On a drizzly June morning, Travis Mudry, a miner working in the Klondike goldfields of Canada’s Yukon Territory, dug out a wall of permafrost, or permanently frozen earth. To reach the gold deposits hidden in the stream beds, miners must remove the thick mixture of icy ground, a process known as placer mining.
Suddenly, a large chunk of frozen earth jumped off the wall. With the mud emerged something strange: the remains of a dark, shiny animal with short legs. Suspecting that he had found a mummified baby buffalo, Mudry began to inspect the creature, noting its skin, fur, and tail. Then he spotted a trunk.
Mudry called his boss, Brian McCaughan, managing director and chief operating officer of family-owned gold mining company Treadstone Equipment. Glancing at the baby animal, which was so well preserved it almost looked like it had just died, McCaughan immediately ordered all work to stop. He took some photos of the find and started contacting experts.
A half hour later, Grant Zazula, the Yukon government’s paleontologist, opened an image of the frozen woolly mammoth via email, the most complete found in North America to date, according to a statement. “She is beautiful, one of the most incredible Ice Age mummified animals ever discovered anywhere in the world,” says Zazula.
There was only one problem: it was June 21, National Indigenous Peoples Day, a statutory holiday in the Yukon. And Zazula was in Whitehorse, about six hours from the Eureka Creek discovery site, just south of Dawson City. (The goldfields are within the traditional territory of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, a Yukon First Nation whose presence in the area spans thousands of years.)
To recover the mammoth, Zazula turned to two geologists, one from the Yukon Geological Survey and the other from the University of Calgary. They rushed to the creek, surveying the site and recovering the remains less than an hour before a storm hit.
“[I]If she hadn’t been picked up then, she would have been lost in the storm,” Zazula told CBC News.
Once safe, the mammoth was wrapped in a tarp and brought nearby for a ceremony with scientists, miners, politicians and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in elders. Gathered in a circle, the elders offered a blessing and named the mammoth nun cho ga, which means “big baby animal” in the Hän language.
Based on a cursory examination, Zazula suggests that Nun cho ga is a female who was probably about a month old when she died over 30,000 years ago. The geology of where the mammoth was found indicates that she was probably grazing in the treeless prairie when she strayed from her mother’s side and got stuck in the mud.
Nun cho ga’s state of preservation stems from his quick death and the unique location of his final moments. In most parts of the world, only the fossilized bones of Ice Age creatures remain. But in the Yukon, the permafrost acts like a freezer, preserving soft tissue like muscle, skin and hair, as well as important information like DNA. In recent decades, miners and scholars in the territory have unearthed the well-preserved remains of a wolf cub, a caribou calf, giant camels and other long-dead animals. Now Nun cho ga, the first complete baby woolly mammoth found in North America, and only the second in the world, will join their ranks.
Dawson City is located near central Yukon, at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers. To the north are the rugged peaks of Tombstone Territorial Park (Ddhäl Ch’èl Cha Nän, or “ragged mountain country”, in the Hän language). To the south are rolling landforms of permafrost criss-crossed by rivers and streams. Through it all grows a dense boreal forest of white spruce, lodgepole pine, trembling aspen and willow.
When Nun cho ga was born, the landscape was markedly different. Its home territory was dry and icy. The Wisconsin Ice Age, which began between 100,000 and 75,000 years ago and ended about 11,000 years ago, was in full swing, covering most of Canada with colossal glaciers. But the coastal mountains in the interior of the Yukon and Alaska blocked all precipitation, creating rain shadow areas too dry to support the glaciers.
Instead, the area became a northern refuge for Ice Age animals. Fossilized remains show that giant woolly mammoths, steppe bison, giant beavers and Yukon horses roamed the treeless landscape alongside ancient camels, rhinos and wolves. The growth of glaciers during the Ice Age froze much of the world’s water, causing sea levels to drop more than 395 feet. With this fall, the Bering Land Bridge was exposed, forming a connection between Asia and North America and creating the ancient landmass known as Beringia.
Beringia was covered with strips of wild grasses and herbaceous plants – small, nutritious plants that include delicate tundra flowers like poppies and buttercups. Had Nun cho ga reached adulthood, she would have been smaller than her southern counterpart, the Columbian mammoth. She also reportedly boasted cold-weather adaptations like smaller ears and a furrier body; much of his time (up to 20 hours a day, according to estimates from the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Center in Whitehorse) would have been spent grazing across the steppe, consuming up to 440 pounds of grass and flowers daily.
According to a leading scientific theory, indigenous peoples crossed the Bering land bridge and began dispersing across North America some time after Nun cho ga was frozen into permafrost, possibly 2000 ago. be about 15,000 years old. (Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin creation stories say that the First Nation has always been in the Yukon.) Regardless, by the mid-19th century, the small seasonal fishing village of the Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin was thriving in what is now Dawson City.
In August 1896, a group of prospectors (composed of three Aboriginals and a white man) discovered gold at Rabbit Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River. Soon after, some 30,000 people flocked to the area, sparking the Klondike Gold Rush.
Only about 4,000 of these miners actually discovered gold. But some have found a treasure of a different kind: the bones of enormous fantastical creatures. In 1904, scientists from the Paris Museum of Natural History arrived in the Klondike to collect the mysterious fossils. They were followed by international teams from the United States Biological Survey, the American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Institution and the Canadian Museum of Nature.
The arrival of the scientists marked the beginning of a unique collaboration between gold diggers and paleontologists that continues to this day. While placer miners use heavy equipment and hydraulic water cannons to remove permafrost and expose gold, government paleontologists are often on hand collecting fossils. Each summer, Zazula and her colleagues collect between 6,000 and 8,000 bones. Their most important findings include Zhura 7-week-old wolf that died around 57,000 years ago, and a 700,000-year-old horse bone that yielded what was then the oldest genome ever sequenced.
Even among these rare finds, Nun cho ga is something special. Measuring just over four and a half feet from the base of her tail to the base of her trunk, Zazula tells CBC News that she is “perfect” and “beautiful”.
He adds: “She has a trunk. She has a tail. She has very small ears. She has the small prehensile end of the trunk where she could use it to grab grass. The baby mammoth may be in better condition than Lyuba, a tailless calf found in Siberia in 2017.
While Nun cho ga helps paint a fuller picture of the Yukon Ice Age, it also helps restore the relationship between the Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin, the traditional custodians of the land, and the miners and scientists who have long claimed the riches landscape like theirs.
“This is…a remarkable recovery for our First Nation, and we look forward to working with the Yukon government on the next steps in the process of moving forward with these remains in a way that respects.” our traditions, our culture and our laws,” Trʼondëk said. Hwëchʼin Chief Roberta Joseph in the statement. “We are grateful to the elders who have guided us this far and the name they have given us. We pledge to respectfully treat Nun cho ga as she has now chosen to reveal herself to all of us.
The next steps for Nun cho ga are yet to be decided. If his path follows that of Zhùr, it will be studied with respect and treated as something far more valuable than a scientific specimen. Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin elders will continue to guide the process as the scientific community strives to learn more about Nun cho ga and the time she lived.
“It’s amazing,” Elder Peggy Kormendy said in the statement. “It took my breath away when they took the tarp off. We should all treat it with respect. When it does, it will be powerful and we will heal.