Tuesday, August 04, 2009

On Ice! Bodies from the Ice: Melting Glaciers and the Recovery of the Past by James M. Deem

It seems that the earth's vanishing glaciers, having given mankind great rivers, awe-inspiring vistas, and a respect for nature's power and force, have a parting gift for us as they retreat worldwide--glimpses into human history from the mummified remains they have preserved.

James M. Deem's Bodies from the Ice: Melting Glaciers and the Recovery of the Past (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) begins with the story of Erika and Helmut Simon, devoted mountain hikers, who in 1991 spotted an unusual object in the melting Alpine snow on the Italian-Austrian border.

...they noticed something unexpected in the slushy ice of a rocky gully. At first Helmut thought it was trash left behind by a careless hiker. But as they approached, his wife realized what they had stumbled upon.

"It's a person," she said.

They stopped a few feet away.

In front of them a body lay face-down in a patch of melting ice.... The rest of the corpse was encased in what was left of the glacial ice.

Drawing closer, they found what they recognized to be the well-preserved body of a man, skin, eyes, and teeth intact, protruding from the slush. Their discovery proved to be, not as first thought, a recent victim of the harsh terrain on the slopes of Finail and Similaun Mountains--the body was indeed that of a man who had died 5,300 years ago, a body which had been surprisingly preserved by the confluence of conditions of weather and terrain around the spot where he died.

Nicknamed Otzi (pronounced Ootzie), the mummy and surrounding artifacts yielded much information about human life in the Copper Age. Otzi had carried an ax, still functional, made from a yew branch with a copper blade, a long bow, a knapsack framed with wood, had worn complexly fashioned clothing and shoes, and displayed 59 tattoos all over his body, proving that "body art" is nothing new to our kind. Murder, it seems, is also nothing novel: DNA analysis, forensic examination, and samples of blood found on his clothing shows him to have been a local, the victim of some sort of violent struggle with four other humans, who mortally wounded him with an arrow, broke his ribs, left defensive wounds on the bones of his hands and forearms, and finally struck a blow to his head which ended his life, in a pre-historic Mafia-style killing. Otzi's body, now preserved in a man-made igloo at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, continues to yield invaluable information about the diet, lifestyle, and health of humans living in Europe long before the pyramids were built.

Deems goes on to describe other human remains revealed by the withdrawal of glaciers, including the "Ice Maidens" and the "The Prince of El Plomo," children chosen for sacrifice by the Incas over 500 years ago in the Andes Mountains, the mummy named Kwaday Dan Ts'inchi by the local Indians, found in British Columbia and thought to have been encased in the glacier for hundreds of years, and the preserved body of Mt. Everest climber George Mallory, presumably killed and buried in ice after a fall in 1924.

The author ties all of these fascinating finds together with the one thing all of these disparate humans came to have in common--the fact that their remains have been revealed by the retreat of Earth's great glaciers. Because of rapid climate change, from whatever cause, Deems predicts that the most of the glaciers of North, Central, and South America, Africa, and Europe's Alps will be gone within this century. This loss is more than one of scenic views, he points out, since many vital rivers and underground aquifers, including, for example, the sacred Ganges River, fed by the Himalayan ice, will also vanish with them.

But for forensic anthropologists, the death of the glaciers is also a window into life on earth in earlier times, and as the ice melts, we may learn much more about those who have shared life on this planet with us. Deems' appendix includes glaciers to visit (while they're still there), suggested web sites on glaciers and the "icemen" found there (for example, find out more about Otzi here), an extensive bibliography, and an index.

James M. Deem is also the author of Bodies from the Bog, and Bodies From the Ash: Life and Death in Ancient Pompeii, which also earned starred reviews for the highly readible text and arresting photographs which make archaeology come alive for middle readers. For further facts on fascinating frozen finds, see Owen Beattie's account of the permafrost-preserved lost seekers of the Northwest Passage, Buried In Ice: A Time Quest Book, and Richard Stone's Mammoth: The Resurrection of an Ice Age Giant.

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  • Wow, he misses the obvious--the extent of the glaciers must be relatively modern.

    So what glacier size, and temperature, is normal?

    By Blogger Joe, at 9:32 PM  

  • Glaciers are not static! They flow, but slowly, pushing the older parts toward the sea, where they break off and/or melt along the way. There is simply no need to invoke AGW to account for this. It is very sad that so much AGW propaganda is so often added by Al Gore's puppets to otherwise very interesting news stories like this one.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:48 PM  

  • I don't understand. Why did all these ancient types dig themselves so deeply into the ice? I mean, since it's warmer now than ever before, and the glaciers have never been smaller than they are now....

    By Blogger orthodoc, at 10:00 PM  

  • Glaciers in Antarctica are actually growing. I guess future archaeologists will have to find them when Earth returns to its usual average temperature of 22 degrees.

