Hunting for once-buried treasure

A 270-year-old birch arrow (in four pieces) was found in the N.W.T.
Photograph by Tom Andrews

Thousands of years ago, hunters in the Northwest Territories began climbing onto thin bands of snow on the slopes of the Mackenzie Mountains in pursuit of caribou fleeing the summer heat and insects below. Today, likely due to global warming, these ice patches have shrunk—“they’ve melted more in the last few years than in the last 3,000,” says University of Calgary geologist Brian Moorman, who studies the formations—exposing perfectly preserved artifacts of ancient hunting life. Researchers are racing to salvage this frozen history.

Last week, archaeologists highlighted a trove of hunting implements uncovered in the Northwest Territories since 2005, including an 850-year-old willow bow alongside broken arrows—one with a finely worked stone head still fastened with sinew—and, nearby, dark aerodynamic raptor feathers that stabilized the flying projectiles. The shafts “look like a piece of hardwood dowelling made with a super-fast steel-bladed machine, but these things are made by human beings sitting on the ground carving them with a sharp stone,” says Tom Andrews, an archaeologist with the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre and leader of the project.

Other finds, including examples of an older dart-throwing technology, date back 2,000 years. And a ground squirrel snare—twisted sinew attached to a piece of willow with a noose at the end—suggests that hunters snacked on rodents. The discoveries are unusual because the acidic soils of the boreal forest eat through wood artifacts elsewhere.

Ice-patch archaeology began in 1997 after a hunter in Yukon found a dart more than 4,000 years old in ancient dung. Crews are now sifting through patches worldwide (scientists hope the ice and old ordure will unravel how the climate has changed over millennia), but it is urgent work for archaeologists. Exposed, the bows and arrows turn to dust.