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July 20th, 2010

10,000-year-old hunting weapon found in a melting ice patch of the Rocky Mountains

To the untrained eye, Craig Lee's recent discovery of a wooden hunting weapon might look like a small branch that blew off a tree in a windstorm; however, nothing could be further from the truth, according to Lee, who found the atlatl dart, a spear-like hunting weapon, melting out of an ice patch high in the Rocky Mountains close to Yellowstone National Park.  Subsequent radiocarbon dating showed that the dart is 10,400-years-old, making it the oldest artifact ever discovered melting out of ancient ice. Its age and preservation provide a unique window into late Paleoindian society, including its technology, social protocols, and high-altitude subsistence practices.

Craig Lee holds ancient atlatl. Photo by Casey A. Cass, CU-Boulder.

Lee is a specialist in the emerging field of ice patch archaeology, which focuses on finding archaeological materials in association with melting permanent snow and ice.  Climate change has accelerated melting of these areas, exposing organic materials that have long been entombed in the ice.  Quick retrieval is necessary to save artifacts like clothing, wooden tools or weapons, because once thawed and exposed to the elements, they decompose quickly.  Over the past decade, Lee has worked with other researchers to use geographic information systems, or GIS, to combine biological and physical data to identify glaciers and ice fields that may preserve evidence of ancient hunter’s attempts to kill animals seeking refuge from heat and insect swarms in the summer months.

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