    By Blogger Dave, at 10:20 PM  

  • "the sacred Ganges river"

    This multi-culti baloney is getting too deep. The corpse-laden, feces-filled ganges is not sacred to me.

    How about "the Ganges, sacred to hundreds of millions of Hindus,"?

    I bet you 1 ounce of gold that if you were writing about a location sacred to some white-skinned Europeans you wouldn't even think of putting the word "sacred" near the name.

    Why no, I am also not a member of the AGW cult either, how did you guess?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:44 PM  

  • Quiz question: How many glaciers are there in Alaska?

    Answer: 100,000 or more.

    By Blogger rdasher, at 11:26 PM  

  • Heh.

    some well-meaning but clueless twit gets a big smackdown for simply regurgitating Holy Writ about Global Warming.


    And oh yes, that scared Ganges. It's an open sewer, is what it is. I've been up close and personal at its edge numerous times, all the way from Benares to Calcutta, and NO River in North America, or Europe,. is anywhere remotely as polluted.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:05 AM  

  • Your many cynical and acerbic remarks have cheered me greatly this evening.

    By Blogger Chip Ahoy, at 1:36 AM  

  • Hey now... Don't knock the Sacred Ganges. Sure, it's filled with feces... but they assure me, it's all Holy Cr@p.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:12 AM  

  • "booksforkids" includes this clever and funny AGW fairy tale for kids.

    The author cleverly sets up parallels between the 'sacred Ganges' and 'sacred AGW' - Brilliant !

    The open sewer of AGW doth stinketh. Yet it's delusional followers continue to wade in it and submerge themselves in it. Too funny!

    By Anonymous sofa, at 4:21 AM  

  • Glaciers are dying? Umm, no. These may advance, or retreat, but these never die. Global warming is a hoax - don't fall for it!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:24 AM  

  • What crap! Don't get this book unless you want a bunch of wrong information for your kids.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:13 AM  

  • Climate changes so quickly where I am that just two hours ago I was in total darkness and now light exists all around me!

    By Anonymous Kerry, at 6:19 AM  

  • When it was discovered that the seafloor is relatively young, some people figured it was "proof" of the age of the Earth. Then an enterprising young Navy kid noticed that the seafloor was also "striped" magnetically - a strip of basalt with minerals aligned with one pole, then a strip of basalt with minerals aligned with the other - and also symmetrically, with the mid-oceanic trenches where the symmetry apparently began. (I'm recreating this scientific tale from memory, so I hope I don't get it too wrong!)

    The explanation of the mechanism for seafloor spreading arose from this discovery, and suddenly everything popped into focus: the seafloor is like two big conveyor belts. New seafloor is born at the trenches; the oldest seafloor dives under the continental plates at land's edge, pushing the plates around but unable to "sink" them and take over the world (AH-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!!). Therefore the oldest seafloor is still not all that old.

    Glaciers: same same. Or similar similar, at any rate. The oldest glacial ice is still not all that old, because a glacier is always moving, melting at the toe, growing at the head, rolling along like a - well, a river of ice, as indeed it is. Whether it gets smaller is a result of negative NET growth, not "shrinking" in the sense of the whole thing's getting smaller all at once.

    And the earth has been entirely without icecaps at various times. So what makes THIS climate THE climate? Humans evolved in a colder time, after all. Now, we ARE pretty reliant on things as they are now, but seeing as how things don't tend to stay as they are now, perhaps we ought to be putting our efforts into adaptability rather than a static state we CANNOT achieve.

    I give the author credit for the statement, "Because of rapid climate change, from whatever cause..." ()It's still received wisdom; where's the evidence for the relative rapidity? But at least the "A" part of "AGW" is missing.)

    By Blogger Jamie, at 7:28 AM  

  • kerry - lol. "the sacred darkness died".

    By Anonymous sofa, at 7:46 AM  

  • global lighting, from whatever source, killed the sacred darkness; exposing people who had been hidden for a long time !

    By Anonymous sofa, at 7:51 AM  

  • Thanks for the review. The book's topic is intriguing, however as a science educated person I will not subject my offspring to AGW propaganda disguised as a science book for kids.

    By Anonymous philw1776, at 8:25 AM  

  • I live on the sacred Mississippi River in the holy land called Missouri. Ironically, many thousands of years ago there were glaciers right here in my home state. I guess all the industrial smog and interstate congestion of the Ice Age caused those glaciers to melt too.

    The subject of bodies getting dumped out of glaciers is quite fascinating, but to politicize the cause is infuriating.

    By Anonymous Brian King, at 10:12 AM  

  • FYI: Technically, we are now in an ice age - defined as permanent polar ice caps. This period we are now in, for the last 11,000 years or so, is called an "inter-glacial" period - because we are between periods of extended glaciation. Note that periods of extended glaciation (i.e., an ice age) is the NORM. We are several thousand years overdue for the next ice age ...

    By Anonymous Webspinner, at 10:23 AM  

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