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Human History Melts As Earth Heats
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Human History Melts As Earth Heats


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. One account says that the carnage began when one village sent a war group to raid another. The residents were tipped and set up an ambush to eliminate the marauders. The victors attacked the undefended town, burning it and killing its inhabitants. Nobody was spared.

Rick Knecht, an archaeologist at the University of Aberdeen, has been leading excavations at Nunalleq for the past 12 years. It is located about 400 miles west from Anchorage. “When we began, the hope was to learn something about Yup’ik prehistory by digging in an average village,” said Dr. 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 amazing discovery was the charred remains a large communal soil house. The ground was dark and clayey with hundreds upon hundreds of slate arrowpoints, as if it were 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,” Dr. Knecht said. “It is also a rare and detailed archaeological example of Indigenous warfare.”

Until recently, the site was deepfrozen under the subsoil permafrost. Global temperatures are rising rapidly and permafrost glaciers are thawing quickly across large areas of Earth. They release many of the objects they have absorbed and reveal aspects of life that were once hidden.

“The circumpolar world is, or was, full of miraculously preserved sites like Nunalleq,” Dr. Knecht said. “They offer a window into the unexpectedly rich lives of prehistoric hunters and foragers like no other.”

Glacial archaeology, a relatively new discipline, is not yet in use. 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 a climbing accident, Ötzi the Iceman, as he came to be called, was shown through carbon-dating to have died about 5,300 years ago.

A short, comprehensively tattooed man in his mid-40s, Ötzi wore a bearskin cap, several layers of clothing made of goat and deer hides, and bearskin-soled shoes stuffed with grass to keep his feet warm. The Iceman’s survival gear included a longbow of yew, a quiver of arrows, a copper ax and a kind of crude first-aid kit full of plants with powerful pharmacological properties. A chest X-ray and a CT scan showed a flint arrowhead buried deep in Ötzi’s left shoulder, suggesting that he may have bled to death. His killing is humankind’s oldest unsolved cold case.

Six years later, in the Yukon’s snow fields, hunting tools dating back thousands of years appeared from the melting ice. Similar finds were soon made in Western Canada, Rockies, and the Swiss Alps.

In 2006, a long, hot autumn in Norway resulted in an explosion of discoveries in the snowbound Jotunheimen mountains, home to the Jötnar, the rock and frost giants of Norse mythology. The most fascinating of all the debris was a 3,400-year old proto-Oxford, most likely made from reindeer hide.

The discovery and subsequent surveying of the Bronze Age Shoe marked the beginning glacial surveying in Innlandet County’s peaks. Innlandet County is where the state-funded Glacier Archaeology Program was launched in 2011. It is the only permanent rescue effort for ice discoveries outside of the Yukon.

Glacial archaeology is different from its lowland cousin in key ways. G.A.P. G.A.P. “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 Glacier Archaeology 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.

The finds were mostly Iron Age and medieval from 500 to 1,500 year ago when the program began. As the melting continues, more and more periods of history are being revealed. “We have now melted back to the Stone Age in some places, with pieces as old as six millenniums,” Dr. Pilo said. “We are speeding back in time.”

The Glacier Archaeology Program, which has recovered over 3,500 artifacts to date, many of them in exceptional condition, is the largest Glacier Archaeology Program. Norway holds more than half the world’s prehistoric and medieval ice finds. A freshly unfrozen alpine pass at Lendbreen — in use from about 600 to 1,700 years ago — yielded evidence of the tradespeople who traversed it: horseshoes, horse dung, a rudimentary ski and even a box filled with beeswax.

Over the past decade, the Alps have seen the melting of relics such as the mummified remains a Swiss couple that disappeared in 1942 and the wreckage from an American military plane that crashed-landed in turbulent weather in 1946. Scientists in Russia have successfully regenerated reproductive tissues from the unripe fruits of a narrowleafed campion, which was then dried under the tundra for over 32,000 years. The fruit was stored in the burrow of an arctic ground squirrel by a visionary.

Craig Lee, an archaeologist with the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, can confirm that extraordinary glacial discoveries are always luck-related. Fourteen years ago, he found the foreshaft, or atlatl dart as it was called, of a throwing spear in Yellowstone National Park. It was made from a birch sapling 10300 years ago. This primitive hunting weapon was the first organic artifact to be found on an ice sheet.

“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.”

Dr. Taylor’s own work focuses on the relationship between climate and social change in early nomadic societies. His ongoing survey of melting ice margins in the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia has produced artifacts that upended some of the most basic archaeological assumptions about the area’s history. Although people in the region have long been classified as herders, Dr. Taylor’s team discovered an icy killing ground of argali sheep, along with the spears and arrows used to slay them. Laboratory analysis revealed that big-game hunting was an integral part pastoral subsistence and culture in Eastern Steppes over the past 3,500 years.

About 10 percent of the planet’s land mass is covered with glacial ice, and as the world defrosts, ancient creatures great and small are being unburied as well. Near the Tyndall Glacier, dozens of almost complete skeletons from ichthyosaurs have been found in southern Chile. The Cretaceous and Triassic periods were 66 million-250 million years apart.

Three-million-year-old insect fossils have been recovered in eastern Alaska (blind weevils of the genus Otibazo) and the western Yukon Territory (the species Notiophilus aeneus, better known as brassy big-eyed beetles).

The flashiest archaeological finds in Yakutia, a republic in northeastern Siberia, have been the carcasses of woolly mammoths, woolly rhinos, steppe bison and cave lions — big cats that once roamed widely across the northern hemisphere. The extinct beasts were kept in their refrigerated graves for nine centuries or more, just like grapes in Jell O.

In 2018, a perfectly intact 42,000-year-old foal — a long-gone species known as the Lena horse — was found entombed in the ice of Siberia’s Batagaika Crater with urine in its bladder and liquid blood in its veins.

Mammoth hunters found the remains of a subspecies of wolf in Yakutia that year. Researchers then discovered a 18,000-year old puppy that looked exactly like it was today. “The canine may have been an evolutionary link between wolves and modern dogs,” said Love Dalén, a Swedish geneticist who has sequenced the creature’s genome. “It is named Dogor, which means ‘friend’ in the Yakut language and is also a clever play on the question ‘dog or wolf.’”

Dogor was exhumed near the Indigirka river in an icy lump. Ice patches are where the most discoveries are made. The main difference between an ice sheet and a glacier is that the glacier moves. An ice sheet is more stable because it does not move much.

“The constant movement inside glaciers damages both bodies and artifacts, and eventually dumps the sad debris at the mouth of the ice floe,” Dr. 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.”

Dr. Lee of Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research compares the destruction caused glacial degeneration to a library set ablaze. “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. While some prehistoric treasures are now briefly accessible due to melting ice and snow, they could be quickly destroyed by the elements.

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,” Dr. Taylor said, “our opportunity to use them to understand the past and prepare for the future is gone with them.”

E. James Dixon, the former director of the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, 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.”

Climate change has brought a multitude of consequences. Oceanfront erosion is a devastating problem. Over the past 80 years, Alaska’s entire fossil and archaeological record has been lost. In some areas, the coastline has receded as far as a mile. “Sites are not just being washed away, but literally rotting in the ground,” Dr. Knecht said.

“Saving what we can isn’t just a matter of safeguarding Yup’ik culture or northern prehistory, but the heritage of all humanity,” he said. “After all, hunting and foraging is how all humans lived for the vast majority of our collective existence on earth.”

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