26 August 2008
Alpine melt reveals ancient life
Melting alpine glaciers are revealing fascinating clues to Neolithic life in the high mountains. And the finds are also providing key indicators to climate change. Everyone knows the story of Oetzi the Ice Man, found in an Austrian glacier in 1991. Oetzi was discovered at an altitude of over 3,000m. He lived in about 3,300 BCE, leading to speculation that the Alps may have had more human habitation than previously suspected. Now, more dramatic findings from the 2,756m Schnidejoch glacier in Switzerland have confirmed the theory.
It all started at the end of the long hot summer of 2003, when a Swiss couple, hiking across a melting Schnidejoch, came across a piece of wood that aroused their curiosity. They took it down with them, and gave it to canton Berne's archaeological department, where careful examination and carbon dating revealed the piece of wood to be an arrow quiver made of birch bark, dating from about 3000 BCE.
At first, the news of the find was kept quiet; historians feared treasure hunters on the Schnidejoch as the ice melted. But teams of archaeologists went up, and more and more artefacts were discovered. "We now have the complete bow equipment, quiver and arrows," says Albert Hafner, chief archaeologist with the canton of Berne. "And we have, surprisingly, a lot of organic material like leather, parts of shoes and a trouser leg, that we wouldn't normally find."
And the finds are not confined to 3000 BCE. Some of the leather found, and a fragment of a wooden bowl, date from 4500 BCE, older even than Oetzi, making them the oldest objects ever found in the Alps. And from later periods, a Bronze Age pin has been discovered, as well as Roman coins and a fibula, and items dating from the early Middle Ages.
What fascinates scientists about the age of the finds is that they correspond to times when climate specialists have already calculated the Earth was going through an especially warm period, caused by fluctuations in the orbital pattern of the Earth in relation to the Sun. At these times, historians now speculate, the high mountain regions became accessible to humans. "If we get more carbon datings from this site, we can get the most precise picture of short-term glacier fluctuations for the past six or 7,000 years," Martin Grosjean, a climatologist at Berne University, said.
For Martin Grosjean, the leather items found on the Schnidejoch, dated at over 5,000 years old, are proof, if any more were needed, that the Earth is now warming up: "The fact that we still find these 5,000-year-old pieces of leather tells us they were protected by the ice all this time, and that the glaciers have never been smaller than in the year 2003 and the years following."
Scientists and archaeologists from all over the world attended the conference in Berne to hear about the Schnidejoch findings, and present research of their own. Patterns have begun to emerge: researchers in Canada's Yukon region have found evidence of Neolithic farming and domesticated animals at high altitudes. Again, they correspond with the calculations climatologists have made about the Earth's warmer periods. For historians however, the Schnidejoch is unexpected evidence that early man was far more at home in the high Alps than had been previously thought.
Source: BBC News (24 August 2008)