She’s over 30,000 years old, and yet her preservation is astounding: She has her skin, her tiny tusk nubs, her toenails, and her little tail. She still has tufts of fur, and her trunk—with its prehensile tip—is complete and malleable. Looking at the initial photograph from where she was found at a Yukon gold mine, she looks like she only recently met her demise.
Her name is Nun cho ga, a name decided upon by Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Elders.
“‘Nun go’ is ‘baby,’” Debbie Nagano, heritage director of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Government told Gizmodo, explaining the words chosen from the Hän language. “‘Cho’, of course, is ‘big.’ And ‘ga’ is ‘animal.’”
The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in are one of 14 First Nations in the Yukon, and it is upon their land that the mammoth was found. Remarkably, the day this little mammoth appeared last week is significant. It was June 21, both National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada and the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.
For some, however, it was just another day at work. Travis Mudry, only 30 days into his job at McCaughan Family’s Treadstone Gold company, was operating the excavator with a ripping attachment that cut chunks out of a cliff of permafrost. Like the hundreds of other Yukon placer mines, he was looking for gold. He stopped what he was doing when something strange tumbled out of a section of the permafrost—perhaps a bison skull, he thought. He got out and investigated. This was no bison and it certainly wasn’t just a skull: this was an animal with skin, eyes and a trunk. He got on the two-way radio and contacted Treadstone’s owner and foreman, Brian McCaughan, announcing, “I found a body!”
McCaughan, once he saw the animal for himself, immediately sent an email to Grant Zazula, Yukon paleontologist. It was brief and included a photo of the baby mammoth lying on its side among the sediments.
Unaware of the excitement about to unfold, Zazula was having a leisurely start to the day. He described having coffee around noon before he and his family went downtown to participate in National Indigenous Day events, checking Facebook and then glancing at email. That’s when he saw McCaughan’s message.
“There was a lot that went through my mind,” he said in a video interview. “I wasn’t sure if this was real.”
But within moments, he raced up the stairs to his wife, Victoria Castillo, instructor of heritage and culture at Yukon University, saying, as he recalls, “Honey, look at this. My life has now changed.”
The first priority? Getting this baby mammoth safely to cold storage. Zazula was about a six-hour drive away from where this baby mammoth now lay exposed. There was no way he could get there in time, and the mining camp didn’t have a freezer big enough to contain her. After sending instructions to McCaughan on how best to temporarily keep her preserved, he frantically contacted everyone he could think of: local scientists, members of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, and those who might have storage capacity big enough to keep Nun cho ga frozen.
Meanwhile, closer to the location of Treadstone Gold, Jeff Bond was sitting in his truck. As surficial geologist with the Yukon Geological Survey, he had been working on landslide studies with a visiting group from the University of Calgary. That day, he’d suggested a change of scenery for Dan Shugar, associate professor of geoscience and director of the Environmental Science Program, and Shugar’s two Masters students, Holly Basiuk and Jackson Bodtker. They were about to embark on a tour of local geology, so he was “just flipping through [his] phone,” he explained, and “noticed this desperate call from Grant needing some help.” He was the perfect person for the job, as he is familiar with the many mines in the area and the people who work them.
“I literally have the keys in the ignition, and I just have to throw everybody in the vehicle and go!” he recounted. “It couldn’t have been better timing for the animal and the preservation of it and to do some initial work there. So I told everybody, ‘Change of plans. We’re driving an hour and 45 minutes south into the Klondike gold fields.’”
It was the opportunity of a lifetime. The team, together with Bond’s colleague, Derek Cronmiller, permafrost geologist with the Yukon Geological Survey, eagerly answered the call for help. Bond described their race to the site as a “rescue mission,” one that included “documenting the site” before the landscape melted and changed.
Once they arrived, McCaughan brought them to the excavator bucket in which the mammoth lay surrounded by permafrost, removing the tarp, space blanket, and sleeping bag that were helping to keep her insulated and cold. Bond’s voice was emphatic when he described the first time he saw Nun cho ga. “It just took your breath away. That’s what’s hit me the most, I think: that this little creature didn’t have much of a chance. You definitely feel that, but I was just shocked and in awe once I saw it. I couldn’t believe it. It’s just like, wow, I’m seeing a perfectly preserved mammoth in front of me. I never would have thought that would happen in my career. Ever.”
