Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

A Human History of the Arctic World

The passage below is from The Last Imaginary Place by Robert McGhee. Harper’s Magazine accurately describes McGhee’s book as “enthralling.”

I once spent a few hours in the Ice Age. It was a brilliant July day, the sun’s heat comfortably tempered by
a cool wind sweeping down from the frozen ocean beyond the ranges to the north. We were sitting in the
sunny mouth of a small cave, at the base of a limestone outcrop that protruded like an eroded molar from
the hills of the northern Yukon. My friend Jacques Cinq-Mars had discovered Bluefish Cave, and had spent
several summers here carefully excavating the bones of ancient animals and the preserved traces of early
human activities. Listening to him talk about the place, I idly surveyed the view to the valley below us, and
the distant Old Crow Flats sprinkled with shining lakes and veined with channels of running water. It was
the same landscape that had been scanned from this lookout by hunters who lived here 20,000 and more
years ago, when the view included wandering herds of mammoths, horses and muskoxen as well as the
caribou that can still be seen surging over these flats during their annual migrations. The past and present
slide together at Bluefish Cave, a place where so little has changed that it seems the ancient past might be
glimpsed out of the corner of your eye.

The ice age that gripped the earth some tens of thousands of years ago holds a continuing fascination
because it was an alien world, and yet it existed where many of us live today. It is easier to imagine ice age
conditions when one is at Bluefish Cave than when one is in the valley of the Thames or the Rhine, or on
the shores of Lake Ontario, yet we know that these southern places once had Arctic-like environments
resembling that of the northern Yukon today. These environments are part of the history of most human
populations; they were the homelands of our ancestors at a time when they were developing most of the
characteristics that we think of as truly human. The allure of the Arctic may be linked to this fascination
with the Ice Age. Perhaps it is not too implausible to suggest that we see in the Arctic a lost but somehow
still familiar ancient world that we once knew well, but from which we have become separated by hundreds
of generations of trial and effort in a world of constant change and increasing complexity.

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