Elk pioneers may have led humans into North America

Five years ago, paleogeneticist Meirav Meiri, then a graduate student at Royal Holloway, University of London, working with the British Natural History Museum...

by Erling Friis-Baastad

Five years ago, paleogeneticist Meirav Meiri, then a graduate student at Royal Holloway, University of London, working with the British Natural History Museum, embarked on a project that sent an international team of scientists on an elk hunt. The results of that initiative were recently published in Proceedings of the Royal Society, B, Biological Sciences.

That research generated exciting new ideas about elk distribution, about mammal migration across the Beringia Land Bridge, and about human migrations from Asia into North America.

Yukon, with its strategic location along ice age migration routes and its growing collection of Pleistocene fossils, was a valuable team member, and territorial paleontologist Grant Zazula is listed among the many authors of the paper.

Somewhere back in the Pleistocene, elk populations separated; the European red deer became a subspecies, as did the Asian ancestors of today’s wapiti, the iconic North American elk (Cervus canadensis), says Zazula. “It has long been established that North American elk were a late invader of North America, but it wasn’t really established just when they got across the land bridge.”

There are a few sites in the Lower 48 where elk remains were thought to have been found in archeological sites that had once been dated back to well before 15,000 years ago. Some people thought that there were a few different elk migrations into North America, Zazula says. “It was determined in this project that all those earlier reported elk were actually not elk; they were bison or some other ice age mammal.”

The remains of elk in Alaska and Yukon carbon date to about 15,000 years ago and precede a period of significant human migration into the region by only about 1,000 years. Some archeologists had suggested a relationship between elk and early people but that theory wasn’t seriously pursued until now, Zazula says.

The ancestors of today’s Northern American elk moved into far northeastern Asia about 50,000 years ago. They expanded into Siberia during a relatively warm period in the ice age, which they enjoyed until about 25,000 years ago. After that, “the populations really took a hit.”

Some elk likely retreated back southward, says the paleontologist. “But we know from genetic continuity in the data that some of them stayed in northern Siberia and somehow they were able to survive the harsh, cold, dry conditions – probably in the river valleys where there were still some shrubs surviving.”

But why did the elk remain on the west side of the land bridge for more than 30,000 years and not cross east into Alaska until 15,000 years ago? They were, after all, living on the edge of the bridge. “It had to have something to do with habitat on the land bridge itself,” Zazula says.

He stresses that the bridge was not what we might picture today, short and narrow, but a terrain that extended for more than 1,500 kilometres, and was “just another extension of the landscape the elk were already on.” The intermediate area between Asia and Alaska was probably a more harsh environment than what was on either side.

What changed 15,000 years ago? “Globally climates warmed up and glaciers started to melt, the Bering Land Bridge started to flood and conditions all across the Arctic went from cold, dry mammoth steppe until, basically, it was shrubby tundra – lots more nutrients on the ground for elk,” says the scientist. The damp conditions that led to the flooding and disappearance of the land bridge made crossing more bearable during a narrow window between 15,000 and 11,000 years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene.

And if it was more bearable for browsers like elk, it may well have been for other species as well, most notably, humans. “What we argue in this paper is that this provides a good model for how and when, and more important, why people were not able to cross the land bridge until that time,” says Zazula. The first elk remains on the Alaska and Yukon side date from about 15,000 years ago; the first verifiable archeological sites show up about 1,000 years later. Those sites contain fossil evidence of heavy human predation on elk at a time when mammoth and horses were beginning to disappear along with the dry Arctic steppes.

A warming climate benefitted wandering hunters in another way. “One of the things that people need, in order to build tools, is wood,” says Zazula. “It’s really hard to build hunting implements without any woody vegetation. If your spear shaft breaks, you’re screwed.” Also, wood is a light, portable fuel for fire. People did burn bones and mammoth dung, but with much more effort for less heat.

The move southeast by elk and their human predators wasn’t a mad dash, though carbon dating reveals that elk reached Montana about 12,000 years ago. “A thousand years in archeological time doesn’t seem very much, but 1,000 years is several generations of people. So think of a human migration of 3,000 kilometres in a thousand years. They’re not pushing the boundaries, they’re actually pushing a just little further out.”

