Lucky find gives archeologists glimpse into early hunting technology in Yukon

Scientists believe the copper end blade found attached to an antler arrow point is 936 years old, making it one of the earliest examples of local copper use in Yukon.

Copper end blade, found in 2016, was recently dated at 936 years old

A unique barbed antler arrow point with a copper end blade was recovered from a melting ice patch in July 2016, within the traditional territory of Carcross/Tagish First Nation. (Yukon government)

Yukon archeologist Greg Hare says it was just luck that led him in 2016 to find a nearly 1,000-year-old hunting artifact, half exposed in a remote patch of ice.

Recent radiocarbon dating confirms that the arrow blade point is one of the earliest examples of copper metallurgy ever found in Yukon.  

Hare was travelling with a documentary film crew over the ice patches near Carcross, Yukon, in July 2016 when they spotted some caribou on a hillside. Hare had been showing the crew some of sites where he and other archaeologists have been finding ancient First Nations hunting weapons over the last 20 years.

They were flying in two helicopters, and Hare's helicopter decided to land to get out of the film crew's shot. While waiting on the ice patch, Hare and his team spotted an antler arrow point half buried in the ice. It looked like it had just been fired from a bow.

The antler arrow point was found sticking out of the ice, in almost pristine condition. (Yukon government)

They pulled it out and discovered a copper end blade attached.

"It was so fortuitous that those caribou were on that patch, that the television crew wanted to film that, that we landed at this little scruffy patch," said Hare.

"We would have never have stopped there any other time because that ice patch melted right away."

In fact, Hare said he went back a few weeks later to look for more artifacts and says the ice patch had completely melted leaving nothing but some semi-frozen caribou dung.

Yukon archaeologist Greg Hare and his team on the ice patches near Carcross. (Yukon government )

Early bow and arrow technology

The arrow point end blade proved to be quite a find, though.

"This is one of the oldest copper elements that we ever found in the Yukon," Hare said.

For thousands of years, caribou took refuge in the summer up high on the alpine ice patches to escape the heat and swarms of harassing insects. That made those ice patches good areas for ancient hunters to get close to the caribou.

Some weapons would miss their marks and disappear in the snow and ice, over time building a treasure trove of artifacts now revealed by the melting ice. Archaeologists have found ancient hunting tools made of wood, antler bone, and now copper.

A number of atlatl darts found over the last 20 years by archeologists working in Yukon ice patches. An atlatl is a throwing dart used with a paddle. Indigenous hunters typically used them to hunt until about 1,100 years ago. (Yukon government )

"The significant part of the story is that [the arrowhead] is so old, and it is such a beautiful expression of copper metallurgy," Hare said. "Copper only first shows up in the Yukon about a thousand years ago and this is almost at the beginning of that technology."

"That technology" refers to the bow and arrow, which replaced the atlatl (also known as a throwing dart) around 1,100 years ago as the main weapon used by Indigenous hunters.

"Most people when they think of First Nation hunters, they associate with bow and arrow hunting. But in fact, for almost 8,000 years First Nation hunters in the Yukon were using the throwing darts, the Atliatli," said Hare.

"Then all of a sudden there was quite a sharp change in the technology, for whatever reason. People stopped using the throwing dart and they started using bow and arrow."

Carcross/Tagish First Nations heritage consultant Jennifer Herkes and archeologist Greg Hare inspect some of the artifacts from the ice fields. (Mike Rudyk)

Recent radiocarbon dating of the copper arrowhead pegs it at 936 years old, meaning it would be among the earliest examples of bow and arrow technology ever recovered in Yukon. 

Hare says it's made of a copper nugget and is 99.9 percent pure. It would have been locally found, he said.

"It is not a European alloy. It is an entirely copper-made, from a placer nugget of copper that would have been recovered from one of the creeks in southwest Yukon," he said.

'Links to the past'

The Carcross/Tagish First Nation's heritage consultant Jennifer Herkes says the find supports the oral traditional knowledge elders have passed on.

'They act as kind of a physical tangible evidence of the links to the past,' Herkes said.

"They act as kind of a physical tangible evidence of the links to the past. They support all of the traditional knowledge and the stories the elders share about the connection to the land and the connection to their neighbours," she said.

Hare says he can only guess how long it took the hunter to make the copper arrowhead.

"When you look at how much work that went into making this arrow point, it probably represents two weeks of work on somebody's part," he said.

"So my question at the time we found it was, how long did that person spend looking for it, after they lost it. I think they would have looked for two weeks."

He says it would have been a significant loss at the time for the hunter, but lucky for the caribou.

The arrowhead has been radiocarbon dated to 936 years old. (Mike Rudyk)

About the Author

Mike Rudyk

Reporter, CBC Yukon

Mike Rudyk has worked for CBC Yukon since 1999, as a reporter and videographer. He lives in Whitehorse.