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Frozen finds in the Alpine

Arctic artifacts yukon Selwyn Mountain

Artifacts of the caribou hunter
By Todd Kristensen, Tom Andrews and Darryl Bereziuk

The winds bode well for a small group of climbers high in the alpine on an August afternoon. They are peering down below at unsuspecting caribou that have clustered on a patch of ice to stay cool. The stench of caribou dung left by thousands of animals that have returned to this area over thousands of years is a nasal reminder of how caribou are set in their ways. On a daily basis during the summer months, the animals migrate upslope to colder heights during the hottest time of day only to return to the valleys at night. This ancient habit makes the caribou predictable. And so, as long as caribou have been gathering at ice patches in Alaska, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories for over 9,000 years, people armed with sturdy moccasins and stone-tipped weapons have followed them.

Archaeological research from Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias Ranges to the Mackenzie Mountains in the NWT has revealed rare and delicate tools preserved in high altitude ice that document a deep human history in some of the most remote alpine habitats on the continent. These artifacts were lost by ancient people such as the hunters described above, and have since been encased in a barrier of ice that climate change has recently unlocked. A race is now on to find frozen relics from the past before they, and the icy archives that house them, disappear forever. Also fading are the memories of this traditional practice among local indigenous groups. Elders still remember an age old mantra passed down for generations that may just as well describe the strategy of modern hikers: “Climb high and stay high”. The important point was to approach game from above. Archaeology and traditional knowledge combine to tell an amazing story of mountain climbs in ancient times.

The story of prehistoric alpine hunters owes its existence to modern biologists in the Yukon who discovered an odd piece of wood above the tree line in the Coast Mountains. The find was reported to local archaeologists who realized that it was a wooden tool lost on the ice thousands of years ago. Indigenous people across the North still remember stories of life in the alpine, but until that lucky Yukon find, archaeologists didn’t expect that much physical evidence of old activities would preserve in the harsh high altitude conditions. It is very rare to find intact wooden tools that are thousands of years old, so the artefact triggered a series of research programs that focused the eyes of archaeologists upwards on lofty peaks where they eventually found themselves down to their knees in slippery caribou dung.

A suite of research techniques is helping to uncover the technologies used by alpine climbers while radiocarbon dates are indicating when different weapons were used. The flurry of scientific methods in alpine research is an avalanche of acronyms to the uninitiated: GPR (ground penetrating radar), SEM-EDS (scanning electron microscopy-energy dispersive spectrometry), and our own invention HUMT-FT (hiking up mountains to find things). Scientists also rely on caribou radio-collar data, ancient DNA research, mountain range satellite imagery, and snow indices. The result is an impressive library of information about alpine life in the days before hiking boots, crampons, and Gor-Tex.

Archaeologists have learned that Indigenous people used three major weapons to kill caribou, sheep, ptarmigan, small mammals, and even bison in high altitude areas. The first and oldest is the atlatl and dart system (or spear thrower). Picture a lacrosse stick but instead of a basket on the end, a little spur or hole served as the seat of a small wooden spear. The spear or ‘dart’ was launched from the wooden stick like a javelin. When compared to a basic spear, the atlatl increased the length of the thrower’s arm and in turn increased the power, which drove the dart deeper into the target’s body.

IcePatch-arrowAround 1,200 years ago, the atlatl and dart were replaced by the bow and arrow. Broken bow fragments from the ice patches tell of failed hunting expeditions while frozen arrows tell of near misses that were lost in the snow. The benefit of the bow and arrow was that hunters could stand still while firing as opposed to the running launch of the atlatl dart. Less hunter movement meant that animals didn’t notice their two-legged predators until too late. The bows were made of maple and willow wood (bendy but durable) while arrow/dart shafts were made of birch, spruce, and saskatoon. A traditional indigenous name of the saskatoon plant is ‘arrow berry,’ which reflects the ancient roots of a raw material used over 2,000 years ago.

Stone arrowheads were coated in thick, sticky spruce sap that glued the arrowhead in place on the arrow shaft. It was then tied tight with thread or “sinew” made from caribou back tissue. Sinew was also used to tie neatly clipped bird feathers to the ends of arrows. This is called ‘fletching’ and helped create drag that kept the arrows flying straight. Just as every old village in Europe had a blacksmith, every village had an arrow-maker, which explains the now common North American surnames of ‘Smith’ and ‘Fletcher’. Arrowmaker is also a common indigenous family name for this same reason. The ideal feathers for arrows were from hawks, owls, and eagles because it was hoped that their silent aerial hunting skills would be passed on to the flying weapons.

The last weapon system found in the high altitude ice was used to capture the notoriously ferocious ground squirrel and marmot. Rodent snares have been found in the Selwyn Mountains of Northwest Territories that are made of leather loops that were triggered by wooden trip pegs set outside burrows. Indigenous stories tell us that ground squirrel skins were stitched together to form beautiful robes and that up to 200 snares in a single alpine area could produce enough food to last for months. Add the supply of caribou, sheep, ptarmigan, and berries and alpine life from late summer to early fall was good.

The collection of preserved alpine tools in northern ice patches is truly unique in North America and they are broadening our understanding of prehistoric ways. For example, a 1,400-year-old moccasin from the Yukon Plateau region represents one of the oldest pieces of footwear found in northern North America. The moccasin was likely replaced by spares that hunters carried with them while hiking over hard and rocky mountains. As modern climbers know, the right gear (in this case new shoes) can be a matter of life and death. Moving around in the alpine was a critical thing, which is strongly echoed in indigenous stories. Living in the alpine meant knowing how to move through it, and, more importantly, how to properly treat a landscape that held the fate of one’s own life. People would regularly “pay the water” (offer gifts to spirits at water bodies), properly dispose of animal remains (to make sure the spirits could be re-incarnated), and “dream animals” (listen to the omens of alpine spirits that communicated to people through dreams). All of this helped maintain a healthy balance in which people took care of the land and the land took care of the people.

Over time, the caribou have seen it all, from atlatls to snares and bows and arrows to muskets (a musket ball was found on a Yukon ice patch). In addition to all that technological change, the caribou are now watching a novel impact of human industry, one that is having bigger effects on caribou populations than prehistoric hunting. Warming temperatures are eating away at the ice patches that caribou rely on to beat the heat. For an animal adapted to surviving frigid Arctic winters, it is the hot summers that may prove more dangerous to survival. Now, archaeologists and caribou are meeting eye-to-eye along the vanishing edges of alpine ice patches. While archaeologists eagerly recover ancient artifacts, caribou reluctantly clamour for pockets of cool snow. They are now laying on totally melted ice patches out of instinct, which is bad news because the exposed dark dung bands absorb solar radiation and drive up caribou body temperature. They are returning to cool down at ancestral resting spots that no longer exist.

Ice patches that lasted for over four millennia have vanished in the last 50 years. Jennifer Galloway of the Geological Survey of Canada studies changes in northern plant communities by inspecting ancient pollen and her research helps uncover the rate, magnitude, and direction of climate change over the last 10,000 years. She’s detected dramatic changes in the recent past and hopes to use that information to understand how regions like the mountains of the NWT may experience future changes if the climate continues to warm.

The causes of global warming are debated but the alpine effects are clear. It is ironic that as the ice melts it unlocks a story of prehistoric hunting while exposing those very clues of the ancient past to destructive high altitude weather. A book is opening and quickly closing. Much remains to be learned. If modern climbers find old bones, wood, or a potential artefact, please leave them in place and contact the authors with some photographs or map coordinates so we can continue to learn about the deep past of life in the alpine.