Ice Patch Archaeology

Ice Patch or Glacial Archaeology is as sub-discipline which is dedicated to research on the human and environmental landscapes where global warming is causing permafrost and ice at high altitudes to melt for the first time in millennia. Indigenous peoples traditionally used these areas to hunt game which sought shelter from heat and insects in these places. Artifacts and biological remains, if found while still frozen, are well preserved and reveal a wealth of new information. For example, stone points have been found which are still attached to ancient weapons with the original sinew, wood, etc. still visible. Such well-preserved evidence can be dated as well as observed, adding a new dimension to archaeological knowledge. There is some urgency to expand research respecting the fragility of the opportunity.

Indigeous Interests

Indigenous peoples’ histories extend to the last Ice Age and possibly beyond in the circumpolar Arctic. The interrelationships among cultures remains a fertile subject for exploration and synthesis. Indigenous peoples hold a treasury of oral history and environmental knowledge which is essential to researchers who explore melting ice patch sites. Arctic indigenous residents also have reason to wish to be involved in the planning and organization of research, in the protection and dissemination of information, and in the disposition of discoveries. Archaeology today is done in coordination with indigenous peoples.

Information Technology and Scholarship

ACG’s goal has always been to encourage the use of information technology as well as scholarly publication in communication of indigenous cultural heritage. The website dedicated to the subject of circumpolar Ice Patch Archaeological sites and findings will allow a wide audience to become familiar with the Arctic past, leaving artifacts in the place.


Yukon First Nations have been participating in the study of these melting ice patches, working co-operatively with the Yukon Government since the first ice patch was discovered in 1997. Since then, each summer the patches are visited to check for new finds. The First Nations of the Yukon in Canada – Carcross-Tagish, Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, Kluane First Nation, Kwalin Dun First Nation, Ta’an Kach’an Council, and Teslin Tlingit Council – cooperate to ensure that research and results will be part of their shared heritage.

In December 2004, representatives of the First Nations met to review the findings of ice patch archaeology. The shared vision is to ensure First Nation ownership and involvement in the discovery, study, interpretation and end use of the artifacts, ethnographic objects and biological materials found at the 
melting ice patches in their Traditional Territories, as well as the management and understanding of these special places. The ice patch work is a study of their past and their homelands. It is also integral to who they are today, as modern First Nations.

Mountaintop ice patches across the southern part of the Yukon are places where caribou gather in the summer for relief from insects and heat. They are also places where the ancestors used to hunt (and people still occasionally do today). These patches used to remain frozen year-round, but with the warm summers of recent decades they have begun melting. As they melt, researchers and First Nations citizens and staff are finding items that provide windows into the past and help us learn about caribou, the history of the lands, and the hunting practices of the ancestors.

During the warm summers of recent decades, the ice patches have been shrinking in size. Caribou dung, as well as ancient artifacts and faunal remains (bone, antler, small animal remains) and plant remains are being revealed.

The ice at the patches accumulated gradually over the last 8,000 years or more, after the glaciers that once covered all of the southern Yukon had melted. They formed as yearly snowfalls piled up and, over time, were compressed into layers. The patches are thought to have reached their maximum size between 100 and 650 years ago. At some patches, the dung and ice deposits date only to the past few thousand years, while at others, they go back over 8,000 years.

The patches are situated on the northern side of mountains, usually at elevations around 6,000 to 7,000 feet, with the majority located in the Coast Mountains and adjacent Yukon Plateau country between Whitehorse-Carcross and Haines Junction. Some patches have also been found in the Ruby Ranges near Kluane Lake, in the Big Salmon and other ranges east and west of the Teslin River, and in the Cassiar Mountains east of Teslin. Researchers have looked for patches in the Pelly Mountains, but none have yet been found there. More recently, ice patches have also been identified in British Columbia, and in Alaska (Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve and the Tangle Lakes area).

Caribou dung is being studied to learn about the genetic history of caribou, to see if the herds that used the ice patches thousands of years ago are related to the modern caribou. Other species, such small mammals as lemming, vole and ground squirrel, as well as sheep, goat, elk, bison and moose bones have also been found at some patches. It is likely that the ancestors also hunted these species.

Plant pollen trapped in the dung and ice is a wonderful source
 of information. It shows, for example, that pine trees spread into the southern Yukon starting around 1,900 years ago.

Over 150 artifacts (or parts of artifacts) have now been found. They are primarily hunting implements, with two types represented: darts and arrows. A moccasin has been dated at 1,400 years old. Researchers at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. studied the feathers associated with the weapons. Two darts (4,000 and 4,600 years old) have duck and northern flicker feathers attached to them, while eagle feathers were used on an arrow that is 450 years old. Feathers from short-eared owl, gyrfalcon and white-tailed ptarmigan are also present in the collection.

The work continues. The present goals are to continue to work together, and to cooperate with the Yukon Government. The First Nations seek involvement in laboratory studies as well as field work. The use of traditional knowledge will be expanded, documenting their insights into the animals and into uses of the artifacts.

The six ice patch nations also look forward to communicating what they have learned, and assist other First Nations in seeking ice patches within their own territories.

Mary Stapleton

Read more....

Altai Ice Patches

Top of Page

Igloolik Site

Jufonna Ice Patches

Home Page