Stone Age man recovered

Archaeology: The frozen remains of a Stone Age hunter have been found in British Columbia, along with weapons in near-perfect condition.

August 26, 1999|By BOSTON GLOBE

MONTREAL -- The hunter appears to have come to a horrible end.

A slip of the foot on a frozen trail -- perhaps just as he was about to hurl his spear into the flank of some thick-furred quarry that would have fed his wandering clan -- and the hunter plummeted to his death in a deep glacial crevasse.

The prehistoric drama might have occurred several thousand years ago, though, for now, scientists eager to study the human remains, discovered this month at a receding glacier in British Columbia, will only speculate that the hunter died before the arrival of Europeans to the Pacific Northwest.

His bone knife, spear-thrower, carved walking staff and woven-cedar hat, all in near-perfect condition, belong to the Stone Age.

The Tutchone-speaking Indians of the remote region have given the ill-fated wanderer a name: "Kwaday Dan Sinchi," or Long Ago Person Found.

Diane Strand, the tribe's heritage resource officer, said she believes that the ancient man was a tribal ancestor. "According to stories recorded by our elders, we have been here since time immemorial, since when animals could speak to people," she said.

The discovery of the hunter -- along with scraps of leather clothing, weapons, and even a pouch containing dried fish for a meal never consumed -- in a remote spot on the high barrens in the extreme northwestern corner of the province has sent a thunderbolt of excitement through the archaeological world.

"It definitely appears precontact, definitely before Europeans reached this part of the world, and definitely an extremely rare find, perhaps one of the most important ever in northern Canada," said Knut Fladmark, professor of archaeology at British Columbia's Simon Fraser University.

The glacier also disgorged the frozen body of an animal that may have died at the same time as the ancient hunter, and researchers are intrigued by the possibility that the creature was the hunter's prey and that the deaths of man and beast in the depths of the ice crevasse are intertwined and will tell a gripping tale.

Implements at the site include the knife, a carved walking staff, pieces of leather clothing, including fur-lined mittens or moccasins, and what appears to be a throwing stick used to increase the velocity and range of a hunting spear.

Although the flesh, muscles and organs of only the lower portion of the hunter's torso were preserved by the centuries of cold, it is unusual to find ancient human remains with any soft tissue intact.

So Canada's "Long Ago Person" is being compared to the famous 5,000-year-old "ice man" discovered in 1991 in the Italian Alps, as well as to more recent finds of flash-frozen ancient humans in Peru and Siberia.

Yet Canadian scientists involved seem rather reluctant to discuss it. Partly, it appears, they simply do not want to exaggerate claims before starting scientific analysis and procedures to date the tissue and artifacts.

But the reticence of scientists also reflects concern for the sensitivities of Indians in the region, who have taken a proprietary view of the corpse, even though it may not belong to direct ancestors

The melting blue-ice face of the Tatshenshini-Alsek glacier yielded the remains on Aug. 14 to a trio of modern-day hunters, schoolteachers from British Columbia, who were slogging through the rugged ice fields 4,921 feet above sea level.

"I saw a stick where there should have been no stick, realized it had native markings. Then, on the edge of the glacier, I saw a tattered human torso," said Warren Ward, 52, of Nelson, British Columbia.

The discovery site lies within a provincial park in an ice-locked area recognized as "traditional territory" of Yukon's Champagne-Aishihik tribal band, who number 1,129 individuals.

Band leaders journeyed to the site along with archaeologists and other scientists, and uttered traditional prayers over the hunter's headless remains before the body was delicately prized from the ground and transported to Whitehorse for safekeeping. Swift action was necessary because the flesh was starting to decompose. Scavenging animals also posed a risk.

Although the band wants the body to receive respectful burial in a traditional ceremony -- and reserves a "native right" to ensure that scientific tests are conducted with dignity -- leaders say they do not want to block research.

"This person will have much to tell us, to help us understand our past, and the history of our homeland," said Bob Charlie, chief of the band.

The band's cooperative stance has encouraged scientists who were made anxious by a 1996 controversy in which Indians blocked attempts to analyze a skeleton found near Kennewick, Wash., and thought to be 9,000 years old, long before the ancestors of the modern Indians arrived in the area. Indian activists insisted the remains were sacred and that tests by scientists represented an affront by an alien culture.

In Canada, it will be months and perhaps years before scientists can answer questions about who the mysterious hunter might have been and when he died, which should be narrowed down to within a century or less.

"The remains could be several thousand years old, but it's way too soon to pin down," said Al Mackie, a government archaeologist who was among the first scientists to the site. "Obviously, we're very excited."

None of the material used in the hunter's clothing or tools hints of any influence from European visitors, so archaeologists are confident the remains are at least several centuries old. Knowledge of the region's prehistory suggests it is unlikely that the remains go back further than 10,000 years.

Beyond that, there is no way to pin down a date until tests are done, and scientists have yet to agree with tribal elders on what sorts of analysis can be completed. DNA testing, pollen analysis and carbon dating are the most probable possibilities.

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