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Treasures From Icy Tombs

Melting glaciers in the Yukon lead to finds archeologists dream of. Mummies and Stone Age artifacts go back about 10,000 years.

January 03, 2003|Usha Lee McFarling | Times Staff Writer

Biologist Gerry Kuzyk was hiking with his wife in the remote reaches of the Yukon when he caught the putrid scent of caribou dung wafting through the chill air. Then he saw it -- the biggest pile of animal droppings he had ever seen, 8 feet high and stretching over half a mile of mountainside.

Kuzyk, a researcher with the Yukon Department of Renewable Resources, knew there weren't enough caribou in the entire territory to create such an epic mound. Odder yet, there hadn't been caribou in the area for nearly a century.

"It was like being in the 'Twilight Zone,' " said Rick Farnell, a colleague who helped 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 by lab analysis: The dung, the product of innumerable migrating caribou herds, had been frozen for thousands of years and only recently exposed by melting ice. Along with the dung, the scientists soon discovered an arsenal of Stone Age darts, arrows and spears.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday January 04, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 12 inches; 446 words Type of Material: Correction
Otzi -- A graphic in Section A Friday on mummies and artifacts emerging from the world's melting glaciers identified the 5,300-year-old iceman "Otzi" as being found in the Swiss/Italian Alps. The mummy was actually found in Italy on the border of Austria in the Otzal Alps. The hikers who found the body were German and not Swiss, as stated in the article.

The artifacts are just part of a trove of ancient artifacts, animal carcasses and human remains being disgorged by vanishing glaciers and ice patches across the globe as the planet's temperature gradually increases.

"It's like an Easter egg hunt," said Greg Hare, an archeologist with the Yukon Heritage Branch.

For most scientists, from ecologists to climate experts, the warming of the planet is a disturbing trend that could radically alter the environment. But for archeologists, it has prompted a breathtaking treasure hunt.

Without doing any digging, the scientists are scooping up artifacts, mummies and fossils long hidden in the depths of monstrous glaciers.

"We walk right up and pull arrows and animals out of the ice," Farnell said.

Many of the items are simply the random debris of 10,000 years of passing human and animal traffic. But the glaciers also have coughed up some stunning finds. In 1991, Swiss hikers in the Alps found "Otzi," a 5,300-year-old ice man felled by a flint arrowhead. A second ice man with a perfectly preserved woven hat and gopher-skin cloak melted out of the ice in British Columbia in 1999.

A year earlier, a glacier in the Chilean Andes disgorged the Rolls-Royce engine of a British airliner named Stardust that had been lost since it crashed in 1947.

"It's incredible what's in the ice," said E. James Dixon, an archeologist at the University of Colorado's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.

Piece by piece, the artifacts rising from the ancient ice are beginning to recast archeologists' understanding of the thousands of years after the last great Ice Age, an epoch when animals began probing the northern fringes of the planet and bands of humans began to populate North America in large numbers.

"There's a whole new scientific window opening," said Dixon, an expert on the human colonization of North America.

Unlike buried dinosaur fossils or crumbling Mayan monuments, the glacier artifacts are relatively unchanged from the day they were first encased in their icy tombs. They have given scientists a glimpse of the past, frozen in icy perfection.

Arctic lupine seeds frozen for 10,000 years, for example, grew into healthy plants once they were removed from Ice Age lemming burrows. The ice holds a zoo of perfectly mummified animals: fish, wapiti, sheep, mountain goats, moose, voles and birds.

"They're so beautifully preserved, they look like they're asleep," Farnell said. "You can't tell whether they died last week or died 4,000 years ago."

For archeologists used to piecing together the past from chips of flint, finding soft organic material is rare bounty. They have flesh filled with DNA, feathers and dustings of ancient pollen. There are stomachs filled with the remnants of a last meal and patchworks of human tattoos.

Unbroken arrows sport intact feathers. Darts colored by red ochre have soft, sinew lashings. One stone knife found in the Yukon sports caribou hairs. Another has bloodstains. "It actually killed something," Farnell said.

The part of glaciers that are now melting captured a very particular slice of history -- a roughly 10,000-year period from the end of the last great Ice Age to the present. The period began when the forbidding sheets of ice that had covered much of the Northern Hemisphere were beginning to retreat, opening a new realm of the planet to animals, birds and waves of human wanderers that eventually found their way to the Americas.

Over the ensuing years, the glaciers ebbed and flowed, driven by vast, cyclical changes in weather that could send tongues of ice rushing downward, only to retreat to alpine refuges a few hundred years later. The last one, known as the Little Ice Age, began about 1450 and only completed its cycle about 1900.

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