Canada’s Northern Ice Patches Yield Clues About How First Nations Ancestors Hunted To Survive

Outfitted with sophisticated spears called atlatls, they travelled to the mountain tops to find prey.

As climate change intensifies, ice patches that are thousands of years old are vanishing in Canada’s north. This meltdown is a lucky break for archeologists who are finding clues about our distant past, as seen in Nature of Things documentary Secrets From The Ice.

Organic artifacts made with wood, feathers and antler bones are emerging out of the ice and can be accurately radiocarbon dated, so we know how old they really are. It’s a whole new area of science called ice patch archeology.

Secrets From the Ice
Melting Ice Reveals Secrets About Human History
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How Yukon's melting ice reveals human artifacts and Indigenous history, CBC Radio: The Current

Scientists are collecting the artifacts that have melted out because they hold secrets to a missing chapter in human history. “It’s a real window into the past,” says Yukon archaeologist Greg Hare, “We have a preserved record of ancient people’s hunting techniques and traditions.”

Our mountains were overrun with caribou

Caribou herds disappeared from Yukon's mountains over 100 years ago. When the ice patches began to melt, the scientists found caribou dung – lots of it – verifying stories from elders that the ‘whole mountain once moved with caribou.’

At first, scientists started collecting the dung. Soon, they also found remains of ancient hunting tools going back thousands of years.

Our ancestors hunted with sophisticated spears called atlatls

One of the more intriguing and frequent finds was a hunting tool called an atlatl. Pre-dating bows and arrows by thousands of years, atlatls were carved pieces of wood that had a handle on one end, and a hook with a spear on the other.

A flipping motion propels the weapon with great force over greater distances than spears.

SCENE FROM THE FILM: Recreation of an atlatl

Ryan Grohsmeyer, a member of the World Atlatl Association has made exact replicas of the atlatls found in the Yukon ice and is studying how effective they were as hunting tools. “These darts from the Yukon are very sophisticated. In terms of accuracy...they could hit a dinner-plate-sized target from about twenty metres. That’s accurate enough to take down something like a caribou or any kind of deer.”

Our ancestors hunted on the mountaintops

At first, archeologists were perplexed by the volume of artifacts found on the mountains in the caribou dung. If they were such skilled hunters, why did First Nations ancestors expend so much energy climbing?

In summer, the caribou congregated to the patches of ice and snow near the mountain tops to stay cool and find relief from swarms of insects.  On the mountaintops, they were easy targets for hunters carrying weapons.

Stone blinds were built to hunt caribou

Carcross elder Art Johns led archeologist Greg Hare to some ancient hunting blinds he found on a plateau between two ice patches. Broken spear points found nearby indicate that they’re at least a thousand years old and could have been used to get close to the caribou without being seen.

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Finding old stone hunting blinds
Ice preserves everything

Every summer, the ice yields new clues. But time is running out. Once the ice has melted, these organic treasures will deteriorate and be lost forever. Archeologists are now scouring ice patches and collecting as many items as possible to study later. “This could be ten years old or it could be three thousand years old, you just can’t tell by looking,” says archaeologist Christian Hare.

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Remains in the ice

Very few animals remains are found, probably because hunters killed their prey and then hauled them down to the valley for butchering. By collecting all the fragments, scientists are able to build an inventory of animal life in the alpine over time.

The rush is on to collect as many artifacts as possible. “We’ve only got one chance,” says Greg Hare.

Available on CBC Gem

Secrets from the Ice

Nature of Things