Secrets from the Ice

The climate is changing and the ancient ice of the Yukon’s southern mountains is disgorging a missing chapter of human history.
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Secrets from the Ice

Nature of Things

A mystery is emerging out the Yukon ice: human hunting tools hidden for as long as 9,000 years have started to melt out. And each new find is another piece to the puzzle of who these people were.

Greg Hare is the archeologist who was there for the recovery of the very first artifact in 1996. Twenty years later he’s finding more than ever – because the melt has intensified. 

icepack find

Archeologist Greg Hare with one of his ice patch finds.

He holds up a weathered birch shaft with part of a stone point still lashed into the end.

“This was a piece of somebody’s weaponry that was lost – I think it’s about 2,000 years old.” 

“My mind immediately goes to ‘what’s the story behind it,” says Math’ieya Alatini, chief of the Kluane First Nation. The appearance of the First Nations is a twist in the plot: they feel these artifacts are pieces of their own history. For them, the archeology is personal.

Thousands of kilometres away, Dr. Martin Callanan has had his own success in the Norwegian Alpine. The melt conditions were the same as the Yukon, and the artifacts were there – by the hundreds.

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Melting ice is helping the Sami, indigenous people of Scandinavia, reclaim parts of their culture and history that had been suppressed.

“It’s its own special field,” says Callanan. “But there is immediacy to this research, because climate models suggest that in the next decades many sites will be lost to melting and decay.”

The Norwegian finds all date back to the Viking era and once Callanan started looking, the stuff was everywhere.

But the one thing they haven’t found in Norway, that changed the narrative in Canada, is a human body. In 1999 some hunters found the remains of a young man melting out of the ice.

SCENE FROM THE FILM: The remains of a young man are found in the Yukon ice.

“You now have a body,” says Diane Strand of the Champagne Aishihik FN, “you now have a human being, you now have a relative.”

He was named Kwäday Dän Ts'ìnchi: Long Ago Man Found. The discovery made worldwide news as the First Nations took custody of the remains. Scientists could have access to his body and artifacts, but after that, he’d be cremated.

This story has never been told on film before: the remains of KDT’s stomach were preserved enough to plot out his last meals, and where he’d eaten them. He was travelling when he died on the ice. His clothing, his tools – all of them together created the narrative of a man who lived before the time of contact. It was unprecedented.

And then it got better: tests showed that his DNA matched 17 different living people within the first nations. The messages from the past resonated louder than ever.

Canada’s Northern Ice Patches Yield Clues About How First Nations Ancestors Hunted To Survive
Finding Yukon’s Archeological Treasures From Space
Melting Ice Reveals Secrets About Human History
How Yukon's melting ice reveals human artifacts and Indigenous history, CBC Radio: The Current

Our story will culminate with the latest finds from the ’16 field season. It was a success: several new discoveries, some of them unlike anything ever found before in the Yukon.

“I’m not exaggerating to say that most archeologists would die and found they’d gone to heaven to be able to find something like this,” says Hare. “The opportunity to find something like this that’s just melted out of the ice after a thousand years, it’s just incredible.”