The Klondike Bone Rush

“Stampeders” Pose with Mammoth Tusks (Weighing 125 and 200 lbs Each) at Sulphur Creek (c. 1900). [Source: MacBride Museum/Yukon News]

The thing about gold rushes is that they all have one thing in common…

Most people go home disappointed.

Out of the 100,000 who made the trek between 1897 and 1899 up to the Klondike region of the Yukon Territory, only a couple hundred struck it rich. However, while all prospectors may have not found a lot of gold, some got quite the surprise instead. Many fortune seekers discovered fossilized remains of various ice age-era beasts. In the same way that the American gold rushes of the mid 1800s greatly benefited dinosaur paleontology, the thirst for gold in northwestern Canada jump-started ice age paleontology. These artifacts went on to help shape our conception of the last glacial period (roughly 120,000 years ago to 11,500 years ago) and continues to do so today.

Yukon in the Ice Age


Map of Beringia. [Source]

While most of Canada was buried beneath a sea of ice (that was several kilometers thick!) during the Ice Age, the area that would become the Yukon Territory was part of Beringia, an expanse of ice-free land that once connected Siberia to Alaska. This land bridge not only made human migration from Asia into North America possible, but mammal migration as well. As a result, before Beringia was completely flooded when the sea levels rose at the end of the Ice Age during the glacial melt around 10,000 years ago, this area was home to a variety of ancient creatures. Everything from massive Woolly Mammoths, to giant ground sloths, to Yukon camels,* and more roamed the land. Scientists believe that megafauna thrived until climate change and over-hunting by humans ultimately led to their  extinction.

* Fun Fact: Camels originated in North America. They migrated across the land bridge into Asia.

Learn more about Ice Age creatures on the fantastic Yukon/Beringia Interactive Centre website.

There Be Bones in Them There Hills

Hopeful prospectors make their way up the Chikoot Pass (c. 1897-1898). In a letter written to her family at home, Rebecca Schuldrenfrei wrote about her journey over the Chilkoot Pass. “No living being who has not gone over it can actually imagine or anticipate what it really is.” [Source]

Mining 45 feet underground (c. 1897-1898) [Source]

Mining operations in a Klondike gold field (c. 1897-1898) [Source]

Although the discovery of gold happened in 1896, the area was so remote that the Klondike Gold Rush didn’t really get underway until 1897, when the news finally made headlines around the world. A stampede of fortune seekers from all over began to make their way to Canada’s far northwest. Traveling up there took months; the vast majority came by steamship since there were no real roads or rails leading up to the Klondike at this time. Once a prospector arrived, it was then a harrowing journey by foot or on horse up the steep mountain pass. This was then followed by a three week trip down the Yukon River, before arriving in Dawson.

Given the variety of life that was supported in Ice Age-era Yukon, prospectors found all sorts of fossils as they pan for gold. However, it should be no surprise that it was the discovery of mammoth bones that got everyone excited. “Klondike gold marked the beginning of large-scale geological exploration and research about the mammoth,” (Cohen, 191). Canadian and American scientists led their own expeditions to the Klondike to search for fossils. The dream was to bring a mammoth or mastodon skeleton or a mummified creature back to a museum. This was not an unattainable goal thanks to the Yukon’s unique topography. Permafrost (ground that stays frozen year-round) is an important aspect of Ice Age paleontology. When ancient animals died, some were instantly frozen and thus perfectly preserved. It’s not rare for paleontologists (in 1897 or 2017) to come across frozen remains with intact fur, skin, tissue, and muscles. The high level of preservation makes it possible for information to be gleamed about the creatures’ age, eating habits, and overall health. Geneticists also can use the ancient DNA to learn how different species were related and about their migration patterns.

Three prospectors pose with a mammoth (not mastodon) skull recovered from Quartz Creek during the Gold Rush (c. 1898). [Source]

A remnant of an ancient horse jaw more than 700,000 years old. Recovered from the Thistle Creek site in the Yukon, this fragment yielded the genome of an ancient relative of modern-day horses. [Source]

Blue Babe, a 36,000-year-old mummified male steppe bison (extinct). Note: Blue Babe was not found in the Klondike (rather it was found north of Fairbanks, Alaska), but look at that preservation! [Source]

Modern Ice Age Paleontology and the  Black Market

“Gold miners regularly uncover fossils while blasting away loess (a muddy substance) to expose bedrock.” [Source]

Preparing a 20,000-year-old mammoth skull for display. [Source]

Gold and bones are still intertwined today in the Yukon as the mining and fossil industries work hand-in-hand. A good mining season generally results in 50,000 ounces of nuggets and gold dust as well as 2,000 fossil pieces. Miners use high-powered water jets to blast through to the bedrock where gold is trapped. In doing this, preserved fossils are revealed along the way. Miners frequently call paleontologists to come down to the mines to collect fossils—many of which are can be seen on display in museums both in the Yukon and around the world.

Unfortunately, modern excavation has also led to the rise of black market, of sorts, for Ice Age fossils. The most popular item? Mammoth tusks. As governments around the world ban the sale of ivory, traders have resorted to selling mammoth ivory for thousands of dollars. Marketed as “ethical ivory,” this black market not only risks depriving paleontologists of scientific evidence, but according to Maclean’s “this booming trade has also created cover for nefarious traders who pass off elephant ivory as coming from mammoths.” Things like stricter controls on the mammoth tusk trade and all-out bans on ivory regardless of origin (like the ones New York and New Jersey have) can help limit this illegal trade. However, given the numerous remote mines and random locations of fossils, it is basically impossible to police the trade.


Archaeologist Jana Morehouse sits next to a mammoth tusk (c. 2015).


Sources

Allen, Matthew. “In the Klondike, a gold rush becomes an old rush.” Maclean’s. July 24, 2015. Accessed from: http://www.macleans.ca/society/science/in-the-klondike-a-gold-rush-becomes-an-old-rush/

Berton, Pierre. Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush 1896–1899. Toronto: Anchor Canada. (2001).

Cohen, Claudine. The Fate of the Mammoth: Fossils, Myth, and History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (2002).

Zazula, Grant and Kuhn, Tyler. “Ice Age Mammals of Yukon.” Yukon Government. (2014). Accessed from: http://www.tc.gov.yk.ca/publications/IceAgeMammalsOfYukon.pdf

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