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History Emerging from the Ice

The world's glaciers are slowly melting, and as they do, artifacts from the near and distant past are emerging from the ice. NPR's Eric Niiler reports on the discovery of archaeological treasure.

During the short Siberian summer on Russia's Zhokhov Island, Smithsonian anthropologist William Fitzhugh discovered a 4,000-year-old basket. "I was digging down through this stuff, it was literally like banging your hammer on a frozen cement floor," he recalls. Then Fitzhugh 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," he says.

Because the basket was in near-perfect condition, it gave scientists much more detailed information about the daily lives of the people who called the island home.

The ice has preserved many similar items, but the unfrozen life of these artifacts is short. James Dixon, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado, says the objects decay rapidly when exposed to the air. To locate emerging artifacts quickly, Dixon and a colleague developed a digital map covering a portion of Alaska. A computer program matches places where glaciers are melting with likely routes taken by early Americans. The map gives Dixon and his team a good idea of where to look. "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 with the provincial park system in the Canadian Yukon, has picked up more than 130 objects in the past five years. His discoveries range 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," Hare says. "There's a pretty good chance you're going to be finding something old." The smell comes from ancient piles of caribou dung. Hare says the dung was deposited where animals congregated -- and where early travelers went to hunt caribou. As researchers pick up garbage left by ancient humans, researchers say they're also finding clues about the past climate.

The Smithsonian's Fitzhugh says ancient plant life in the hunting areas may tell us what the climate was like thousands of years ago.

And as temperature increase across Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, it may affect modern-day descendants of these ancient people. Fitzhugh travels to Mongolia this summer to study a tribe of reindeer herders whose animals are growing hungry as the plants they depend on disappear.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Niiler
Eric Niiler reports for NPR's national desk. His work can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and other NPR newsmagazines. Before moving to his current post, Niiler was a reporter for NPR's Day to Day program, and also filed pieces for NPR's national and science desks.