Tom Andrews/GNWT

Some of the shafts and a spearhead found high in Canada's Mackenzi Mountains. Tom Andrews/GNWT


- Spears, squirrel snares and bows and arrows are found amid melting ice in the Arctic.

- Some of the weapons are more than 2,000 years-old and shed light on ancient hunting strategies.

- An array of weapons dating as far back as 2,400 years, is found as ice patches melt away in Canada's Arctic mountains.

A treasure trove of ancient weapons has emerged from melting ice patches in the Canadian Arctic, revealing hunting strategies thousands of years old.

The weapons, which include a 2,400-year-old spear throwing tools, a 1,000-year-old ground squirrel snare, and bows and arrows dating back 850 years, have been found high in the remote Mackenzie Mountains, a region where Mountain Boreal caribou abound in the summer months.

Dotted with ice patches resulting from accumulation of annual snow that, until recently, remained frozen all year, the mountains have been the caribous' shelter for millennia.

Seeking relief from the heat and annoying bugs, the animals huddle on the ice patches, becoming an easy target for hunters who recognized this behavior millennia ago.

Their tools buried deep beneath centuries of winter snow are now revealing how hunting strategies developed over thousands of years.

"We are talking of complete examples of ancient technology, including arrows with wooden shafts, feathers and sinew hafting. These artifacts are giving us an entirely new appreciation of how ancient hunting tools were made and used,"  Tom Andrews, an archaeologist with the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Center in Yellowknife and lead researcher on the International Polar Year Ice Patch Study, told Discovery News.

Ice patch archaeology began in 1997 when sheep hunters stumbled upon a 4,300-year-old dart shaft in caribou dung amid thawing ice patches in the southern Yukon.  

"Following that discovery,  we recovered more than 200 ancient hunting artifacts, with the oldest dating back more than 9,000 years," Greg Hare, the Yukon archaeologist who analyzed the original discovery, told Discovery News.

Thanks to global warming, Hare and colleagues also unearthed some 1,600 animal bones and mummified small mammals and birds that have been preserved in the ice for thousands of years. 

"We began wondering if we had the same phenomenon here," Andrews said.

Indeed, in 2005, a detailed ground survey produced the first major find: a centuries-old hunting bow made from willow.

In the following four years, Andrews and colleagues explored eight ice patches, finding a treasure trove of hunting tools -- and great amounts of caribou dung.

"By radiocarbon dating the dung, we have determined that the patches have been used by caribou for nearly 6,000 years," Andrews said.

The researchers are also studying pollen and insects trapped in the dung, in the effort to understand what changes in the environment have taken place over the millennia. 

"By studying the plant remains we can look at changes in caribou diet, and by studying ancient DNA preserved in the dung we can address questions of caribou population genetics," Andrews said.

Detailed in the book "Hunters of the Alpine Ice," the research is currently a race against time because of warming temperatures: two of the eight original patches have already disappeared.

Andrews and his colleagues are hoping to monitor some 20 ice patches over the coming years to retrieve fragile artifacts as they melt out.

"We have an ethical obligation to collect these artifacts as they are exposed. If left on the ground, they would be trampled by caribou or dissolved by the acidic soils," Andrews said.

According to Hare,  Andrews' research is "exceptional" since it has established that ice patch archaeology is not limited to only one geographic area.

"This will have implications for alpine research around the world. Wherever there is perennial snow cover, archaeologists should at least be considering the possibility of artifact recovery," Hare said.