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DISCOVERY PUBLICIZED – A new study has found beaver castoreum was used in the design and construction of a 6,000-year-old Yukon atlatl throwing dart. Photo courtesy GOVERNMENT OF YUKON

Strong-smelling substance used in construction of atlatl throwing dart

A new study has identified beaver castoreum as a component of the design and construction of a 6,000-year-old Yukon atlatl-throwing dart.

By Whitehorse Star on June 15, 2021

A new study has identified beaver castoreum as a component of the design and construction of a 6,000-year-old Yukon atlatl-throwing dart.

The study was led by Kate Helwig and Jennifer Poulin at the Canadian Conservation Institute.

As far as the authors know, this is the first instance where castoreum has been identified in an ancient archaeological context.

The two-metre-long artifact was discovered melting free from alpine ice in the traditional territories of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation (C/TFN) and the Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) in the fall of 2018.

“Our ancestors were connected to the land, the water, and the animals in our traditional territories,” Tourism and Culture Minister Ranj Pillai said Monday.

“They understood how to use the things around them to design complex and ingenious tools, like the atlatl.

“Shä̀w níthän to all of the people who worked together to bring this ancient technology into the light so our people can continue to learn from the knowledge of our ancestors.”

The research study began when Valery Monahan, the Yukon Museums Conservator and study co-author, found an unusual orange residue coating the sinews and wood at locations where different parts of the artifact were bound together.

Analysis of these residues showed the substance was castoreum, a secretion beavers use to scent-mark their territory.

Whether this substance was being applied as a preservative, an adhesive or a colourant is not known, but the use of beaver products by First Nations people in the subarctic North is renowned.

Similar studies of Yukon ice patch artifacts have previously identified a mix of spruce resin and red ochre applied as an adhesive.

“This discovery demonstrates yet again the sophisticated knowledge Yukon’s ancient First Nations people had about their environment, lands and resources,” the government said in a statement.

“This knowledge allowed them to use a dynamic suite of materials to create and maintain the technologies that sustained them throughout the year.”

Working in partnership with the six First Nations within whose traditional territories the ice patches are located has yielded unprecedented findings of ancient hunting tools and artifacts, the government said.

These discoveries have led to a greater understanding of the Yukon’s past.

“The study’s finding is testament to the incredible preservation of these artifacts and the information they hold, and illustrates just how much there is still to learn about how Yukon’s first peoples lived,” the government said. 

“Our lands hold many secrets and insights into the past,” said C/TFN Chief Lynda Dickson.

“Unearthing and studying these findings is valuable not just from a scientific and historic perspective, but culturally.

“Walking hand-in-hand with the land, water and wildlife is the history of our people. Their resourcefulness and ingenuity continue to impress and teach us,” Dixon said.

“Gunalchéesh to the people helping keep us connected to our ancestors.”

The Yukon Ice Patch Research Project is a collaborative initiative among the government, the C/TFN, KDFN, Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, Kluane First Nation, Ta’an Kwäch’än Council and the Teslin Tlingit Council.

Castoreum is a secretion produced in the castor sacs of beavers and is used to mark their territory.

Comparative modern castoreum samples were provided by Peter Knamiller of the territorial Department of Environment.

The site where this artifact was found is on Canada’s Tentative List of sites to be nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Throwing darts, which were thrown using a lever-like handle, were the preferred hunting projectile used by First Nations people in the Yukon before the 7th century AD.

They were locally replaced as a hunting weapon by bows and arrows around 847 AD.

Helwig, Monahan, Poulin and Jennifer Herkes will deliver a Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre science talk about the paper at 11 a.m. Thursday, livestreamed from the centre’s Facebook page.

Comments (6)

Up 4 Down 7

Patti Eyre on Jun 18, 2021 at 10:48 am

@Max the connection to the land isn't mystical at all. If you don't understand it, just say you don't understand it, you don't have to cast aspersions just because you don't understand something.

Up 7 Down 4

george on Jun 17, 2021 at 10:58 am

@ nathan.. pretty sure we all lived off the land 6000 years ago. But then again were not really sure are we.

Up 9 Down 1

Groucho d'North on Jun 17, 2021 at 9:34 am

More fuel for the critics who appear to know more than those who study these matters. It's a common thing when new discoveries are made, speculation is driven by various interpretations of the new-found evidence.
I am excited by these new discoveries melting out of the ancient ice as they provide solid data on the peoples of the past.
For example: The tremendous work related to Kwädąy Dän Ts’ìnchį is now available on-line and tells a facinating tale of one man's travels from the coast to the interior and the artifacts he carried and perhaps how they were made. The hunting points and similar artifacts found among the volumes of caribou poop on the mountain slopes also tells an engaging tale of the past, we just have to learn to understand it properly. I hope this good work will continue for the benefit of us all.

Up 6 Down 8

Nathan Living on Jun 16, 2021 at 2:48 pm

Interesting find and they could perhaps use castoreum in a few experiments to see how it may have been used.

First Nations lived off the land, a very profound existence 6000 years ago.

Up 5 Down 4

NickyB on Jun 15, 2021 at 7:09 pm

We can see how beaver castoreum might have been used as a preservative, adhesive or a colourant in construction of an atlatl throwing dart.

How beaver castoreum might have been used in the "design" as claimed, is not explained or clearly stated. Does this design claim imply that beaver castoreum might have been ingested for design inspiration perhaps?
Whoever used the term "design" in this context should explain what they mean.

Up 15 Down 4

Max Mack on Jun 15, 2021 at 6:24 pm

So, the "scientists" don't know why castoreum was used in this case - or even how the castoreum came to be be applied - which appears to be an isolated instance involving an atlatl.

And yet, the politicians and FN reps have already jumped on this by concluding that this is evidence of some secret ancient knowledge that proves some deep and mystical connection to the land.
Speculation is not science. But, I guess whatever sounds good.

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