10,000 years ago, groups of people climbed the mountains of the Alps to search for rock crystal with which to make tools. The melting of the alpine glaciers caused by climate change is revealing objects that provide valuable information about the men and women who inhabited the area in the past. The main one, according to Marcel Cornelissen, head of an archaeological expedition carried out in early September on the edge of the Brunnifirn glacier (canton of Uri, Switzerland) is that, contrary to what was thought, “the Mesolithic people were not afraid of mountains ”.
A rift discovered by thawing in 2013 in the Swiss mountain of Oberalpstock has revealed “blades or arrowheads” that reveal that both hunters and gatherers of the Middle Stone Age and Neolithic farmers and shepherds used rock crystal as raw material to make their tools, explains Cornelissen in an interview with EL PAÍS.
Although no archaeologist celebrates the thaw produced by the increase in temperatures, global warming opens a door for them to learn more about history through tools that had been protected for thousands of years by ice. However, time is running against them, because many of these treasures, “especially those made with organic materials such as fabrics or leather,” could disappear when exposed to the elements, says Cornelissen.
And the possibilities of extracting them are very limited. On his last expedition, in early September, financed by the Department of Conservation of Monuments and Archeology of the Canton of Uri, Cornelissen’s team had to wait for the weather to be adequate and stable enough to have “a helicopter that could transport the extracted material.” “The preparation is tough because not only do you have to be ready to go out when the weather permits, but you also have to have a highly specialized team to work”, in this case, at a height of 2,800 meters, on the edge of the glacier in Brunnifirn, which since 1882 has lost a length of 1,153 meters, according to GLAMOS, a network made up of several Swiss universities that studies glaciers.
During the three days of work that the expedition lasted, the Swiss team extracted a thousand kilos of sand that is being processed in the laboratory of the Alpine Institute of Culture. And the work will be arduous, says Cornelissen: “Working with the Mesolithic is complicated because many times we find pieces between one and three centimeters”.
Discoveries in the ice
Finds protected for millennia by ice have made it possible to reconstruct small pieces of the most remote past. Ötzi, the prehistoric mummy found by chance in the Alps in 1991, continues to shed new data on the man’s way of life murdered by a crush in the back about 5,300 years ago.
In the Norwegian glaciers, at the Lendbreen Pass, archaeologists have just discovered a mountainous port that they believe the Vikings used as a trade route for found objects, such as sleds, gloves and even snowshoes. And under the ice in Mongolia’s Bayan-Ulgii province, researchers have found intact animal spears, antlers and tendons for making Bronze Age bows.
In addition to objects from thousands of years ago, the melting of glaciers has exposed the bodies of people trapped for decades in the ice. In 2016, an employee of the Matterhorn cable cars in the Swiss Alps found the frozen bodies of the married couple Marcelin and Francine Dumoulin, who disappeared in 1942, on the Tsanfleuron glacier.
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