Monday, September 01, 2008


Melting alpine glaciers are revealing fascinating clues to Neolithic life in the high mountains.And, as a conference of archaeologists and climatologists meeting in the Swiss capital Berne has been discussing, 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 BC, 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 BC. Albert Hafner, chief archaeologist with the canton of Berne said: "This is unique; we don't know of a quiver like this anywhere else in the world."

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 artifacts were discovered.

"We now have the complete bow equipment, quiver and arrows," says Mr Hafner "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 BC. Some of the leather found, and a fragment of a wooden bowl, date from 4500 BC, 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.

For Martin Grosjean, a climatologist at Berne University, the Schnidejoch
has become a mine of information on changes in the Earth's climate.

"The site is exactly at the point where the glacier responds most sensitively to short-term climate change and temperature variations," he explains. "So 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."

The Roman coins found on the Schnidejoch are being seen as proof that the
Romans used this route to cross the Alps from Italy to their territories in
northern Europe. Interestingly, one of the Earth's chillier periods
coincides with the decline of the Roman empire.

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 leather is the jewel among the finds," he says. "If leather is exposed to the weather, to sun, wind and rain, it disintegrates almost immediately."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."

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."In 1991, we were completely surprised by Oetzi," remembers Albert Hafner. "Up to then, we had always thought the Alps were not used, that people never went there.

"Now with Schnidejoch we know they were rather keen on mountaineering. It was a big challenge for them; look at the shoes, no Goretex for them. But we know they went up regularly."


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