) and in the process lose some of their gear. As the years go by, it gets colder, starts to snow, snow accumulates, and after many years enough snow has accumualted it turns to ice. This goes on for a LONG time, and when the earth once again begins its normal cycle of warming, some couple hunting sheep smell something…etc..etc…

            You know the rest, Lenny. You just can’t comprehend what you are reading because it doesn’t fit into your pre-defined belief system.

          • Hahahaha!
            Apparently caribou poo isn’t only still apparent, but still smells years after it’s dropped. The north must be smell foul!

            Now tell me the “obvious” evidence inferred from this story that there were no ice patches in the region at the time the “poop” was left. If it’s obvious it’ll be easy for you. But I’m guessing you can’t because even you know you’re full of $h#t.

  3. Lenny,

    It was warmer during the Medieval Warm Period [MWP], starting almost 2,000 years ago and ending around 800 years ago. Then t the Little Ice Age [LIA] occurred, sending global temperatures down sharply.

    Around 1700 the planet began to emerge from the LIA. It has been gradually warming since then. But the recovery from the LIA has still not warmed the planet to temperatures during the MWP.

    Further: global warming stopped about 17 years ago. It may resume, or not. But the fact that warming stopped for so many years while CO2 levels continue to rise, shows us that CO2 has little if any effect on temperature:

    “Runaway global warming” and “climate change” are scare terms. First, the climate has always changed, and second, ‘global warming’ is no longer mentioned, because global warming has stopped.

    The “carbon” scare is a hoax, intended to immensely raise taxes, and give power and money to the anti-West UN. More and more of the public are becoming aware that “climate change” is a false alarm.

    • While I’m sure you’re keen to paste that tired collection of falsehoods and conspiracy ideations at every opportunity, try to at least stick to instances in which it’s in any way a response to what’s been written.
      That way you’ll appear a little less nuts.

  4. But the world is only 4000 years old according to the Bible….how could there be a person 5000 years ago….

    • Wow…you and Lenny…cut from the same pattern no doubt. The BIBLE does not say, anywhere, that the earth is only 4k years old. This claim actually came from an Irish Bishop by the name of Ussher from back in 1600’s who sat down and calculated the years of genealogies whereupon he arrived at an earth age of about 6k years, not 4k. Here’s a link to a site that examines this topic more fully;

      • Anyone using the BIBLE to discuss the age of the earth is…well. Silly.

        One word:


        As for the topic of this thread, yes the earth was FAR warmer(about 6 o 8 degrees C) in its history, AND…the CO2 Levels were FAR HIGHER at many points in its history. I actually believe there s a correlation between CO2 (and other gases) and an increase in temperature. My argument is opposed to the idea that humans are the main driver. The climate has always changed. Sometimes it’s warmer ( a lot warmer) and sometimes it is colder. I also believe the MAIN driver is the sun. And I’m sure that years from now, we’ll have folks looking back at the “global warming” scare…..wondering what the hell we were thinking.

        Instead of wasting TRILLIONS of dollars trying to decrease plant food, er, I mean, CO2, we should use the money to come up with new ways to adapt to the changes that occur, and have alwasy occurred. CO2 is not the problem.