10,000-year-old weapon found in melting glacier

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Who says climate change doesn't have its good side? Not archaeologists, who discovered a spear from ten millennia ago in a melting ice patch - and that's just the start of what they've found.

The artifact in question is an atlatl dart, a spear-like weapon used by Native Americans. Although the artifact, which you can see below, may look like just a tree branch - a fact exacerbated by it being curved by the melting process and nearly snapped in half by a passing animal - it was actually a state-of-the-art hunting weapon when it was used 10,000 years ago.


The discovery was made possible by the unprecedented melting of ice patches, once permanently frozen areas that are now revealing their secrets. Leading the charge is Craig Lee of the University of Colorado, who explains what his new specialty of ice patch archaeology is all about:

"We didn't realize until the early 2000s that there was a potential to find archaeological materials in association with melting permanent snow and ice in many areas of the globe. We're not talking about massive glaciers, we're talking about the smaller, more kinetically stable snowbanks that you might see if you go to Rocky Mountain National Park."


The best part is that the artifacts entombed in the ice are often objects that couldn't have survived in any other conditions. A wooden weapon like the atlatl would likely have decomposed long ago if left unprotected against the elements. By carefully studying regions of past human activity to identify the most likely patches to contain artifacts, Lee and other archaeologists can discover everything from human artifacts to plant remains, animal carcasses, and, yes, feces, all of which can help us better understand the ancient past.

Lee explains what is most likely to be found in these ice patches:

"In these instances, what we're finding as archaeologists is stuff that was lost. Maybe you missed a shot and your weapon disappeared into the snowbank. It's like finding your keys when you drop them in snow. You're not going to find them until spring. Well, the spring hasn't come until these things started melting for the first time, in some instances, in many, many thousands of years."


Once the ice thaws, it's a race against time to recover the artifacts contained within before they decompose. Because the artifacts are articles of clothing or wooden implements, they are made of materials that can't survive outside of deep freeze for long. Of course, the fact that these artifacts couldn't possibly have survived any other way makes them hugely valuable:

"Ninety-five percent of the archaeological record that we usually base our interpretations on is comprised of chip stone artifacts, ground stone artifacts, maybe old hearths, which is a fire pit, or rock rings that would have been used to stabilize a house. So we really have to base our understanding about ancient times on these inorganic materials. But ice patches are giving us this window into organic technology that we just don't get in other environments."


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[University of Colorado]