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Canadians Find "Ice Man" in Glacier

25 August 1999 8:00 pm
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Old hat? The glacier where the Canadian ice man was found (left) and his hat.

Canada now has its own "ice man." On 14 August, mountain-sheep hunters found a frozen human body, dressed in fur and accompanied by tools and a food pouch, in a melting glacier in Tatshenshini-Alsek Park in the far northwest of British Columbia. The discovery resembles that of Ötzi, the 5300-year-old Tyrolean ice man unearthed in 1991, but scientists don't yet know if the Canadian body is equally old or much younger. The absence of European tools, however, suggests that the man died, perhaps after falling into a crevasse, before Europeans arrived in the region about 250 years ago.

The body has been placed in cold storage in Whitehorse, the capital of Yukon Territory, as scientists and the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, two Indian tribes, negotiate over how to study it. A team headed by archaeologist Owen Beattie of the University of Alberta, Edmonton, will lead the investigations, which will focus on the artifacts and the age and condition of the body itself.

Diane Strand, a spokesperson for the Indian tribes, says the man was wearing a coat or cloak sewn from the pelts of small animals--probably squirrels--and a finely woven broad-brimmed hat. He carried a pouch containing edible leaves and the remains of some fish. Near him were pieces of clubs or walking sticks with carvings on them, an atlatl--a notched stick used for throwing spears--and a wood-and-stone knife that may have been used for skinning animals.

Until the remains are carbon-dated, researchers will be uncertain about the body's age. Smithsonian anthropologist David Hunt notes, for example, that Ötzi had a close-fitting fur cap--but Tolund Man, one of Britain's "bog men," "had almost the exact same hat 4000 years later." Similarly, the atlatl doesn't necessarily mean the body is ancient, says archaeologist Knut Fladmark from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, as "atlatls continued to be used in the far northwest until European contact." Observers note that although Canadian Indians have to approve procedures with the ice man, it's unlikely that Canadian researchers will run into the problems their U.S. colleagues have in studying another famous set of remains, Kennewick Man. Legal wrangling over Native Americans' rights over those remains halted research for years (ScienceNOW, 22 February 1999). Strand says the Indians are "completely supportive of doing as much study and research as we possibly can."

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