Complete atlatl found in Yukon’s melting ice

A helicopter pilot who had just dropped off some researchers at the melting Yukon ice patches near Carcross, Canada, found an incredibly well-preserved atlatl at the base of one of those ice patches. It’s not just the spear tip, but the entire hurling weapon from pointy front to the butt of the shaft. It is the first complete atlatl ever found in Yukon, as far as we know.

A few moments after the researchers he had flown to the site set out to explore the area, the pilot spotted the spear. He called out to them that he’d found something they should look at.

At first, Jennifer Herkes didn’t realize what had been found — she thought it was a piece of an atlatl dart.

“I thought, ‘Oh yeah, that’s neat,'” she recalled.

Then she saw it wasn’t just a piece — it was the whole spear.

“My heart rate started increasing, and I got goose bumps all over. I’d never seen anything like that before, it was amazing,” said Herkes, who is the heritage manager for the Carcross/Tagish First Nation in Yukon.

“The feathers, the sinew, the sap they would have used as, like, a glue to attach the stone point to the wood shaft — all of it is completely intact.”

The find is of immense historical significance. It is at least 1,000 years old and because every element is present, it can shed unique light on how the Indigenous people of Yukon made and used weapons, how they hunted, what materials were available to them and more.

Then there’s the cultural significance.

“When you have a full complete spear like that, it really allows people to connect with their heritage and what their ancestors were doing on the land, thousands of years ago,” she said.

“Everybody gets really excited. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to pull my phone out to show pictures to different people. It’s a pretty great way to bring the community together.”

It’s a pretty great picture. The spear looks like it was made yesterday. In order to keep it looking so pristine, the atlatl has been placed in cold storage. That will keep it from decaying. It did thaw, however, when the ice patch it was embedded in melted, so it will require attention from conservators to ensure its long term preservation. The Carcross/Tagish First Nation and the Cultural Services Branch of Yukon’s Department of Tourism and Culture will study how best to conserve it.

“We’ll do our best to keep it as fully intact as possible, because I think that’s where the true value lies — in being able to have that fully intact piece of history,” she said.