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Kwaday Dän Sinchi,
The Yukon Iceman

by Murray Lundberg

Dateline: August 25, 1999. Last update November 17, 2023.

      Modern hunters have discovered the remains of an ancient hunter at the edge of a remote glacier near the Yukon - British Columbia border.

      The group who made the discovery are all teachers from the Nelson, British Columbia area. On August 14, they were hunting for Dall sheep in British Columbia's Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Wilderness Park (special permits are available for hunting in the park) when one of them, Bill Hanlon, noticed the first piece of wood they had seen for miles. It turned out to be part of a carved walking stick, and further examination of the area by Hanlon, Warren Ward and Mike Roch resulted in the discovery of other artifacts and a headless body. Following a 2-day hike out, they contacted the Beringia Centre at Whitehorse to tell of their find. Government archaeologists, of course, flew immediately to the scene.

      The body and artifacts (including the walking stick, a finely-woven cedar hat, a spear-thrower called an atlatl, and a leather pouch containing edible leaves and the remains of a fish) have now been flown to Whitehorse and put into a freezer room to prevent deterioration. The removal of the body and artifacts from the glacier was accomplished by a team that included forensic anthropologist Owen Beattie of the University of Alberta, as well as Yukon government archaeologists, a glaciologist, an artifact conservator and representatives of the Champagne-Aishihik First Nation (CAFN), in whose traditional territory the discovery was made.

      As is so often the case with such discoveries, CAFN immediately turned the find into a political issue. Spokesman Ron Chambers stated today (Aug. 25) that the discovery proves the long-term use of the land by First Nations people (thus presumably strengthening their position on land claims). CAFN had held up official news of the find for 10 days while government representatives held discussions with CAFN elders regarding possible ways of dealing with the discovery. The elders agreed to a scientific study of the remains and have given him the title of Kwaday Dän Sinchi, meaning "long ago person found". (Artifacts were initially radiocarbon dated to 550 years BP, but that has been revised to ca. 200 years ago based on further radiocarbon dating)

      The Aug. 25 edition of the Yukon News quotes CAFN chief Bob Charlie:

    "The elders have indicated that we should use this situation, what appears to be an ancient tragedy, to learn more about this person, when he lived and how his clothes and tools were made and how he died," said Charlie. This person will have much to tell us, to help us understand our past, and the history of our homeland. We wish to see these human remains treated with dignity and respect and to see the most positive outcome of this long-ago event."
    In fact, the band see the find as more than a cultural boon. It's already planning to tap into research grants that will help pay its members to study the remains.

      The Yukon government has stated that an agreement to turn over artifacts (including bodies) to the First Nations would be honoured. However, the find was made in British Columbia, and the cedar hat, although possibly an item obtained in trade with coastal people, may also be an indication that the ancient hunter lived near the coast, not in the interior, so that statement may be premature. It is entirely possible that the man lived in what is now Alaska (and was just passing through BC on a hunting trip or on his way to the interior), and I expect that the Alaska government will be getting involved very soon. While this is not a case of body theft, if the man can be reasonably assumed to be Tlingit or from an even earlier coastal culture, a repatriation request will likely be forthcoming.

      The have been several other significant discoveries of frozen bodies around the world in recent years, including:

  • In 1991, the body of a hunter who died in the Alps 5,300 years ago was discovered. Named Ötzi, he has been the subject of extensive study, and is now housed in a museum in Italy. There are many related links on this page.
  • The Ice Maiden, possibly a warrior/priestess, was discovered in the Altai Mountains of Siberia in 1993.
  • In 1995, the body of a young girl was discovered in the Peruvian Andes, on the summit of Ampato, a 20,700-foot-high volcano.

News About the Yukon Iceman

(News updated - dead links removed - March 16, 2006)