A perfect storm of events has resulted in a unique discovery for a prospector, a First Nation, an accomplished paleontologist, and a territory.
“I don’t know how to handle it all right now, to be honest. It’s amazing,” said Dr. Grant Zazula, Yukon government paleontologist.
Just after noon on June 21, National Indigenous People’s Day, a young miner working in Yukon’s Eureka Creek, south of Dawson City, was digging up mud with a front-end loader when he hit something.
He stopped and called his boss who immediately went to see him.
When he arrived, Brian McCaughan of Treadstone Mining halted the operation on site.
Within half an hour, Zazula received a photo of the find.
According to Zazula, the miner had made the “most important discovery in paleontology in North America.”
It was a very baby woolly mammoth, only the second ever found in the world, and the first in North America.
“She’s got a trunk. She’s got a tail. She’s got little ears. She’s got the small, graspable end of the trunk that she can use to grab the grass,” Zazula said.
“She’s perfect and she’s beautiful.”
The paleontologist began studying the ice age in the Yukon in 1999.
“And this is something I’ve always dreamed of, to see one face to face. This week, that dream really came true.”
For the Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin, on whose land the baby woolly mammoth was found, the discovery was just as important and just as exciting.
“We are all very excited, including the elders and many of the staff and members,” said Debbie Nagano, the heritage director of the government of Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin.
‘She would be lost in the storm’
National Indigenous People’s Day is a legal holiday in Yukon, so when Zazula received the email, he tried to contact anyone he could find in Dawson City who could help.
Two geologists, one with the Yukon Geological Survey and another with the University of Calgary, were able to drive to the creek and recover the baby woolly mammoth and do a full geological description and sampling of the site.
“And the amazing thing is, within an hour of getting there to do the work, the sky opened up, it turned black, lightning started to strike and the rain started pouring,” Zazula said.
“So if she hadn’t recovered by then, she would have been lost in the storm.”
The baby woolly mammoth called nun cho gameaning “large baby animal” in the Hän language of Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin, it is about 140 cm long, which is slightly longer than the other woolly baby mammoth found in Siberia, Russia, in May 2007.
Zazula thinks nun cho ga was probably about 30 to 35 days old when she died. Based on the geology of the site, Zazula believes she died between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago.
“So she died during the last ice age and was found in permafrost,” Zazula said.
He said the geologists who found her saw a piece of the animal’s gut with grass on it.
“So that tells us what she did in the last moments of her life,” Zazula said.
He said the mammoth was probably a few steps from her mother, but ventured a little, ate grass and drank water, and got stuck in the mud.
“And that event, from getting stuck in the mud to being buried, was very, very fast,” he said.
Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in blessing
After nun cho ga was found at the mining site, she was taken to a nearby location where a ceremony was taking place.
Under the leadership of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in elders, about 15 or 16 people – members of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, scientists, miners and politicians – gathered in a circle and prayed as nun cho ga was revealed by the tarp she was wrapped in.
“It was very powerful,” said Nagano, adding that the elders blessed the woolly mammoth.
Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Elder Peggy Kormendy said it took her breath away when the tarp was removed.
“We all have to treat it with respect. When that happens, it will be powerful and we will heal,” she said.
“There will be one thing that stands out in a person’s whole life and I can guarantee you that this is my one and only thing,” said McCaughan of Treadstone Mining.
Paleontologist Michael Caldwell of the University of Alberta, who was not at the ceremony, said he is fascinated by how time can hold such poignant stories.
“It’s kind of a miracle that’s been preserved in the present, a scientific goldmine and just a beautiful thing. To all paleontologists, this is amazing, but for those who work on such things, it’s breathtaking,” he said.
Zazula remains overwhelmed by the finding.
“It will take days and weeks and months for it to sink in and it will take days and weeks and months to work with Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in to decide what to do and learn from it.”