Archaeologists have identified castoreum — a substance harvested from the castor sacs of beavers — as a component of the design and construction of an ancient throwing dart from Yukon, Canada.
The 6,000-year-old segmented dart was found in 2018 at one of a complex of heritage sites in a mountain top area near Alligator Lake, southern Yukon, in the overlapping traditional territories of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation and the Kwanlin Dün First Nation.
At just over 2 m (6.6 feet) in length, this remarkable artifact consists of three sections of birch wood beveled at the joints and tied together with sinew binding.
The distal end of the shaft includes a chipped, chert point secured with sinew wrapping. The proximal end shows preserved feather fletching, with three elaborately prepared feathers bound to the wood with sinew wrapping as well as with sinew ties threaded through piercings along their central shafts.
It is the most complete example of an atlatl-type dart recovered from an ice patch to date.
The artifact was examined by a research team led by Canadian Conservation Institute scientists Kate Helwig and Jennifer Poulin.
They found an unusual orange residue coating the sinews and wood at locations where different parts of the dart were bound together.
“An orange to red residue is visible in two distinct areas of the dart: first, on the proximal end near the feather fletching and, second, at one of the two scarf joints,” they said.
“Based on its color and on the results of earlier research, we suspected that the residue was red ochre or an ochre-pigmented adhesive.”
However, the analysis revealed the residue to be castoreum, harvested from the castor sacs of butchered beavers.
The finding represents the earliest evidence of castoreum use in the fabrication of weaponry and the first chemical identification of this material in the archaeological record.
“Our ancestors were connected to the land, the water, and the animals in our Traditional Territories,” said Kwanlin Dün First Nation Chief Doris Bill.
“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.”
“Our lands hold many secrets and insights into the past,” said Carcross/Tagish First Nation Haa Sha du Hen 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. Gunalchéesh to the people helping keep us connected to our ancestors.”