That sense of awe was echoed by Basiuk, who also felt “overwhelmed by the adventure.” She collected the mammoth fur that remained in the section of permafrost where Nun cho ga had previously been. “Sampling the fur was a game of patience and strong stomach,” she wrote in an email, “as the area where the hair was coming from was especially strong (read: rancid) smelling. I’m not sure I will ever be able to accurately describe the smell, but it certainly isn’t leaving my memory any time soon. Despite the smell, I was rather impressed by the variation in colors of the hair, from red brown to black to grey, with some sections fully intact with the skin attached.”
Shugar and Bodtker searched the permafrost for other specimens. “We found a few bones from (presumably) Ice Age bisons,” Shugar wrote in an email, “as well as lots of plant matter in various stages of decomposition…all of which is very useful for helping to reconstruct the environment at the time that Nun cho ga lived, and the timing of that (e.g. by radiocarbon dating).”
The team worked for around two hours before an approaching black sky and strong winds forced them to pack up. Lightning and heavy rain abruptly concluded all activity at the mine, as scientists and miners alike scrambled for cover.
Zazula had, by that time, located a large local freezer in which to preserve Nun cho ga. Bond and his colleagues, traveling in the frenzy of that storm, raced to get her there. At some point during the initial excavation of the permafrost, the mammoth’s body was cut in half. The team carefully lifted each section and brought her inside. Bond struggled to maintain composure describing this moment in a video interview. When he lifted the top half of this baby mammoth, he was, essentially, holding her in his arms. He stopped for a moment. “I still get emotional,” he said through tears.
The following day, members of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and Zazula arrived to see her in person. Bond described taking Nun cho ga out of the freezer, her two halves fitting perfectly together, hidden under a large tarp.
“There were gasps in the room,” Bond said, describing the moment the tarp was removed.
For Nagano, her first reaction was “hard to explain. There’s so much emotion, and it’s so powerful. You know, when we first got it—we had a circle with the Elders and presented it to them. And we opened the tarp, and there was just no words for about 5-6 minutes. And that’s LONG. That’s a long time for myself to be quiet and for Grant and the Elders! It’s going to be a big responsibility to look after and to follow how we’ll respect it in each one of us. It’s very powerful.”
“The Elders needed to bless Nun cho ga,” Nagano continued. “That took place, and that was powerful. It was unbelievable. And the power within that room was you couldn’t even speak.”
Just as important as seeing the mammoth face-to-face was seeing where she lay entombed for over 30,000 years in the permafrost. Nagano also described that experience as they tried to picture this animal as it might have been in life. “We imagined where it was and what it was doing and how do we relate to it as First Nations people.” Referencing when this mammoth would have co-existed with their ancient human ancestors, she added, “We were there at that time also, too.”
Advait Jukar, vertebrate paleontologist at Yale University who was not involved in the find, echoes this. “The ancestors of today’s First Nations Peoples coexisted with the mammoth on the great northern Steppe,” he wrote in an email. “They saw these animals, lived alongside them, and hunted them. I think it’s pretty wonderful that their descendants, now stewards of the land, were involved in the discovery of an animal that is so intimately linked to their past, and to the story of people in the Americas. This project is a great example of what a collaboration between First Nations, industry, and scientists should look like. It’s built on mutual trust and respect.”
None of which happened overnight. The events in this sensational find are exciting, but they didn’t occur in a vacuum. Castillo noted that the miners didn’t have to contact Zazula. They could have kept this discovery to themselves. And paleontologists don’t always reach out to or include Indigenous Peoples in discoveries of any magnitude, let alone one as momentous as this one. Part of the significance of this find, Castillo said, is that “the decision-making is being done by the First Nations,” and that everyone is taking it slow to be sure that everything is done in an ethical and culturally appropriate way.
“Grant was really cognizant of the fact that he had to engage with all of the parties at once,” she maintained, referencing the First Nation, scientific, and mining communities. “I think that was really important, and I think that’s something that’s come out of reconciliations that’s happening in Canada right now, the decolonization of research, and I think it’s a really clear example of how it’s done.”
This is something Jody Beaumont, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, implementation manager of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Government, acknowledged in a conversation in 2020 about the discovery of an Ice Age wolf pup ‘mummy’. “If this was 20 years ago, this would not have been handled in the same way,” she said in 2020. “And it really speaks to the growth that a lot of people have had in the community, as community members with all these different backgrounds and ideas and perspectives.”
