On a drizzly June morning, Travis Mudry, a miner working in the Klondike goldfields of Canada’s Yukon territory, cut into a wall of permafrost, or permanently frozen earth. To reach the gold deposits hidden in the stream beds, miners must clear away the thick mix of icy soil—a process known as placer mining.
Suddenly, a big chunk of frozen earth popped off the wall. Along with the muck emerged something strange: the remains of a dark, shiny animal with short legs. Suspecting he’d found a mummified baby buffalo, Mudry began inspecting the creature, noting its skin, fur and nub of a tail. Then he spotted a trunk.
Mudry called his boss, Brian McCaughan, the general manager and chief operating officer of family-owned gold mining company Treadstone Equipment. Taking one look at the baby animal, which was so well-preserved it looked almost as if it had just died, McCaughan put out an immediate order to stop all work. He snapped some photos of the find and started reaching out to experts.
A half hour later, Grant Zazula, the Yukon government’s paleontologist, opened an emailed image of the frozen woolly mammoth—the most complete one found in North America to date, according to a statement. “She’s beautiful, one of the most incredible mummified Ice Age animals ever discovered in the world,” Zazula says.
There was just one problem: It was June 21, National Indigenous Peoples Day, a statutory holiday in the Yukon. And Zazula was in Whitehorse, about six hours away from the discovery site in Eureka Creek, just south of Dawson City. (The goldfields lie in the traditional territory of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, a Yukon First Nation whose presence in the region spans thousands of years.)
To recover the mammoth, Zazula turned to two geologists, one with the Yukon Geological Survey and another with the University of Calgary. They rushed to the creek, surveying the site and retrieving the remains less than an hour before a storm struck.
“[I]f she wasn’t recovered at that time, she would have been lost in the storm,” Zazula tells CBC News.
Once secure, the mammoth was wrapped in a tarp and brought to a nearby location 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 quick examination, Zazula suggests that Nun cho ga is a female who was probably about a month old when she died more than 30,000 years ago. The geology of where the mammoth was found indicates that she was probably grazing across the treeless grassland when she strayed from her mother’s side and got stuck in the mud.
Nun cho ga’s state of preservation stems from her quick death and the unique location of her final moments. In most parts of the world, only the fossilized bones of Ice Age creatures remain. But in the Yukon, permafrost acts as 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 pup, a caribou calf, giant camels and other long-deceased 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 the center of the 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 land,” in the Hän language). To the south are rolling permafrost landforms crisscrossed with rivers and creeks. Across it all grows a dense boreal forest of white spruce, lodgepole pine, trembling aspen and willow.
When Nun cho ga was born, the landscape looked markedly different. Her home territory was dry and freezing cold. The Wisconsin glaciation period, which began between 100,000 and 75,000 years ago and ended around 11,000 years ago, was in full swing, covering most of Canada in colossal glaciers. But coastal mountains in the interior of the Yukon and Alaska blocked all precipitation, creating rain shadow patches of land that were too dry to support glaciers.
Instead, the region 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 camels, rhinos and ancient wolves. The growth of glaciers during the Ice Age froze much of the world’s water, causing sea levels to drop upward of 395 feet. With this drop, 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 in swaths of wild grasses and forbs—small, nutritious plants that include delicate tundra flowers like poppies and buttercups. Had Nun cho ga grown to adulthood, she would have been smaller than her southern counterpart, the Columbian mammoth. She would also have boasted cold-weather adaptations like smaller ears and a furrier body; much of her time (up to 20 hours a day, per estimates by the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre in Whitehorse) would have been spent grazing her way across the steppe, consuming as much as 440 pounds of grass and flowers daily.
According to a leading scientific theory, Indigenous peoples made their way across the Bering Land Bridge and began fanning out across North America sometime after Nun cho ga was frozen in permafrost, perhaps around 15,000 years ago. (Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin creation stories say the First Nation has always been in the Yukon.) Either way, by the middle of the 19th century, the Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin’s small, seasonal fishing village was thriving in what is now Dawson City.
In August 1896, a group of prospectors (comprising three Indigenous people and one white man) discovered gold in Rabbit Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River. Soon after, some 30,000 people flocked to the region, sparking the Klondike Gold Rush.
Only 4,000 or so of these miners actually discovered gold. But some found treasure of a different kind: the bones of huge, fantastical creatures. In 1904, scientists from the Natural History Museum in Paris 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 scientists’ arrival marked the beginning of a unique collaboration between gold miners and paleontologists that continues to this day. As placer miners use heavy equipment and hydraulic water cannons to strip away permafrost and expose gold, government paleontologists are often on site collecting fossils. Every summer, Zazula and his colleagues collect between 6,000 and 8,000 bones. Their most significant finds include Zhùr, a 7-week-old female wolf pup who died roughly 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 discoveries, Nun cho ga is something special. Measuring a little more than four and a half feet from the base of her tail to the base of her trunk, Zazula tells CBC News that she’s “perfect” and “beautiful.”
He adds, “She has a trunk. She has a tail. She has tiny little ears. She has the little prehensile end of the trunk where she could use it to grab grass.” The baby mammoth may be in even better condition than Lyuba, a tailless calf found in Siberia in 2017.
As Nun cho ga helps build a more complete picture of the Ice Age Yukon, she’s also helping to repair the relationship between the Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin—the traditional stewards of the land—and the miners and scientists who have long claimed the riches of the landscape as their own.
“This is … a remarkable recovery for our First Nation, and we look forward to collaborating with the Yukon government on the next steps in the process for moving forward with these remains in a way that honors our traditions, culture and laws,” says Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin Chief Roberta Joseph in the statement. “We are thankful for the elders who have been guiding us so far and the name they provided. We are committed to respectfully handling Nun cho ga as she has chosen now to reveal herself to all of us.”
The next steps for Nun cho ga are still to be decided. If her path follows Zhùr’s, she’ll be studied with reverence and treated as something far more valuable than a scientific specimen. Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin elders will continue to guide the process as the scientific community works to learn more about Nun cho ga and the time she lived in.
“It’s amazing,” says Elder Peggy Kormendy in the statement. “It took my breath away when they removed the tarp. We must all treat it with respect. When that happens, it is going to be powerful and we will heal.”