The bone collectors of Old Crow

This village is a "supermarket" for bones. They're literally falling off the riverbanks, said Vuntut Gwitchin heritage manager Megan Williams.


This village is a “supermarket” for bones.

They’re literally falling off the riverbanks, said Vuntut Gwitchin heritage manager Megan Williams.

“One trip up the Crow River we came back with 60 to 80 bags of bones,” she said.

About 5,500 fossilized bones of Ice Age mammals have been discovered in the Old Crow area.

And as the riverbanks keep sloughing away more bones keep getting found.

They’re some of the best preserved fossils of Ice Age animals that exist in all of North America.

Williams has held prehistoric camel teeth that date back more than 90,000 years.

She’s also seen bones from ground sloths, giant beavers, pikas and woolly mammoths.

Most of these bones were shipped out of Old Crow as soon as they were discovered.

The best specimens – remnants of the short-faced bear and giant beaver – were sent off to the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa. Others landed in the American Museum of Natural History in New York or in paleontology labs in Whitehorse.

But this September the full collection of bones – all 118 boxes – will finally make it back from where they were unearthed.

Already, the new Arctic Research Centre perched on the Crow River is packed to the rafters with bankers boxes stuffed with bones.

The station, completed last winter, was a joint idea between Williams and Yukon paleontologist Grant Zazula.

They wanted a place to store Old Crow’s large collection of archeological and paleontological finds. They also wanted to create a lab that out-of-town researchers could use when they arrived in Old Crow.

Exploration work in the Northern Yukon began about 100 years ago and ramped up in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s under Canadian paleontologist Dick Harrington.

“People in Old Crow have memories of scientists doing work in the area, but there was always a feeling of frustration because all the bones would go back to Ottawa,” said Zazula.

He’s been studying bones from the Old Crow area since 1999 when he was a research student at the University of Alberta.

His most memorable summer was in 2006.

That year four researchers jumped in a helicopter with a couple of canoes and landed upstream on the Crow River.

“We were blown away by the sheer quantity of bones,” he said.

“We literally found hundreds and hundreds of bones.”

He also found mammal teeth that weighed up to five pounds.

There are a range of species that archeologists and paleontologists have dug up in Old Crow that haven’t been found anywhere else, said Zazula.

That’s because the Yukon stands at what was once the crossroads for ancient mammal migrations.

Mammals from Eurasia crossed over to Old Crow via the Bering land bridge. Other mammals from the mid-continent migrated north to what is present day Alaska.

While ice covered most other parts of North America, the Yukon and Alaska were ice-free.

Zazula likens the ancient migration to what is happening today with climate change.

Camels and sloths that used to roam Eurasia ended up in Old Crow because the weather was more favourable there.

That was 140,000 years ago.

Then 50,000 years later the last major ice age hit present day Yukon and Alaska.

“Those camels got their butts kicked,” said Zazula.

“They died or left or stayed in the southern part of the continent.”

One of the major questions paleontologists once asked about the Yukon was how far back people lived in the Old Crow area.

There’s circumstantial evidence people were there 40,000 years ago – in the Blue Fish caves an hour from Old Crow there are artifacts that have been found alongside bones of woolly mammoths – but it’s not a widely accepted fact in the archeological community, said Zazula.

Recent research has turned its attention to genetics.

Ice age mammals that were preserved in permafrost for 20,000 years still contain DNA sequences that can be analyzed by scientists, said Zazula.

That information is important because it can tell scientists exactly how these mammals were able to adapt and change in relation to shifting climates.

Which will, in turn, tell scientists how animals today will adapt.

Cougars, deer and skunks – which aren’t native to the Yukon – are being spotted further and further north as a result of warming temperatures .

“These ice age bones will give us insight into how we may adapt in the future,” said Zazula.

Old Crow hopes to have it’s collection of bones fully catalogued by next fall. It is also considering opening an interpretive display of ice age bones in the John Tizya Heritage Centre.

Vivian Belik is a freelance writer who lives in Whitehorse.