Scientists from the Canadian Conservation Institute have discovered the earliest evidence of the use of castoreum in the making of weapons. The castoreum, a product sourced from the anal castor sacs of beavers, was found during the analysis of a 6,000-year-old throwing dart, unearthed back in 2018 in southern Yukon, Canada. “Our ancestors were connected to the land, the water, and the animals in our Traditional Territories,” stated Chief Doris Bill of Kwanlin Dün First Nation . “They understood how to use the things around them to design complex and ingenious tools, like the atlatl.”
Finding the Yukon Throwing Dart in the Ice
The artifact at the center of the current media frenzy is an ancient atlatl, or throwing dart. This 6,000-year-old specimen was discovered near Alligator Lake in southern Yukon, located in northwestern Canada bordering Alaska.
The Yukon throwing dart was discovered in melting alpine ice within an area of overlapping indigenous territories which belong to the Carcross/Tagish and the Kwanlin Dün First Nations , two groups of Canadian indigenous people . The area is known to have hosted caribou and sheep over thousands of years, which of course attracted indigenous hunters.
The tools and weapons used by indigenous peoples of the past have been preserved in the ice at sites like this. As ice melts, it exposes these well conserved artifacts, providing windows into ancient history. This throwing dart was the first fully intact artifact to be found in the Yukon. “I think that’s where the true value lies — in being able to have that fully intact piece of history,” declared Jennifer Herkes of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation in a CBC article published at the time of the discovery.
Analyzing the Unique Yukon Throwing Dart
At just over 2 meters (6.6 ft) in length, the Yukon throwing dart is made up of three different birch wood sections. At one end there is a chert point which has been secured into place with sinew. The other end still has the original feathers in place, attached to the wood with sinew wrapping. According to Sci News , “it is the most complete example of an atlatl-type dart recovered from an ice patch to date.”
A Kwanlin Dün First Nation press release explains that during analysis the Yukon Museums Conservator, Valery Monahan, noticed “an unusual orange residue coating the sinews and wood at locations where different parts of the artifact were bound together.” This paved the way for a research study from the Canadian Conservation Institute, led by Kate Helwig and Jennifer Poulin, published in June 2021 in the Journal of Archaeological Science .
The scientist originally thought that the residue was possibly a “red ochre or an ochre-pigmented adhesive,” but further analysis unveiled its true ingredients. Surprisingly the residue was actually castoreum, a component secreted by beavers who use it to mark their territory and to waterproof their fur. This means that indigenous First Nations of Canada were using castoreum harvested from beavers to make hunting weapons as long as 6,000 years ago.
While the use of beaver castoreum for many purposes by First Nations in Canada is common knowledge, in this particular case they are unsure if it was used on the throwing dart as “preservative, an adhesive or to add color,” claims an article in Nelson Star . In reference to the research report, Kwanlin Dün First Nation Chief Doris Bill stated: “Shä̀w níthän [Thank you] 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 use of beaver castoreum isn’t new. Throughout history it has been harvested by humans. ( Krzysztof Wiktor / Adobe Stock)
Is Castoreum Still Used Today?
In 2013, National Geographic published an article entitled “Beaver Butts Emit Goo Used for Vanilla Flavoring.” This caused quite a storm on the internet. Termed “the beaver butt secretion” by Mental Floss , Castoreum “smells really good,” or at least that’s the opinion of Joanna Crawford, a wildlife ecologist.
Castoreum is said to smell a bit like “an odorous combination of vanilla and raspberry with floral hints.” The smell of this anal secretion helps beavers, who don’t have the best sight, to recognize family members. Throughout history, beaver hunters and fur trappers have even baited beavers using castoreum.
In fact, castoreum has been used for a wide range of purposes over time, including the Romans who incorrectly believed that its fumes caused abortions. Other medicinal uses saw castoreum as a headache treatment, and it has also been used as a fixative in perfume production. Another National Geographic article stresses that the heavy exploitation of beavers after the colonization of North America pushed the species to the edge of extinction in North America by the end of the 19th century.
In 2016, the HuffPost clarified that castoreum has been classified as a “natural flavoring” by the FDA and has been used “for at least 80 years as a replacement for vanilla and in some fruit flavorings such as strawberry and raspberry.” These days however, with the increase in more “humane” rules and regulations relating to the treatment of animals, harvesting castoreum involves aestheticizing and milking beavers to use their sweet-smelling butt juice. This makes it an expensive product to work with and so the reality is that it is only consumed in low quantities as a food flavoring.
The recent finding of castoreum on the throwing dart from Yukon represents “the first chemical identification of castoreum in the archaeological record,” claims the Journal of Archaeological Science article.
It also highlights the urgent need for archaeological explorations in the Arctic as climate change affects the temperatures which for so long have preserved artifacts like this one in the ice. “Our lands hold many secrets and insights into the past,” said Chief Lynda Dickson of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation . “Unearthing and studying these findings is valuable not just from a scientific and historic perspective, but culturally.”
Top image: Detail of the 6,000-year-old throwing dart discovered in Yukon, Canada. Source: Yukon Government
By Cecilia Bogaard