ice and snow yield secrets of the past

Every day I take the family dog for a walk in the woods. Eagerly, she sniffs each tree and snowbank, sometimes retrieving treasures of questionable…

Every day I take the family dog for a walk in the woods. Eagerly, she sniffs each tree and snowbank, sometimes retrieving treasures of questionable origin. I think there must be some bloodhound somewhere in her family tree.

It is not as easy for archeologists to “sniff” out the remnants of early Yukon inhabitants; they must rely on visual acuity and experience based on years of surveying the landscape in search of ancient remains. Unfortunately, there are only a few of these specialists in our territory, which is twice the size of Great Britain.

We are a northern people; snow and ice play an important role in the annual cycle of life. But this climatic characteristic combined with serendipity has been instrumental in creating some of the most interesting, and exciting archaeological discoveries in recent times.

In July, 1991, David Hik, then a graduate student at the University of Alberta was conducting research on little furry creatures called pikas in the southwest Yukon. This work took him to about as isolated a location as one could imagine in the St. Elias Mountains of Kluane National Park. On a rocky slope, surrounded by ice, snow, and rock for as far as the eye could see, he found exposed by the warming rays of the sun, a small piece of animal skin.

 Hik brought this unusual find to Parks Canada staff in Haines Junction. When examined, it proved to be a piece of hide worked by human hands; when tested, it proved to be from a 1,100-year-old grizzly bear skin. The piece was stabilized by conservators and is now kept in special environmentally controlled storage.

Imagine an early forefather of Yukon’s indigenous people travelling with this simple skin artifact through some of the most forbidding country in the Yukon, at a time when the Vikings were sacking England, the Mayan Empire was waning in Central America, and the Sung Dynasty was being founded in China.

In 1997, wildlife biologist Gerry Kuzyk and his wife Kristin Benedek were hunting in the mountains west of Kusawa Lake when they found something that would change our view of Yukon’s past forever. Oozing out of a discoloured layer in a melting snow patch on the side of a mountain was a dark stain. Closer examination revealed the source to be caribou dung. Since caribou hadn’t frequented the area for 70 years, they collected a few pellets of dung and a small wooden artifact for analysis.

When these samples were radio-carbon dated, they proved to be thousands of years old. The wooden artifact was particularly interesting to Yukon government archeologist Greg Hare because such items do not survive long in Yukon archeological sites: the ground is too acidic. Usually, only the stone tools resist these conditions.

Here was a unique opportunity to study the Yukon’s early inhabitants in a way that had never before been possible. Since that discovery, Hare, and a small First Nation research team, from the six First Nations with ice patches in their traditional territories, have combed the hillsides of the southwest Yukon, locating dozens of similar ice patches. Some of the rare organic artifacts found at these sites have been dated to 8,000 years ago.

These finds are significant in a number of ways. They yield new information about the lives of our earliest residents. A careful analysis of the radio-carbon dates of the artifacts collected from these sites revealed that the hunting technology changed about 1,200 years ago from long darts, propelled from a throwing stick, or atlatl, to bow and arrow.

Atlatls are long sticks, about the length of your forearm, hooked at one end so that a long spear or dart can be launched from them. They give a mechanical advantage over hand-thrown spears, and allowed hunters to attack their prey (caribou who had climbed to these high-altitude snow patches to escape obnoxious insects), from a greater distance.

The unique Yukon finds created an opportunity for First Nation students to participate in the search for artifacts near these historic ice boxes. What a feeling to actually find small weapons, thousands of years old, complete with stone points lashed to one end and sinew, and feathers lashed onto the other, as though they had been made yesterday!

Finally, the source of these finds is unique to the special frozen conditions found in the North.

In 1997, yet another fascinating discovery was made in the ice and snow near the southwest corner of the Yukon. Again, it wasn’t made by archeologists, but by three school teachers from southern British Columbia, who were hunting sheep in the vicinity of the Tatshenshini River.

Warren Ward, Bill Hanlon and Mike Roch were walking on the rocks along the foot of a small glacier, or ice patch, when something caught their eye. Looking closely they found some carved pieces of wood; next, one of them spotted a patch of fur. Then they saw the bones. Human bones.

After hiking for 20 hours to reach their truck, they drove to Whitehorse, where they reported their find to the staff at the Beringia Centre. Things went into high gear after that.

The resulting discovery, now called Kwädąy Dän Ts’inchį, or “Long Ago Man Found,” was transported, along with certain artifacts, to Victoria for study and conservation, before the disposition of the remains was determined by the citizens of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nation, in whose traditional territory he was found.

According to archeologist Sheila Greer, who spoke at the Land Claims Symposium, recently sponsored by Yukon College, we know that somewhere between 1670 and 1850 AD, a young male aged between 18 and 19, travelling into the interior from one of the Chilkat Tlingit villages on the coast (likely Klukwan or Kluktu), perished from undetermined causes, but likely from exposure.

We know from scientific work that he had just departed from the coast, on his way to the interior. He had been in the interior in the period before his death, but his long-term home was on the coast. We now know, through DNA analysis, the identity of some of his living relatives, and that he was a member of the Wolf or Eagle moiety.

There are many more things about him that are yet to be known, or that we may never know, but the story, as it has been revealed thus far, is a fascinating glimpse of our human past.

Mother Nature has provided us with an icy opportunity to glimpse into the looking glass of time.

The important thing to remember is that any one of us may find ourselves in a situation where we encounter something from the distant past; it’s not always the trained professional who makes the significant finds, but they are clearly the ones who will help reveal the intriguing details about what is found.

The next time you encounter something curious lying on the ground while out hiking, hunting or working on the land, make sure you report these discoveries to your friendly neighbourhood archeologist.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.