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Yukon Ice Patches

Date of Submission: 13/04/2018
Criteria: (iii)(v)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Parks Canada Agency
State, Province or Region:
Yukon Territory
Coordinates: N60 16 49.6 W135 41 36.6
Ref.: 6343

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The Yukon Ice Patches is a serial property of internationally significant archaeological sites, located in the traditional territory of Carcross/Tagish First Nation, in southern Yukon Territory, Canada. Throughout the millennia, woodland caribou have congregated on snow and ice during summer months, making them vital resource areas for Indigenous hunters. Hunting weapons that missed their marks became incorporated into the snow and ice. Fragile, organic objects, seldom seen at archaeological sites, are recovered annually by small teams of archaeologists and First Nation researchers. Perishable elements such as wood, sinew, feathers, adhesives and ochre, allow new insights into material culture and technological change through time and provide new understandings of the accomplishments of northern Indigenous Peoples. First discovered in 1997 due to global warming, the Yukon Ice Patches have revealed unprecedented collections of ancient and remarkably well preserved hunting tools. More than 100 artifacts have been recovered from the Yukon Ice Patch sites, with the oldest dating back more than 7500 years.

The Yukon Ice Patches are a remarkable natural phenomena characterized by intersecting occurrences of perennial, non-glacial ice fields, with critical habitat for mountain caribou and thinhorn sheep. The ice forms on the northern aspects of local mountain ranges through the accumulation of windblown snow on lee slopes between 1600 and 2100 meters above sea level. Both caribou and sheep used, and continue to use, ice patches in the summer to thermo-regulate and to seek respite from the parasitic botfly and blow fly, making these sites reliable seasonal harvesting sites for First Nations hunters. Caribou and sheep were essential cultural resources for First Nation people, providing not only food, but the materials used to produce a broad range of items including clothing, shelter, tools and hunting weapons, making alpine ice patch landscapes vitally important for the continuance of cultural and technological traditions.

The Yukon Ice Patches provide an extraordinary record of the technological traditions of Indigenous hunters spanning more than 7,500 years of Yukon’s sub-arctic history. These sites have preserved an incomparable archive of archaeological and paleontological materials which exceptionally demonstrate the complex interrelationship of Indigenous knowledge, wildlife, climate, and material culture. The collected artifacts demonstrate the elaborate nuance of material selection, crafting customs, art, function and identity that provide a tangible connection between the inter-generational knowledge of a living culture and the ancestral traditions of the ancient past. First Nations People’s consistent and enduring use of the ice patches represent an exceptional and unique pattern of cultural landscape use centred on their special relationship with the alpine ecosystem of the southern Yukon Territory. 

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Yukon Ice Patches provide exceptional testimony of a millennia’s old First Nation tradition of seasonal caribou and sheep hunting at the perennial alpine ice patches in the southern Yukon Territory. The archaeological hunting weapons recovered from these sites, demonstrate that Indigenous inhabitants of the region understood the symbiotic relationships between habitat, ice, animals and parasitic insects, and incorporated this knowledge into a structured pattern of seasonal resource use. The artifacts also represent the most distinct and outstanding evidence of Indigenous technological transitions during the Holocene. This evidence consists of a 1000-year record of bow hunting preceded by a 6500-year record of throwing dart hunting. The hunting weapons collected are exceptionally well preserved, exhibiting clear and complete representations of Indigenous crafting techniques, art, material selection and functional design. These attributes are rare globally and unparalleled within the context of subarctic archaeology, and hunter-gatherer studies more broadly.

The natural character, as well as the remarkable Indigenous use of Yukon ice patch sites are significant globally. The climatic conditions that have allowed perennial ice patches to form have existed in the study area for 9000 years. The recovered archive of archaeological and paleontological materials show that wildlife and First Nations people understood and utilized this resource immediately. An extensive database of radiocarbon dated hunting weapons demonstrate that these sites were used persistently, and exclusively, as hunting sites by the local Indigenous population; a tradition that endured varied climatic conditions, at least one catastrophic volcanic event and the technological transition from throwing dart to bow and arrow hunting.

