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Blogging Arctic Alaska's Ice Age, one bone at a time

It’s no secret that the Northwest Arctic is a gold mine when it comes to discovering remnants of the past. Especially when it comes to finding ice-age-era animal bones.

But recently National Park Service archeologist Jon Hardes starting blogging about finds in the area to keep residents engaged in the cause. He’s using the online forum to put a call out to locals who find old bones to bring them in to his office for identification.

The shoreline, tundra and beaches are fossil-rich areas, Hardes said last week.

“This is a perfect way to encourage more folks to bring in what they have found so we can share it everyone else,” he said.

The general Park Service blog is a mish-mash of scientific endeavors in the area, but Hardes’ posts are specific to bones.

These days Hardes spends a lot of time in his office doing research, lab work and writing papers -- scientist stuff -- and doesn’t venture out into field as often as he’d like. But hunters, gatherers and adventurers are outside all the time and may have a better chance of spotting fossils.

The field season in Kotzebue for scientists is generally from June to September, with a few days at a time spent outside -- a few weeks if he’s lucky. That doesn’t leave much time to scour the area for, and collect, these windows to the region’s past.

One of Hardes’ major office tasks is writing compliance reports for scientists coming to the area from Outside before they are allowed to traipse around on the land. It’s important work, but it’s the artifacts he really loves. And the more he can get his hands on from locals, the better.

Recently, Hardes wrote a couple of different blog entries about bones found in the area.

The first, skull bones from a prehistoric horse, is not that uncommon, but the second, a short-faced bear jaw, is a little more rare in the area. Hardes and his cohorts are also in the process of excavating and studying some mammoth bones found on the Seward Peninsula. Mammoths, too, are common.

In general, Hardes said, grazers outnumber carnivores by quite a bit due to a much larger population of herd animals, like horses.

On his most recent blog post, Hardes featured a description and photos of the old bear bones.

“The preservation is amazing and it was pretty much found right outside of town,” Hardes said.

With a “tremendous overlap” of species, Hardes sees fossilized caribou bones from time to time as well. Bison roamed tens of thousands of years ago, as they do now. Wolves, too. Though, he said, he’s generally interested in mammals that are now extinct.

So why did some die off and some stick around? “That’s the million … dollar question,” Hardes said.

Climate shift is a theory and a change in vegetation, though that doesn’t answer why some were able to adapt and others perished. Then there’s the question of human intervention.

“I don’t subscribe to overkill by humans,” he said. “Climate change is the best guess.”

Once bones are brought to Hardes, he can find out things like sex, diet and perhaps even how it died. But archeologists in the region are at a disadvantage because they don’t have large collections to compare new findings to past ones. And that’s often how a species or body parts are identified -- by holding the specimen next to other bones.

“In Kotzebue, I rely on people to send in photos ahead of time, so I can do a little research.”

The bear jaw was a no-brainer. It doesn’t look like anything else, Hardes said. And a modern brown bear is only about two-thirds the size of the prehistoric behemoth.

There are usually useful clues left on the bones to help with identification. Skulls are easier to pinpoint and teeth are very species-specific, he said.

There is one bone that Hardes has been unable to identify. It was brought to him by a Kotzebue resident and vaguely resembles a bird’s beak, though after sending photos to colleagues, everyone is stumped.

So Hardes is working on building up a small, local collection of his own to help aid in identifying future finds. But he’s asking for help from locals through the blog.

One recent finding that is not posted on blog was mammoth bones found in the Bering Land Bridge Preserve on the Seward Peninsula.

The process of uncovering the findings is still in its infant stages, though Hardes is excited by what he’s seen so far. The gargantuan bones were discovered by ecologists working in the area. They saw a bird sitting on what looked like a tree stump near a lake. But quickly realized there shouldn’t be tree stumps in the area. And thus, the mammoth was revealed. The service is working on securing funding and experts to continue work on the site this summer.

Hardes noted that the term “fossil” is pretty generic. It means that the bone has been petrified or mineralized but the term is often used to describe very old -- 10,000 years old or older -- bones. And staying true to his archeology roots, Hardes is always looking for signs of human interaction or manipulation on the bones he sees.

“Most of my living has been made on true-blue archeology sites,” said Hardes, who moved to Kotzebue from Montana a little over a year ago.

But these days, he’s taking on more paleontological aspects with his job at the National Park Service.

“I am privileged to live in a part of the world where animal bones abound on the landscape,” Hardes wrote on the blog. “I am also fortunate to reside in a community that not only possesses an intense interest in these finds but that often expresses an eagerness to share them with me.”

For more on Hardes’ findings, click here.

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.