Climate Change Revealing Archaeological Finds

Feb 3, 2017

Credit Dr. Lawrence Todd

Climate change is revealing Wyoming artifacts hidden by ice for 10,000 years. Scientists are flocking to the melting snow and ice fields. And the world is watching.

The Prince of Monaco, among others, is giving a lot of money to support a science emerging in the mountains of Wyoming.

Prince Albert II talked about climate change, and his foundation’s support of scientific research on climate change when he came to Cody in 2013.

He said, “Climate change, first of all, I believe is absolutely real, and that it is happening, and that it will happen no matter what.”

His visit celebrated the first Camp Monaco Prize: a $100,000 scientific grant that was funded  by a new cooperative: the Prince Albert II Foundation, the Draper Museum of Natural History at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, and the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute. 

In Monaco last June, the Prince awarded the 2nd Camp Monaco prize to three scientists studying snowmelt revelations. Jury chair and Draper founding curator, Dr. Charles Preston, joined the Prince at the News Conference.

Preston said scientists are combing the mountains in and around the Yellowstone every summer.

He explained, “As these icefields melt, we’re seeing things that no one’s seen for perhaps in ten thousand years. And, so it’s drawn in scientists from a lot of different disciplines and different areas. And, they’re collecting and identifying biological and human artifacts from very high elevation sites. Very exciting stuff.”

Dr. Craig Lee was one of the researchers who received the Monaco Prize. In 2007,  he recovered one of the oldest intact wooden artifacts ever found in an ice patch. It was part of an atlatl, an ancient spear throwing tool. It is 10,300 years old.

We asked how he felt when he found the manmade object near Yellowstone.

Lee answered, “Oh, it was unbelievably exciting. My jaw dropped, but coming across that atlatl fore shaft, it was clearly an object that had been worked by humans and had been transported to that location from a different area.”

Wyoming archeologist Dr. Larry Todd is an emeritus professor at Colorado State University. He retired to Meeteetse, where he spent his youth herding sheep in the mountains nearby.

Last summer, Todd’s team of researchers found tens of thousands of artifacts in the mountains near Meeteetse, and the highest known tipi rings in Wyoming.

Todd explained, “They’re not in the size range that look like vision quests, and they’re not hunting blinds, and they’re at elevations 11,300 feet, our highest site is.”

Todd said that means people were living and making a living at high elevations as long as 10,000 years ago.

He continued, “The magnet that drew us up there are the melting ice and snow patches, that as they melt, are exposing archeological materials, and organic materials, and biological materials…they’re sort of opening the door on an extremely rich archive of Paleo climate, Paleo environmental data.”

Todd said scientists have to work fast, once the artifacts are revealed.

He explained, “Once they’re exposed, they deteriorate very rapidly.”

Todd is also concerned about looting of the sites. He said they reveal something not known before.

Todd revealed, “More and more of the archeologists working in the high elevation are seeing indications of entire family groups for long periods of time at multiple seasons of the year. It’s really changing our perspective of the way high elevations were incorporated into human behavioral systems.”

Todd said the ancient civilizations did not find the bare patches of ground he’s seeing. His research indicates the artifacts weren’t buried under the ice.

He explained, “They were probably deposited on the ice, now melting out.”

So, what drew Wyoming’s first peoples to the coldest, highest places? Todd said the Paleo Indians who came to the Absarokas followed animals that found grass and water on the mountains.

He said, “They also provide escape from bugs and things like that, and they’re also a little cooler, so these were maybe magnets for a lot of the game animals, and therefore they were maybe magnets for a lot of the predators, of which people were part.”

The snowmelt science is also revealing something else: people spent a lot of time in Wyoming’s mountaintops, as soon as they could.

Todd surmised, “Fairly soon after the extreme high elevations were being deglaciated, people are up there.”