“It’s hard for scientists, I think, sometimes to realize that there are other worldviews,” Castillo asserted. “You have to step out of what you know and feel comfortable with sometimes and understand that other communities see things very differently. It’s early days still, but I hope that this is going to be an amazing example of how research can be done through community-based participatory research.”
The relationship between Yukon paleontology and the mining community has been cultivated for decades, beginning with the late Richard (Dick) Harington in the 1960s and continued by Zazula for the past two decades. That Yukon miners continually alert Zazula of new finds is a credit to both parties, and that partnership has resulted in a vast wealth of fossils representing a myriad of extinct animals from the Pleistocene. Moreover, in this case specifically, it has demonstrated how such a partnership impacts and improves the relationships of all involved: the First Nations, the scientific and the mining communities.
For Zazula, this discovery is also intensely meaningful in yet another way. “I think there’s also something profound, and this is me, personally, on this, I’m Ukrainian. My family’s all Ukrainian. I have cousins in the Ukraine. It’s been an incredibly difficult time for me and my family. And knowing that all the other mammoths in the world are now behind an Iron Curtain again, they will never be seen by people from outside of Russia, the timing of that and a mammoth appearing in Canada, is very, very profound.”
McCaughan and his team halted all operations on the location where the mammoth was found, enabling scientists to do further research in the permafrost in which Nun cho ga lay entombed for millennia. Bond described what they have found so far within the stratigraphy of the cliff itself, the layers indicating a rich environment full of vegetation at the bottom, gradually becoming sparser toward the top: important evidence of climate change through time.
“If this is 35-40,000 years old at the base where the mammoth’s coming from,” he said, “you’re entering the last glaciation further up in the section. And so you’re getting cooler into the 30,000-year framework. You see that in the sections: We’re getting colder, we’re getting drier, we’re getting less organics, we’re getting more grasslands on the landscape. And then we hit this volcanic ash at 29-30,000 years called the Dawson Tephra. It’s a perfect marker. That puts everything below that, of course, older.”
Climate change is another important aspect of this discovery, one that Zazula feels has the potential to unite people of all ages. Here, in the flesh, is an extinct animal whose species was certainly impacted by climate change.
“We’re a generation of people that are facing climate change like no other generation of humans have ever done in the past,” Zazula noted, adding that Nun cho ga is “connecting the past of the Ice Age, the history of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in with the present and the future of what we’re up against now.”
Based on the sediment around Nun cho ga, Bond thinks “the mammoth would have been crossing what we call an alluvial fan. We’ll think about this more down the road, but it appears to me that she’s associated with a stream channel on this fan surface. It’s a very, very muddy environment, and it would make any steep banks that are vertical–if they’re at all wet–literally impossible to get up.”
He’s also collected sediment samples for ancient DNA testing.
“What’s great about this discovery,” Jukar wrote, “is that we know the exact point in the ground where the mummy came from, so that provides a lot of opportunities to study not only the environment the mammoth lived in, but also about what happens after it died.”
Both Zazula and Bond note that there will be continued paleontological work at the site over the summer. In the week since the baby mammoth discovery, they’ve already uncovered more fossils, including “bison, horse, and mammoth bones, frozen squirrel nests, and a partial large carnivore skull,” said Zazula.
“For the science piece, it’s something I’ve been thinking of my whole life,” Zazula related. “And thinking one day I might meet a woolly mammoth and never thinking it would ever be possible. And it happened! And it happened because of the gold miner, and it happened because of the First Nation. It’s because of the relationships that are building between Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and scientists and gold miners. That’s the reason that this was found. And I think she was brought here to bring us all together.”
“To save Nun cho ga is a good thing,” Nagano emphasized. “There’s LOTS of different stories that are taking place, and that’s just one of them.” She reiterated how thankful the First Nation is to McCaughan for recovering Nun cho ga. “It’s a good thing that we’re all working together, and it’s time now. And maybe that’s why she appeared also, too, for us. It’s time to let go the stuff that got in the way and for us to proceed ahead. And it’s a good thing for us to have our youth see that for the generations to come.”
The spotlight is currently on the Yukon, and the world is watching.
Jeanne Timmons (@mostlymammoths) is a freelance writer based in New Hampshire who blogs about paleontology and archaeology at mostlymammoths.wordpress.com.