As Earth warms, human history is melting away
By Franz Lidz
For the past few centuries, the Yup’ik peoples of Alaska have told gruesome tales of a massacre that occurred during the Bow and Arrow War Days, a series of long and often brutal battles across the Bering Sea coast and the Yukon.
According to one account, the carnage started when one village sent a war party to raid another. But the residents had been tipped off and set an ambush, wiping out the marauders. The victors then attacked the undefended town, burning it and slaughtering its inhabitants. No one was spared.
For the past 12 years, Rick Knecht has led an excavation at a site called Nunalleq, about 400 miles west of Anchorage, Alaska.
“When we began, the hope was to learn something about Yup’ik prehistory by digging in an average village,” said Knecht, an archaeologist at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. “Little did we know that we were digging in something approaching the Yup’ik equivalent of Troy.”
Their most astonishing discovery was the charred remnants of a large communal sod house. The ground was black and clayey and riddled with hundreds of slate arrow points, as if from a prehistoric drive-by shooting.
In all, the researchers and native Yup’ik people who live in the area unearthed more than 100,000 well-preserved artifacts, as well as the singed carrion of two dogs and the scattered bones of at least 28 people, almost all women, children and elders. Several of them had evidently been dragged out of the house, bound with grass rope and killed — some beheaded.
“It is a complex murder scene,” Knecht said. “It is also a rare and detailed archaeological example of Indigenous warfare.”
Until recently, the site had been deep-frozen in the subsoil known as permafrost. As global temperatures gather pace, permafrost and glaciers are thawing and eroding rapidly across vast areas of Earth, releasing many of the objects that they had absorbed and revealing aspects of life in a once-inaccessible past.
“The circumpolar world is, or was, full of miraculously preserved sites like Nunalleq,” Knecht said. “They offer a window into the unexpectedly rich lives of prehistoric hunters and foragers like no other.”
Glacial archaeology is a relatively new discipline. The ice was literally broken during the summer of 1991 when German hikers in the Ötztal Alps spotted a tea-colored corpse half-embedded on the Italian side of the border with Austria. Initially mistaken for a modern-day mountaineer killed in an accident, Ötzi the Iceman, as he came to be called, was shown through carbon-dating to have died about 5,300 years ago.
In 2006, a long, hot autumn in Norway resulted in an explosion of discoveries in the snowbound Jotunheimen mountain range, home to the Jötnar, the rock and frost giants of Norse mythology. Of all the dislodged detritus, the most intriguing was a 3,400-year-old proto-Oxford shoe most likely fashioned out of reindeer hide.
The discovery of the Bronze Age shoe signified the beginning of glacial surveying in the peaks of Innlandet County, where the state-funded Glacier Archaeology Program was started in 2011. Outside of the Yukon, it is the only permanent rescue project for discoveries in ice.
Glacial archaeology differs from its lowland cousin in critical ways. Researchers with the program usually conduct fieldwork only within a short time frame, from mid-August to mid-September — between the thaw of old snow and the arrival of new.
“If we start too early, much of the snow from the previous winter will still cover the old ice and lessen the chance of making discoveries,” said Lars Holger Pilo, co-director of the program. “Starting too late is also hazardous. We might get early winter snow, and the field season could be over before we begin.” Glacial discoveries tend to be limited to what archaeologists can glean on the previously ice-locked ground.
When the program started, the finds were mainly Iron Age and medieval, from 500 to 1,500 years ago. But as the melting widens, ever older periods of history are being exposed. “We have now melted back to the Stone Age in some places, with pieces as old as six millenniums,” Pilo said. “We are speeding back in time.”
Spectacular glacial finds invariably involve luck, as Craig Lee, an archaeologist at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, can attest. Fourteen years ago, in the mountain ice outside Yellowstone National Park, he spotted the foreshaft of a throwing spear called an atlatl dart, carved from a birch sapling 10,300 years ago. The primitive hunting weapon is the earliest organic artifact ever to be retrieved from an ice patch.
“In the Yukon, ice patch discoveries have given us new insights into the pre-European tradition of copper-working by Indigenous peoples,” said William Taylor, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History in Boulder. “In the Rockies, researchers have recovered everything from frozen trees that document important changes in climate and vegetation to the hunting implements of some of the first peoples of the continent.”
Ice patches turn out to be where most discoveries are made. The basic difference between a glacier and an ice patch is that a glacier moves. An ice patch does not move much, which makes it a more reliable preservationist.
“The constant movement inside glaciers damages both bodies and artifacts, and eventually dumps the sad debris at the mouth of the ice floe,” Pilo, of the Glacier Archaeology Program in Norway, said. “Due to the movement and the continuous renewal of the ice, glaciers rarely preserve objects more than 500 years.”
Lee, of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, likens the destruction wrought by glacial degeneration to a library on fire. “Now is not the time to stand around pointing fingers at one another trying to lay blame for the blaze,” he said. “Now is the time to rescue what books can be saved for the edification of the future.”
It’s a grim inside joke among glacial archaeologists that their field of study has been one of the few beneficiaries of climate change. But while retreating ice and snow makes some prehistoric treasures briefly accessible, exposure to the elements threatens to swiftly destroy them.
Once soft organic materials — leather, textiles, arrow fletchings — surface, researchers have a year at most to rescue them for conservation before the items degrade and are lost forever. “After they are gone,” Taylor said, “our opportunity to use them to understand the past and prepare for the future is gone with them.”
E. James Dixon, former director of the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico, agreed. “The sheer scale of the loss relative to the number of archaeologists researching these sites is overwhelming,” he said. “It’s like an archaeological mass extinction where certain types of sites are all disappearing at approximately the same time.”