On the longest day of the year, miners seeking actual gold struck scientific riches instead. In the Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin Traditional Territory, Yukon Canada, they came across a frozen baby mammoth thought to be at least 30,000 years old, based on the permafrost section it was buried in. Elders named it Nun cho ga, which in the Hän language means “big baby animal”.
Despite permafrosts' capacity for preservation, it is rare to find Ice Age animals with skin and hair. In a joint statement, the Government of Yukon and Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin described Nun cho ga as “The most complete mummified mammoth found in North America.”
The fact the mammoth, believed to be a female, is a baby adds to the emotional, if not the scientific, significance of the discovery. The discovery has caused excitement from many quarters.
This is as a remarkable recovery for our First Nation,” said Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin Chief Roberta Joseph. “We look forward to collaborating with the Yukon government on the next steps in the process for moving forward with these remains in a way that honours our traditions, culture, and laws.”
“As an ice age palaeontologist, it has been one of my life long dreams to come face to face with a real woolly mammoth. That dream came true today. Nun cho ga is beautiful and one of the most incredible mummified ice age animals ever discovered in the world," Dr Grant Zazula of the Yukon Government Palaeontology Program added. "I am excited to get to know her more.”
Professor Dan Shugar of the University of Calgary and two students, students Holly Basiuk and Jackson Bodtker, happened to be working in Dawson when the call went out for any geologists in the area who could help recover the mummy before it thawed.
“The timing was incredible – suddenly we had a change of plans, and we’re taking part in the emergency recovery of a baby mammoth,” said Shugar.
Fossil bones, even very important ones, often stay in the ground for years after discovery, but the (baby) mammoth task of Nun cho ga's excavation was achieved in three days to avoid decay, which turned out just as well.
Then again, it wasn't all fun.
Near-complete mammoths have been found in Siberia previously, although they are certainly not common, but this is a first in North America. The closest equivalent previous discovery was a partially preserved calf named Effie.
That discovery was 74 years ago, indicating how rare such finds are.
Such excellent preservation means it should be possible to extract DNA from Nun cho ga, as has been done with several previous frozen mammoths. This will certainly have scientific benefits, but can also be expected to intensify the debate about cloning mammoths and implanting the embryo into elephants to bring to life a hybrid species capable of repopulating the tundra.
Such animals might be good for far northern ecosystems, potentially even slowing the release of greenhouse gasses trapped like Nun cho ga in the permafrost. However, the technical, ethical, and financial obstacles are immense. If it goes wrong, we can't say we weren't warned about the dangers of bringing enormous long-dead creatures back to life.