Today, we follow melting glaciers. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Years ago, when I taught at
Washington State University in Eastern Washington,
our anthropology faculty was deeply involved with
reclamation archaeology. Dams were rising along the
great western rivers, and huge tracts of historic
native land were being flooded. Anthropologists
went into those regions to find what artifacts they
could before the ground was under water.
Much of that has been going on around the world,
but now such efforts take a surprising new form. An
early signal was the appearance of the Tyrolean
Iceman in 1991. A couple, climbing high in the
Ötztal Alps, found the remains of a man, newly
exposed in the melting ice. He'd been perfectly
frozen and preserved for over five thousand years.
Writer Kevin Krajick tells a similar story in a
2002 Science magazine. A hiker, high in the
mountains of the Yukon, is suddenly hit by a
bathroom stench. He follows his nose and discovers
that a melting ice bank has uncovered a huge tract
of fresh caribou dung. This is an area where
caribou haven't been seen for generations. The
seemingly fresh dung has to be very old.
Anthropologists have entered that area and found
preserved animal and bird life going back
eighty-three hundred years. Mixed in among the
remains are ancient human artifacts. Suddenly a
huge historical record opens up.
Some ten thousand years ago, the earth warmed, the
glaciers retreated, and everything changed. All
around the world, people responded to that warmth
in various ways. In the southern latitudes, they
invented agriculture. But in the north, they began
traveling across retreating glaciers -- to hunt and
to trade goods.
We are now, once more, entering a time of global
warming. Just what part of that warming is the
result of what we're doing to the environment is
still unclear, but we are warming. What we've
discovered in the Tyrol and the Yukon, we now
realize, is occurring all across northern Europe
We need to undertake a new of kind of reclamation
archaeology. Like any such archaeology, it has to
be done quickly. The contents of these new sites,
once opened to fresh air, decay rapidly. An
anthropologist at the University of Alaska says,
woefully, "We should be out there with ten
helicopters every summer."
One team of Alaskan anthropologists is presently
studying glacial maps and data on melting and then
flying into promising regions. During the summer of
2001 alone, they found thirty-six sites -- all rich
in remains -- near Wrangell, Alaska.
Krajick's article ends by quoting one of those
investigators. He mentions a Colorado hotel that
advertises, "Pure water directly from Arapahoe
Glacier." He thinks about the wealth of organic
matter being revealed as the glaciers melt, and
says that he winces when he thinks about drinking
that "pure" glacial water.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Krajick, K., Melting Glaciers Release Ancient Relics.
Science, Vol. 296, 19 April, 2002, pp.
From the 1923 Wonder Book of Knowledge
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.