Scratching the surface on Yukon’s ancient treasures

Treasure hunters of the Yukon gathered at the Whitehorse Public Library over the weekend to check out each others' collections and hopefully learn or a thing or two.

Treasure hunters of the Yukon gathered at the Whitehorse Public Library over the weekend to check out each others’ collections and hopefully learn or a thing or two.

The event was hosted by Long Ago Yukon, a “support group” for amateur archeologists and palaeontologists, says organizer Michael Dougherty.

The group’s purpose is “deepening and widening the community of interest and concern on the preservation and protection of our heritage in the Yukon,” he said.

“We have such a rich but largely undiscovered heritage here.”

A professional archeologist and a professional palaeontologist were each on hand Saturday to help identify treasures. They also brought some treasures of their own.

In one part of the room, archeologist Greg Hare demonstrated the use of an atlatl throwing dart – the preferred hunting tool of Yukon First Nations until about 1,100 years ago.

It’s made from a long, thin stick with an arrowhead on one end and feathers on the other. The dart is launched using a special throwing board that acts like a lever, similar to a ball launcher a dog owner might use to throw tennis balls at the park.

“It leaps off the end of the board, and they think the idea with the feathers is it actually goes slower than the front end, and it drags it down so you get greater distance,” said Hare. “So that’s the ballistic property of it. You can throw these like hundreds and hundreds of metres.”

Accuracy at that range would be limited, however, said Hare.

It would be more likely that it would have been used to hunt at distances of 15 to 20 metres, he said.

The atlatl was the preferred hunting method in the Yukon for 8,000 years, said Hare.

About 1,200 years ago a volcano erupted off the Alaskan coast, blanketing Yukon with ash and pushing people from the area.

Within a generation new people moved into the area, and they brought with them the bow and arrow, which replaced the atlatl as weapon of choice.

On the other side of the room, paleontologist Grant Zazula showed off some important pieces from Yukon’s impressive collection.

His favourite is a broken piece of 700,000-year-old horse bone, not much bigger than a fist, uncovered at Thistle Creek near Dawson City, he said.

“It probably is the most important specimen in our collection.”

Zazula published a paper earlier this year on the ancient horse, including DNA sequencing from the bone.

“It’s the most ancient genetic sequence ever produced in the world,” said Zazula.

“It’s pretty cool when little broken pieces of bone like this can lead to major scientific discoveries.”

Amateur collector Mary Whitley brought a few treasures for those gathered to look at and share.

One was a piece of baleen, maybe six inches long and one inch across, attached to a piece of string.

When you swing it around fast enough it makes a whirring sound, and children and adults alike took turns for their chance to try and make it sing.

“I bought it as a curiosity in Alaska probably in the 1980s, just because it’s neat,” said Whitley.

It still has the original price tag – $8.80.

The verdict’s still out on whether the trinket serves a purpose beyond entertainment, she said.

“I don’t know what the purpose of the noise is. I have no idea. It’s fun.”

Whitley also brought a tiny glass pitcher. With the light on it, the piece appears to have a purple hue.

She’s not sure where it came from, but it probably had been passed on through her family, she said.

The archaeologist-on-duty was able to tell her that the purple hue comes from mercury, and that glass stopped being made that way after 1910.

“I didn’t know that,” said Whitley.

The experts also helped her identify a vertebra from a small whale, maybe a beluga.

Whitley’s not quite sure where she found it – probably on a beach on the north coast of Yukon, she said. She hadn’t been sure if it came from a walrus or a whale, she said.

Dougherty said he hopes events like these will spark more interest in Yukon’s old stuff.

“The reality is that many of the key discoveries have been made by laypeople, amateurs. And so, the more amateurs that know what they’re looking at and looking for, the greater likelihood of being able to feed into our small professional core material … helping them identify the heritage resources available in our communities.”

Given the success of Saturday’s artifact identification event, Long Ago Yukon will likely host similar events in the future, said Dougherty.

For more information about the society and its events, email Michael Dougherty at

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at