Criterion (iii): The serial components of the Yukon Ice Patches have produced a unique collection of ancient and well preserved hunting implements that provide exceptional evidence for an enduring Indigenous cultural tradition of seasonal hunting throughout the Holocene epoch. The systematic radiocarbon dating of these artifacts supports that ice patches were used consistently and without disruption or cultural discontinuity for at least 7500 years.

Criterion (v): Yukon ice patches are a rare and distinctive landscape phenomenon that developed through the intersection of meso-climatic conditions and critical mountain caribou and thinhorn sheep habitat. This coalescence of qualities, combined with evidence of persistent seasonal hunting demonstrates an outstanding and enduring use of a cultural landscape centred on alpine hunting and the evolved symbiotic relationships between ice, animals, insects and people for 7500 years.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The Yukon Ice Patches demonstrate a high level of authenticity. The sites are located in the traditional hunting territories of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, in the alpine and subalpine regions of the upper Yukon River drainage system. This boreal cordilleran area of southern Yukon is characterized by cool semiarid climatic conditions. The intersection of these conditions with critical animal habitat, have resulted in a distinctive natural setting that has created the ice patch phenomenon. Unlike glaciers, which form in areas of high winter precipitation, ice patches are formed in semiarid conditions through the accumulation of drifting snow. Prevailing southerly winds result in large winter snow accumulations on the north face of local mountain ranges that receive limited sunlight during the summer melt season, which in turn results in accumulations of non-glacial ice. These climatic factors result in the rare occurrence of stable, non-moving ice that creates an exceptional environment for organic preservation. The sites are in a delicate balance of winter snow accumulation and summer melt, and have existed in a state of perpetual expansion and contraction that is directly related to the climatic conditions of the era.

The Indigenous groups of southern Yukon hunted throughout the year, yet strategically organized their economic activities in order to reliably access seasonally abundant natural resources. Throughout the millennia, caribou and sheep congregated on alpine snow and ice during summer months, for relief from biting insects, influencing hunting traditions and processes. Hunting activities predominantly occurred in the late summer and fall or early winter, where families would spend their time butchering, drying meat and preparing hides. Hunting territories were generally in the mountains and adjacent to wintering areas allowing people to cache food and supplies in close proximity to reliable winter resource sites.

The collected artifacts from these sites are well preserved, having been sealed in ice since they were lost by Indigenous hunters and subsequently recovered by First Nation researchers and archaeologists. The resulting body of interpretive materials characterizes the collection as a distinct subset of Indigenous technology that is clearly associated with a hunting convention of harvesting caribou and thinhorn sheep in natural herd gathering sites. This tradition and technique directly relates to traditions documented through oral history research and published ethnographic works. The artifacts collected from ice patches are directly comparable, in material use, form and design, to ethnographically documented hunting weapons, and the curated collection is the most outstanding example of a traditional pre-colonial Indigenous hunting assemblage in Canada and the United States of America.

Yukon Ice Patches demonstrate a high level of integrity, having never been used or occupied for any other purpose than seasonal hunting excursions. The sites are affected by climatic warming that continues to melt permanent ice, particularly which formed in the last thousand years during the Little Ice Age. Despite climate warming, these sites still experience winter accumulations of windblown drifting snow that continues to result in persistent snow packs occupied by caribou and sheep throughout the summer months. In the event of serious or permanent loss of persistent ice accumulations, these locations, and the associated artifact collection, will continue to epitomise an outstanding example of an ancient hunting tradition supported by oral histories. In modern times the Carcross/Tagish First Nation continue to harvest thinhorn sheep in these hunting territories and are involved in developing management strategies for caribou populations.

