A bison bones bonanza

Two ancient bison were unearthed in Whitehorse last week. It's a strange coincidence as the remains of both beasts were discovered independently. It started on April 23 when a family of skiers encountered a bison skull melting out of a bank near Fish Lake.

Two ancient bison were unearthed in Whitehorse last week.

It’s a strange coincidence as the remains of both beasts were discovered independently.

It started on April 23 when a family of skiers encountered a bison skull melting out of a bank near Fish Lake.

They contacted Yukon paleontologist Grant Zazula. He began to plan to charter a helicopter to the site on Friday. Then the phone rang on April 26. It was a man with another report of a bison skeleton.

“I figured he must be a placer miner from Dawson because they find prehistoric bison bones all the time. But he said, ‘No, I’m digging out a basement in Porter Creek,’” said Zazula.

“I stopped in my tracks. This is interesting because there’s less than two handfuls of prehistoric bison remains found in the southern Yukon before.

“An hour later, we were digging up a skeleton. It was mostly complete.”

The bison skeleton was found about two metres deep. It includes the skull, jaws, teeth, ribs, long bones and vertebrae, but it’s missing some important bones, like the femur.

Porter Creek remained boggy ground up until the 1950s when it was “drained to make housing developments,” said Zazula. The watery terrain, including small lakes, was a remnant of melted glacial ice. The resulting muck helps explain how the bison became buried.

Bison were wiped out of the territory 10,000 years ago, along with mammoth, horses and other ice-age creatures. Another bison population arrived in the territory within 1,000 years, after migrating up from what’s now the southern United States.

Then bison disappeared from the Yukon again, approximately 400 years ago. No one knows why.

“It’s before European people showed up,” said Zazula. “It could have been a climate event. It could have been aboriginal hunting. We don’t know.”

Bison remains are plentiful near Dawson City and Old Crow. Not so in the southern Yukon, where Zazula reckons fewer than 10 bison remains have been recorded.

“They seem to be quite rare,” he said. “They don’t show up often at archeological sites either.”

Zazula hasn’t yet excavated the Fish Lake skeleton, although he hopes to soon.

Both discoveries raise the question of the size of Whitehorse’s ancient bison population and what wiped it out.

The next step for the Porter Creek skeleton is to send the recovered bones to a lab to be radiocarbon dated and have the DNA sampled. That ought to show which population the Porter Creek bison belonged to.

“Maybe a few of them hung on after the ice age. Or maybe it’s one that moved up from the south,” said Zazula.

The Porter Creek excavation took two days.

“We’re not there to shut down a job and tie up his equipment for weeks or months on end,” said Zazula.

“If you find something, let us know and we’ll try to deal with it as quickly as possible.”

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com