Archaeology’s Search for History Hidden in Ice

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When Ötzi the Iceman, the most complete Neolithic mummy ever found, melted out of the Tyrolean Alps in 1991, the field of “ice patch archaeology” was born. In little more than a decade, archaeological sites were identified in alpine settings around the world, from the United States to Norway to Switzerland. While fluctuations in climate are normal, the intensity and pace of the current changes we’re seeing—increasing global atmospheric and ocean temperatures, along with extreme glacial retreats and worldwide sea-level rise—are historically unprecedented.

Albeit only a thin silver lining to climate change, some melting ice patches offer us an extraordinary chance to “see” into the past. Ancient organic artifacts that otherwise would have decayed away are emerging from the ice: baskets, leather and hair cordage, and millennia-old wooden shafts once used for hunting. Ice patches are also releasing stone tools, plants, and the remains of animals.

These alpine ice patches formed and persisted over millennia in environments that had just the right conditions—a certain elevation, enough new snow each year to refresh the patches, and just enough radiation from the sun to constrain their size. Unlike glaciers, ice patches don’t move or flow. This keeps ancient materials locked inside the ice from being torn apart or otherwise destroyed.

The well-preserved materials that are emerging—and the historical and environmental contexts we find them in—hold clues about past and present climate change. And in the U.S. and Canada, they also speak to how Native Americans and First Nations interacted with high-elevation landscapes. Areas that are often characterized as “empty” wilderness were once home to groups of Native people throughout millennia. Much of the Greater Yellowstone Area in the western U.S., for example, is currently managed as a landscape devoid of humans (except for tourists), but historically it was a peopled area; we know this based on clear evidence of sustained human interaction and involvement throughout the region.

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