The known sites are in-situ, and well-recorded. All artifacts collected have been found in direct association with, or embedded within the ice of, the Yukon Ice Patches. Annual surveys by the Yukon Territory and First Nations governments continue to reveal additional locations with preserved cultural material. Recovered artifacts are professionally curated in the territorial collection facility. None of the sites are located on privately owned land or are subject to development claims such as a resource extraction lease.

Comparison with other similar properties

Ice patch, or glacial archaeological phenomena are rare globally, and come about through the combination of climatic, orthographic, ecological and alpine cultural traditions. Conditions such as latitude, elevation, precipitation, summer temperatures, animal and human ecology must meaningfully interconnect and persist through time to result in the formation of distinctive cultural traditions. Moreover, these traditions are focused on an alpine economy that utilizes glacial and periglacial locations for millennia resulting in the outstanding preservation of material culture. These conditions coalesce intermittently across the globe, resulting in archaeological phenomena associated through ice, yet distinct from one another because of the immutable diversity of human culture. Ice patch and glacial archaeological sites have been documented in Canada’s Northwest Territories, American states such as Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and alpine countries in continental Europe like Norway, Sweden and the nations of Alps.

Yukon and Norway have ice patch phenomena that are most closely analogous because of the collection of archaeological materials that are related to the hunting of caribou and reindeer that congregate on ice. Yet the records from these two outstanding research areas are different from one another having preserved the material cultures of distinct peoples, each with unique and incomparable traditions and economies. Norwegian snow patch artifacts are related to a variety of different cultural groups and demonstrate multifaceted uses of an alpine environment as part of diverse agrarian and pastoral economies. The Yukon Ice Patches document an ancient and exceptionally well preserved record of hunting artifacts produced by a long-lived and distinct hunter-gatherer society. The evidence collected from Yukon Ice Patches sites demonstrate an unbroken tradition that endured in the subarctic north for an unprecedented length of time.

Within Canada there are other significant archaeological sites and assemblages that link the traditions of living Indigenous cultures to the ancient past, or have resulted in the curation of exceptionally well preserved artifacts.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump World Heritage site demonstrates a distinctive hunting practice common in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and is directly related to the traditions of the Indigenous societies of the plains. Similarly, this site demonstrates an understanding of landscape and animal ecology as evidenced by an exceptional archaeological collection characterized by deep strata demonstrating long term use. By comparison, Yukon Ice Patches and associated archaeological collections demonstrate the distinct hunting traditions of the Indigenous inhabitants of the interior plateau of the southern Yukon Territory. The outstanding value of Yukon Ice Patches, are the exceptional preservation of artifacts and the direct relationship of the ice patch sites and collections to intergenerational First Nation knowledge about technology and landscape use.

Quttinirpaaq National Park of Canada and the Haida Heritage Site both demonstrate rich archaeological collections, featuring exceptional levels of artifact preservation that are readily associated with Inuit and Haida Cultures respectively. Highly preserved artifact assemblages are a characteristic of associated archaeological sites both within and in areas adjacent to these sites, due either to favourable depositional conditions created by the shell middens of the coast, or the arid frozen conditions experienced in Canada’s arctic. By comparison, Yukon Ice Patches are distinguished by exceptional preservation through direct incorporation into bodies of ice; a characteristic exclusive to ice patches. This condition is unique in the subarctic north where favourable preservation conditions are rare and typically observed in collections related to the recent past or colonial era.

Ivvavik/Vuntut/Herschel Island (Qikiqtaruk) National Parks, on Canada’s Tentative List for World Heritage, also demonstrates archaeological evidence of subarctic Indigenous traditions associated with the harvesting of barren ground caribou. The archaeological evidence is represented by well understood networks of caribou hunting sites and communal architecture such as caribou fences, that are directly related to the traditions of local Gwitchin populations. By comparison, Yukon Ice Patches represent a distinct hunting tradition centred on mountain caribou and thinhorn sheep in alpine environments, and evidenced with exceptionally well preserved archaeological objects rather than communal architecture.