Travis Mudry, a Canadian miner who works in Canada's Klondike goldfields, was greeted by a drizzle on a June morning. He cut through a wall made of permafrost (or permanently frozen earth) and found his way to the Klondike goldfields. Miners must remove the thick mixture of icy soil to reach the gold deposits in the stream bed streams. This is called placer mining.
A large chunk of frozen earth suddenly popped off the wall. The muck also revealed something unusual: the remains of an animal with short legs and a dark, shiny body. Mudry suspected he had found a mummified baby Buffalo. He began to inspect the creature and noted its skin, fur, and nub of tail. He then spotted a trunk.
Mudry called Brian McCaughan, his boss and chief operating officer at Treadstone Equipment, a family-owned gold mining firm. McCaughan immediately stopped all work after taking one look at the well-preserved baby animal. McCaughan snapped photos of the find, and began to reach out to experts.
Grant Zazula, Yukon's paleontologist and paleontologist opened an email image of the frozen woolly Mammoth, about half an hour later. It was the most complete North American mammal found to date, according a statement. Zazula states that she is beautiful and one of the most remarkable mummified Ice Age animals to be found anywhere in the world.
The problem was that it was June 21st, National Indigenous Peoples Day in Yukon. Zazula was six hours away from Eureka Creek's discovery site, which is just south of Dawson City. (The goldfields are located in the territory of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in, a Yukon First Nation that has been present in the area for thousands of years.
Zazula consulted two geologists to recover the mammoth. One was with the Yukon Geological Survey, the other with the University of Calgary. They raced to the creek and surveyed the area, locating the remains and retrieving them less than an hour before the storm.
Zazula says that if she hadn't been recovered, she would have been lost during the storm.
After being secured, the mammoth could be wrapped in a tarp, and taken to a nearby location where it would be honored by scientists, miners and politicians. The elders blessed the mammoth Nun Cho ga and placed it in a circle. This means "big baby" in Han.
Zazula believes Nun cho ga was a female about one month old at the time she died over 30,000 years ago. According to the geology, the mammoth was likely grazing in the grasslands without trees when she got lost in the mud.
Nun cho ga's preservation is due to her quick death, and the unique place where her last moments were. Most of the fossilized bones of Ice Age animals are gone in most places. Permafrost is a freeze in the Yukon. It preserves soft tissue such as muscle and skin, as well important information like DNA. Miners and researchers in the territory have discovered the well-preserved remains a wolf pup and a caribou calves, as well as other long-deceased animals, over the past decades. Nun cho ga, the first complete baby woolly mammoth in North America and the second in the entire world, will join them.
Dawson City is near the Yukon's center, at the confluence between the Yukon Rivers and Klondike Rivers. To the north, the rugged peaks at Tombstone Territorial Park ("Ddhal Ch'el Cha Nan," or "ragged mountain country" in Han) can be seen. To the south, rolling permafrost landscapes are interwoven with creeks and rivers. It all is surrounded by dense boreal forests of lodgepole pine, white spruce and trembling aspen.
The landscape was very different when Nun cho ga came into the world. Her native territory was both dry and cold. The Wisconsin glaciation, which started between 100,000 and 75,000 years old and ended around 11,000 years later, was at full swing and covered most of Canada with colossal icebergs. However, the Yukon and Alaska's coastal mountains blocked any precipitation, creating rain shadow areas on the land that were too dry for glaciers.
The region was instead used as a refuge for Ice Age animals. Fossilized remains reveal that giant woolly mammoths and steppe bison, giant Yukon horses, and giant beavers inhabited the forestless landscape along with camels and rhinos. Sea levels plummeted to 395 feet due to the Ice Age's growth of glaciers. The Bering Land Bridge was exposed as a link between Asia and North America. This created the ancient landmass Beringia.
Beringia was covered with swathes of wild grasses, forbs, and other small, nutritious plants like buttercups and poppies. Nun cho ga would have been much smaller than her southern counterpart, Columbian mammoth. She would have also been able to adapt to cold weather conditions like smaller ears, furrier bodies, and more time spent on the steppe. Her daily intake of grass and flowers could have reached 440 pounds.
A leading scientific theory states that Indigenous peoples crossed the Bering Land Bridge to begin spreading across North America after Nun cho ga had been frozen in permafrost around 15,000 years ago. According to Tr'ondek Hwech’in creation stories, the First Nation was always in the Yukon. Either way, Dawson City was home to the Tr'ondek Hwech'in's tiny, seasonal fishing community by the middle 19th century.
A group of prospectors, including three Indigenous people and one white person, discovered gold in Rabbit Creek (a tributary to the Klondike River) in August 1896. The Klondike Gold Rush was sparked by the arrival of 30,000 people to the area shortly afterward.
Only about 4,000 of these miners ever found gold. Some found treasure of another kind, however: bones from huge, mythical creatures. The Klondike was visited by scientists from Paris' Natural History Museum in 1904. They were looking for mysterious fossils. They were followed closely by international teams including the American Museum of Natural History (USA Biological Survey), the Smithsonian Institution (USA), and the Canadian Museum of Nature (Canada).
The arrival of the scientists marked the beginning a unique partnership between paleontologists and gold miners that continues to this very day. Placer miners often use heavy equipment and hydraulic water guns to expose gold. Government paleontologists are frequently on-site collecting fossils. Zazula and his associates collect between 6,000-8,000 bones every summer. Zhur, a 7 week-old female wolf pup that died approximately 57,000 years ago, was one of their most important finds. Another is a 700,000.year-old horse bone, which yielded the oldest sequenced genome.
Nun cho ga, a rare find among all of them, is truly unique. Zazula, who measures just over four-and-a-half feet from her tail base to her trunk base, tells CBC News she is "perfect" as well as "beautiful."
He says, "She's got a trunk." She has a tail. She has tiny ears. She can use the trunk's little prehensile end to grab grass.
Nun cho ga is helping to build a better picture of the Ice Age Yukon. She's also helping repair the relationship between Tr'ondek Hwech’in, the traditional stewards, and the miners/scientists who have long claimed the landscape's riches as theirs.
"This is... an extraordinary recovery for our First Nation. We look forward to working with the Yukon government in the next steps of the process to moving forward with these remains, in a manner that honors and respects our traditions, cultures, and laws," said Tr'ondek Chief Roberta Joseph. "We are grateful for the guidance and name provided by elders. Nun cho ga has made the decision to come out to us and we will respect her.
Nun cho ga's next steps are yet to be determined. Her path will be guided by Zhur. She'll be treated with respect and considered a valuable specimen. As the scientific community continues to research Nun cho ga's life and times, Tr'ondek Hwech’in elders will guide the process.
Elder Peggy Kormendy said in the statement, "It's incredible." "It was amazing when they took off the tarp. It is important that we all treat it with respect. It will be powerful, and it will heal."