Recent archaeological research from Alaska to Yellowstone has revealed rare and delicate tools preserved in high altitude ice that tell of a deep human history in some of the most remote alpine habitats on the continent. These artifacts were lost by ancient hunters of alpine animals (like caribou and sheep) and had been encased in a barrier of ice that warming temperatures have recently unlocked. A race is now on to find frozen relics from the past before they, and the icy archives that house them, disappear.
The story of prehistoric alpine hunters in North America owes its existence to Yukon biologists who discovered an odd piece of wood above the treeline. The find was reported to local archaeologists who realized that it was a wooden tool lost on the ice thousands of years ago. First Nations across the North still remember stories of traditional life in the alpine, but until that lucky Yukon find, archaeologists didn’t expect that much physical evidence of old activities could be preserved in the harsh high altitude conditions. It is very rare to find wooden tools that are thousands of years old, so the artifact triggered a series of research programs in the North.
On a daily basis, caribou migrate upslope to colder heights during the hottest time of day only to return to the valleys at night. Alpine ice features provide animals relief from insects and hot temperatures. This long-lived habit of ice patch use makes these animals predictable. And so, as long as caribou and other animals have been gathering at ice patches in the North (for over 9000 years), people armed with sturdy moccasins and stone-tipped weapons have followed them.
Archaeologists have found remnants of prehistoric hunting trips including possible broken spear shafts near Jasper, arrows, bows, darts, and an excellently preserved 1400 year old Yukon moccasin. Some arrows even retain the feathers that were tied to their shafts, which helped create drag that kept the arrows flying straight. (This is called ‘fletching’ and is the origin of the common European surname ‘Fletcher’. Arrowmaker is also a common First Nations family name for this reason.)
Archaeologists in N.W.T. have also found a snare in an alpine ice patch that was used to capture ground squirrels, the skins of which were stitched together to form beautiful robes. Based on First Nations traditional knowledge, up to 200 snares were set in a single alpine area and this could produce enough food to last for months. Add to this the supply of caribou, sheep, ptarmigan, and berries, and alpine life from late summer to early fall was good.
Ice patches that lasted for over four millennia have vanished in the last 50 years and scientists are monitoring the implications for alpine ecology. While the causes of ice retreat are debated, the impact on the archaeological record is clear. Melting ice has unlocked a story of prehistoric hunting but at the same time, it has exposed those very clues of the ancient past to destructive high altitude weather. A book is opening and quickly closing and much remains to be learned before the fragile alpine artifacts decompose. If modern climbers find old bones, wood, or a potential artifact, 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.
A full version of this article appeared in the October issue of Alberta Outdoorsmen.
Written by: Todd Kristensen (Northern Archaeologist, Alberta’s Archaeological Survey); Tom Andrews (Territorial Archaeologist, Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre;, and Darryl Bereziuk (Director, Alberta’s Archaeological Survey)