History Hunter: Canada’s first settlers were in the Yukon

Bluefish Caves, located in the northern Yukon, is a controversial archaeological site that has evidence that people occupied the site 24,000 years ago. (Courtesy/Government of Yukon, Ruth Gotthardt)Bluefish Caves, located in the northern Yukon, is a controversial archaeological site that has evidence that people occupied the site 24,000 years ago. (Courtesy/Government of Yukon, Ruth Gotthardt)
Archaeologist Norm Easton explains the stratigraphy of the Little John Site near the Alaska border. The lowest layers of this site date to 14,000 years ago and are solid evidence of the first people to occupy what we now call Canada. (Courtesy/Michael Gates)Archaeologist Norm Easton explains the stratigraphy of the Little John Site near the Alaska border. The lowest layers of this site date to 14,000 years ago and are solid evidence of the first people to occupy what we now call Canada. (Courtesy/Michael Gates)

This year, we are celebrating the 125th anniversary of the passage of the Yukon Act (June 13, 1898), but if we want to get a more complete picture of Yukon history let’s add a couple of zeroes to that number, and go back 12,500 years, or more, to the arrival of the first Canadians. Yes, the first people to occupy Canada were in what we call the Yukon today.

There is a good reason for that, too. Thousands of years ago, North America was undergoing dramatic climatic fluctuations that boggle the mind. It was the tail end of a series of glacial events we refer to as the “Ice Age.” For thousands of years, Canada had been buried beneath massive glaciers. One, named the Cordilleran Ice Sheet, came out of the Rocky Mountains, toward the Pacific Ocean on the west, and into the prairies to the east. Somewhere in Alberta, it coalesced with a much larger ice sheet: the Laurentide. The Laurentide covered most of the rest of modern-day Canada.

This glaciation was impressive. Imagine a wall of ice three kilometres thick that spreads out for thousands of kilometres. So much water was accumulated in frozen form on land during the Ice Ages that the level of the oceans fell by as much as 100 metres, thus exposing the bottom of the shallow Bering Sea, and creating, for a few thousand years, a contiguous land mass that extended from Siberia to the edge of the ice sheets that overlay the eastern part of the Yukon and coastal Alaska. We know this as the Bering Land Bridge. This region remained ice free throughout the period of glaciation.

Thus, an opportunity arose for people in Siberia to spread out into this new and unpeopled region that we now refer to as Beringia. And what an opportunity it was. The broad sweeping landscape formed a rich zone of grasses, herbs and arctic tundra vegetation referred to as steppe-tundra. Think of it as a northern Serengeti. This vegetation regime supported a wide variety of grazing animals. Herds of camels, horses and mammoths roamed across this landscape, but disappeared with the end of the last ice age. Camels and horses evolved in the New World, but after they spread out into Eurasia, they were cut off by the rising seas, and became extinct in their place of origin.

There is much debate about the changing environment at the end of the last ice age, and the factors that led to the extinction of many of these species. The most recent mammoth remains found in the Yukon date to about 6,500-7,000 years ago. As the continental glaciers melted, the sea levels rose, isolating Beringia from Siberia; an opportunity now existed for the people trapped on the North American side to spread out and occupy a vast new world.

I turned to Ty Heffner, Yukon territorial archaeologist, to gain a better understanding of the Yukon’s early prehistory. When did the first people move into the present-day Yukon? A cluster of prehistoric sites in the Tanana valley in Alaska has been found that date back about 14,000 years. The most easterly of these is the Little John site, located between Beaver Creek and the present border between the Yukon and Alaska. Another site, on Britannia Creek, near Fort Selkirk, also dates to this time period.

It is believed that people occupied Beringia, but due to the massive glaciation, could not spread beyond this ecosystem until the ice started to melt. When that occurred, somewhere around 13,000 to 11,000 years ago, two possible routes opened to allow people to spread out into North and South America.

One route was the result of the retreat of the Laurentide and Cordilleran ice sheets, creating a corridor that ran from the Mackenzie Valley through Alberta and British Columbia. The other was along the Pacific coast, which opened up with the retreat of the Cordilleran ice sheet along the coast. Current evidence seems to favour the latter route, as the one used by people expanding into North and South America 14,000 years ago, or earlier.

But could people have occupied the Yukon earlier than the Little John Site? The Yukon may also boast of the oldest archaeological site in North America, at Bluefish Caves, near Old Crow. The site, which has an abundance of fossil specimens from the Pleistocene era, can be dated back 24,000 years.

The trouble with Bluefish is that in the absence of stone tools at the site, many archaeologists are skeptical about human habitation here, that far into the past. A recent study of bones from the oldest layer of the site reveals evidence of butchering marks on some of them. It is likely that some archaeologists may not accept this as a true archaeological site until they find buried human remains clutching a stone tool in one hand and a mammoth bone in the other!

Human remains also have the potential through DNA analysis to establish the genetic connection between early peoples and present-day First Nation citizens. DNA study of the remains of Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi (frozen human remains discovered in the Tatshenshini Alsek Provincial Park) firmly established a genetic relationship with living First Nation residents of the Yukon.

Archaeologists use modern advances in science to establish a clear link to the past. New techniques for dating can be employed with smaller samples. Scientists continually refine their methods of dating to account for fluctuations in atmospheric C-14, and filter out contaminants that might skew the dating of samples. DNA analysis is making great forward strides. Recent advances include the study of environmental DNA, extracted from soil samples. You may not find the bones of the animals, but scientists can now extract their DNA in the soil they walked on.

The study of our past is also an evolving science. Each new discovery offers the opportunity to expand our knowledge and understanding of the people who lived here before us. So, be prepared to accept revised interpretations of our prehistory with each new find. Nor should we underestimate the importance of chance discoveries by people who are not archaeologists.

Ice patches in the southwest Yukon, where ancient tools made of wood, bone, sinew and feathers, are now being uncovered every summer, were first identified by a biologist doing other research. Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi was discovered by hunters, and the fully preserved baby mammoth discovered in 2022 near Dawson, was found by placer miners.

Be on the lookout; you may be the person who makes the next big discovery.

Heffner inspired today’s column. I enjoyed a lengthy and informative conversation with him; what I present here is a much distilled rendering of his broad knowledge of the topic. I thank him for taking the time to talk to me. Any factual errors are mine, not his.

Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. His latest book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is now available in Whitehorse stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net