The 2007 NWT Ice Patch Project

Tom Andrews (NWT Archaeologist’s Permit 2007-017)

Funded by the International Polar Year (IPY) program, the Northwest Territories Ice Patch Study combines the physical, biological and social sciences with traditional knowledge to investigate past and present environmental and human change in the Mackenzie Mountains. As repositories of well preserved archaeological artefacts and ancient biological specimens, permanent ice patches provide a long term material record of human hunting practices and data on the diet, health and genetic histories of past caribou populations. Collection and analysis of these specimens will contribute to our understanding of the human history of the North and the ecology of caribou populations over time. A geophysical study to determine the internal structures and formation processes of ice patches and traditional knowledge research to investigate oral traditions about hunting caribou on ice patches and human adaptation to the alpine environment will compliment these studies.

Through this multidisciplinary research design, we are gaining an understanding of how caribou populations and people have adapted to climate change over the past several thousand years in the Mackenzie Mountains. This knowledge will assist resource managers in the development of effective management strategies for caribou populations currently faced by changing climate regimes. We hope that effective management of caribou populations will contribute to the sustained health and cultural well‐being of Aboriginal communities that rely on caribou for traditional subsistence activities.

Designed in partnership with the Tulita Dene Band, this project has a strong education program consisting of a science camp for Aboriginal students to be held in the Mackenzie Mountains during the main IPY years of 2007 and 2008.

Significant discoveries were made during the 2007 field season including 5 new ice patch archaeological sites where wooden and stone artefacts were recovered. Radiocarbon dates of the artefacts revealed that bow and arrow technology was in use about 300 years ago, while dart throwing technology was used about 2400 years ago. An additional 10 targets—locations where we found melting ice and significant amounts of caribou fecal matter, but no visible artefacts as yet—will be monitored over the next two years as they may eventually produce cultural remains. Geophysical studies at two sites produced exciting results too. Ground penetrating radar studies and a core extracted from one of the patches revealed layers of caribou dung separated by ice indicating growth over time. Samples of the dung have been radiocarbon dated to help us understand how the ice patches formed and how long they have before melting entirely. Bones of animals that were killed or died naturally near the ice patches were collected during the field season and they have been identified as to genus and species. Radiocarbon dates and stable isotope analysis of the caribou bones will help us understand changes in caribou ecology over the last 4000 years. A 5‐day science camp in August, involving Shutagotine (Mountain Dene) students and elders from the community of Tulita, was a great success where both elders and scientists shared in teaching students and learning from each other.

(Edited by Shelley Crouch, Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre)