Old Crow Basin holds the clues to ice age mysteries

Grant Zazula first stepped out of an aircraft and into the Old Crow Basin in 1999 as a 22-year-old graduate student from Edmonton.

by Erling Friis-Baastad

Grant Zazula first stepped out of an aircraft and into the Old Crow Basin in 1999 as a 22-year-old graduate student from Edmonton. Today, the Yukon paleontologist readily recalls the awe and excitement his younger self felt standing above the Arctic Circle in the isolated and fossil-rich northeast corner of Beringia. There he was surrounded by visions of the ice-age beasts that once literally teemed on the same cold ground.

Zazula has been marvelling at the Old Crow region ever since. And that comes through in Ice Age Old Crow, a booklet he wrote with colleague Duane Froese, a geologist of the University of Alberta, and which was released earlier this fall by Yukon Tourism and Culture.

The Old Crow Basin is located in the northeast corner of what was once the Beringia Refugia, a vast landscape stretching from eastern Asia to the Northwest Territories. The Vuntut Gwitchin have long known about their Pleistocene animal predecessors through fossil remains and through oral records. The Pleistocene lasted from about 2.5 million to 12,000 years ago. Remnants of woolly mammoths, 300-pound beavers, sloths, camels and other creatures from within that epoch richly informed later First Nation mythologies.

The booklet opens with a quote from elder Charlie Peter Charlie Sr.: “First, I’ll tell you that it is long, long, long ago. Lots of dangerous animals lived here long ago.” The elder went on to recall Traveller, or Ch’ataiiyuukaih, who managed to make the Far North more bearable for humans by shrinking the most imposing beasts down to more manageable sizes.

Scattered along the river banks are fossils of giant beaver cheek by jowl with the bones of their much smaller contemporaries. And, of course, there are a multitude of mammoth parts. “If you were a Vuntut Gwitchin person 300 or 400 years ago, there’s no way that you would have even heard of an elephant. Seeing bones of massive woolly mammoth would have been completely beyond their imagination, but they could relate to the shape of those bones, to the animals that were familiar … a femur is a femur … a tibia is a tibia.” When the hunter-gatherers paddled passed a giant femur (hipbone) or tibia (lower leg bone) protruding from the river bank, they immediately recognized the fossil’s nature and function. These people have been hunting and carving up animals like caribou for centuries and are experts at mammal morphology.

“It’s just amazing that for generations these people were living in essentially one of the most amazing ice-age paleontological sites in the world,” says Zazula.

What conditions led to the Yukon’s northernmost community being situated in the midst of such a scientific treasure trove? For one thing, ice sheets hadn’t scoured away ancient animal bones and teeth as they had further south, nearer Carmacks and Whitehorse. The conditions that made northeastern Yukon a refugia – that is, made it possible for animals to feed there – also ensured the preservation of their more durable parts.

Rivers flowing north through the basin have been depositing silt over prehistoric animal remains continuously for hundred of thousands or millions of years. Rivers are also great excavators. “Because there’s this constant erosion that’s happening on the bluffs by the river, anything that’s in the bluffs is going to fall out and be concentrated on the riverbanks,” says Zazula.

The people of the region have been using those rivers as highways for centuries and would have noticed any newly exposed bones. Zazula himself participated in a collecting expedition along the Old Crow River in 2006. “We were just absolutely blown away by the abundance of fossils of so many different species collected that summer,” he says.

Scientists and informed amateurs have been blown away by Old Crow’s marvels since the mid 19th century, when Archdeacon Robert McDonald discovered mammoth molars and muskox bones in the vicinity of his church mission near present-day Old Crow. These found their way to the British Museum in London, at a time when Western science was being shaken by Darwin’s theories and paleontological discoveries from around the world. Old Crow became a major player in a great international awakening, drawing researchers from southern urban centres like New York, Washington D.C. and London.

“It’s so remote,” says Zazula. “Getting to Old Crow is not easy. There’s a lot of logistical effort to get there. That’s true today as it was 100 years ago.

“I can just imagine what was going through these people’s minds… the effort to get from Washington, D.C. to Seattle, then up the coast and through the Interior to get to Old Crow. It must have blown their minds compared with what they were used to in Washington, D.C.: showing up in this little community.”

The Vuntut Gwitchin must have marvelled too. What did they think when travel-worn scientists showed up at the turn of the last century saying, “Please, take us up the river and show us some fossils”?

Zazula imagines the local folks wondering why anyone would trek so far to see what they saw everyday in their own backyard.

While the Old Crow fossils have been accumulating for millennia, the research on them has only just begun. All manner of questions follow in the wake of new discoveries. Perhaps most contentious are: just how much of the ancient past did early humans share with Pleistocene creatures and when did they follow the animals east from Asia into North America? Zazula says people will be arguing about such details long after his bones have joined the fossil record.

Also up for debate is how and when fauna from the North American temperate regions to the south made their way up into the Old Crow Basin.

Why are so many creatures we know from southern excavations only found in the north near Old Crow, things like short-faced skunks and scimitar cats, Zazula wonders. “Based on the fossil record it seems like those dispersals are actually quite temporary. They showed up here when it was nice and warm, kind of like tourists; they came for a few thousand years and then they die off.”

Is there something we can learn about future climate-change scenarios from the challenges faced by mammals, including humans, in the distant past? A search for answers can begin with Ice Age Old Crow. E-mail heritagepublications@gov.yk.ca

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