Global warming, and the resulting glacier melt, may reveal lost secrets of our ancient past that have been hidden for hundreds and thousands of years. Smithsonian anthropologist William Fitzhugh discovered a 4,000-year-old basket in Siberia. “I was digging down through this stuff, it was literally like banging your hammer on a frozen cement floor,” he says, when he noticed yellow-colored fibers poking through the frozen dirt. “And gradually by squirting water and melting it a little more, what I realized that it was the top of a basket.” It was in near-perfect condition, so it revealed detailed information about the daily lives of the people who once lived there. If it hadn’t been frozen, it would have decayed long ago, due to exposure to air.
“It’s like an Easter egg hunt,” said Greg Hare, an archeologist with the Yukon Heritage Branch. Even people have been found in the melting ice. In 1991, hikers found “Otzi” in the Alps, a 5,300-year-old ice man killed by a flint arrowhead. A second ice man with a perfectly preserved hat and gopher-skin cloak was found in slushy ice in British Columbia in 1999.
More recent history is revealed as well. In 1998, a glacier in the Chilean Andes disgorged the Rolls-Royce engine of the British airliner Stardust, that had been lost since it crashed in 1947. 3,500-year-old dart hurlers and 6-foot spears lie next to 6,800-year-old stone points. Animals dead for just a few years lie next to 3,000-year-old carcasses.
Unlike dinosaur fossils or Mayan ruins, glacier artifacts are almost unchanged from the day they were first frozen. Arctic lupine seeds frozen for 10,000 years grew into healthy plants after they were removed from the ice. Perfectly mummified fish, wapiti, sheep, mountain goats, moose, voles and birds have all been found. “They’re so beautifully preserved, they look like they’re asleep,” says Rick Farnell. “You can’t tell whether they died last week or died 4,000 years ago.” Researchers have found DNA, feathers and ancient pollen, as well as human stomachs filled with the remnants of a last meal and skin bearing tattoos. One stone knife still has caribou hairs on it; another has bloodstains. “It actually killed something,” Farnell says. In 1988, medical archeologist Peter Lewin exhumed victims of the 1918 flu epidemic in Norway’s Spitsbergen archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. He found no live, infectious virus, but he fears the victims of flu and smallpox who are now being pushed to the surface by thawing permafrost in Arctic cemeteries could still be contagious.
He also worries about the emergence of chemical, nuclear and biological contaminants buried in Siberia from dumps now exposed by warmth. “The old Soviet Union thought the cold would last forever,” he says.
James Dixon, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado, has developed a computer program that matches places where glaciers are melting with the likely routes taken by early Americans, so he knows where to search for newly-unfrozen artifacts. “We’re finding arrows with complete shafts with the arrows still attached, even pouches, nets and hats and trail food,” he says.
Greg Hare, an anthropologist in the Canadian Yukon, has found more than 130 newly-emerged objects in the past five years, from 90-year-old horseshoes to 7,000-year-old hunting darts. “Often you?re walking along and the first impression is the decaying smell,” he says. “There’s a pretty good chance you’re going to be finding something old.” The smell comes from ancient piles of caribou dung, which tells him this was a place where early man went to hunt caribou.
Biologist Gerry Kuzyk was hiking in the Yukon when he smelled caribou dung and spotted the biggest pile of animal droppings he?s ever seen, 8 feet high, stretching over half a mile. Yet there hadn’t been caribou in the area for nearly a century. “It was like being in the ‘Twilight Zone,'” says colleague Rick Farnell, who helped him investigate the find. “You could see them from a distance?big, black bands of feces. I’m talking tons of it.” The mystery was solved when lab analysis showed that the dung had been frozen for thousands of years and only recently exposed by melting ice. When scientists dug in the area, they discovered a Stone Age treasure trove.
These studies may soon confirm that prehistoric man traveled much Further than was once thought.
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