Among other discoveries made by the elk researchers were the 500-year-old remains of an elk at 71 degrees north. That’s well above the Arctic Circle, on the Arctic coast of Siberia and very recent. Today, elk don’t live much further north than Whitehorse, and those are the descendents of elk imported in several increments from Alberta since 1950.

In Yukon and Alaska the most recent radio carbon date for elk bones is about 5,000 years ago. When explorers like Frederick Schwatka arrived here in the late 19th century, they saw no elk.

Perhaps our fossil record is incomplete because the warmer ground doesn’t preserve bones as well as earth did during the ice ages. At any rate, says Zazula, there was something happening in more recent times prior to the arrival of European people that led to local extinctions, including those of bison and musk ox.

“Based on what we know of the Yukon and Alaska over the last 5,000 years, there doesn’t seem to be any pronounced environmental or climatic reason the elk are gone.”

Once again, science has followed a spate of answers with yet more tantalizing questions.

This column is co-ordinated by the Yukon Research Centre at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at  http://www.yukoncollege.yk.ca/research/publications/newsletters_articles

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Team Yukon skip Laura Eby, left, directs her team as Team Northern Ontario skip Krysta Burns looks on at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Calgary on Feb. 22. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)
Team Yukon reports positive experience at Scotties

Team Yukon played their final game at the national championship in Calgary on Thursday afternoon

A sign indicating a drop-off area behind Selkirk Elementary school in Whitehorse on Feb. 25. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Parking lot proposal for Selkirk Elementary criticized

Parents and school council are raising concerns about green space and traffic woes

adsf
WYATT’S WORLD

Wyatt’s World for Feb. 26, 2021

Josi Leideritz, the executive director for the Yukon Quest International Association (Canada), poses for a photo in Whitehorse on Oct.1, 2020. The Quest announced plans for its 2022 race to start in Fairbanks on Feb. 5. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
2022 Quest planning gets underway

Race would begin Feb. 5 in Fairbanks

Ken Anderson’s Sun and Moon model sculpture sits in the snow as he carves away at the real life sculpture behind Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre for the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous festival in Whitehorse on Feb. 21, 2018. Yukon Rendezvous weekend kicks off today with a series of outdoor, virtual and staged events. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Rendezvous snowpad, live music and fireworks this weekend

A round-up of events taking place for the 2021 Rendezvous weekend

Tom Ullyett, pictured, is the first Yukoner to receive the Louis St-Laurent Award of Excellence from the Canadian Bar Association for his work as a community builder and mentor in the territory. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Tom Ullyett wins lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Bar Association

Ullyett has worked in the Yukon’s justice ecosystem for 36 years as a public sector lawyer and mentor

The Blood Ties outreach van will now run seven nights a week, thanks to a boost in government funding. Logan Godin, coordinator, and Jesse Whelen, harm reduction counsellor, are seen here on May 12, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Blood Ties outreach van running seven nights a week with funding boost

The Yukon government is ramping up overdose response, considering safe supply plan

Ranj Pillai speaks to media about business relief programs in Whitehorse on April 1, 2020. The Yukon government announced Feb.25 that it will extend business support programs until September. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Government extends business relief programs to September, launches new loan

“It really gives folks some help with supporting their business with cash flow.”

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

Bylaw amendment Whitehorse city council is moving closer with changes to a… Continue reading

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. As the legislature prepares to return on March 4, the three parties are continuing to finalize candidates in the territory’s 19 ridings. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Nine new candidates confirmed in Yukon ridings

It has been a busy two weeks as the parties try to firm up candidates

David Malcolm, 40, has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm a police officer after an incident in Whitehorse on Feb. 18. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
Man resists arrest, assaults officer

A Whitehorse man has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm… Continue reading

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on Aug. 4, 2020. A site on Robert Service Way near the Alaska Highway has been selected as the future home of Yukon Energy’s energy storage project. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Site selected for Yukon Energy battery project

Planned to be in service by the end of 2022

Most Read