After our class lecture about the Franklin Expedition, I got started thinking about how the harsh climate of the Arctic works incredibly well to preserve artifacts over time. This connected surprising well with a recent topic covered in my glacial geology/climate change course: The Great Arctic Thaw. The combination of this material led me to question myself, asking ‘what effect will glacial thaw have on future archaeological discovery?’. So, looking to quell my curious apatite, I did a little research…
In 2012, Discovery News posted an article about ancient weaponry that had been found as a result of melting glacial ice in Canada’s Arctic mountains. The discovery of these artifacts, high up in the Mackenzie Mountains, revealed valuable insight into hunting strategies and how these tools were made and used thousands of years ago. Amongst the weapons discovered were spears, snares, and bows and arrows.
Until recent years, the region was covered with frozen snow year-round. These tools were previously hidden deep within the winter snows, as more accumulated each year and further buried it. However, as global climates have been warming, the uppermost portion of frozen soil that melts – known as the ‘active layer’ – has been extending deeper as the permafrost thaws. As a result, these organic artifacts are rotting and decomposing in the acidic soil around them.
Studying the design of the weaponry provides insight into how hunting strategies and ancient technology developed in the area. Since 1997, archaeologists have uncovered over 200 ancient hunting artifacts in the patches of thawing ice in the southern Yukon region. Additionally, 1,600 animal bones and mummified remains of small mammals and birds have been found, still in pristine condition, having been well preserved over time.
Furthermore, radiocarbon dating of dung found at the ice patches has determined that caribou have inhabited the area for roughly 6,000 years. Studies of the insects and pollen that were trapped in the fecal matter help scientists to understand how the environment has changed over time. This can be further interpreted through studying plant remains to infer changes in the caribou diet, along with DNA preserved in the dung to address questions regarding genetic variability within the species.
It has been speculated that within the next century, most glacial archaeological sites will be damaged from permafrost thawing, sea level rise, and other impacts of climate change. The overarching implication of this unique problem connects with alpine research on a global scale and archaeologists must be quick to excavate and gather as much information about these sites as they possibly can.
Access to the mentioned articles: