I admit to having preconceived notions of what it means to find fossils and to mine for gold. It never occurred to me that these two occupations might be interconnected. Nor would I have ever described the image below as what it actually is: placer gold mining.
[image of a water monitor, placer gold mine in Quartz Creek, courtesy of the Government of Yukon. Can you find the rainbow?]
That water jet is called a ‘monitor’, and it slowly melts the permafrost, exposing the alluvial gold from the gravel below.
It also reveals fossils.
“Since the beginning of the Gold Rush, people have been finding Ice Age fossils there,” explained Dr. Grant Zazula by phone.
The Gold Rush, an event that peaked in 1898, brought people from all over the world to the Klondike area of the Yukon. It was once solely the home of several indigenous cultures, including the Inuit, Han, Tagish, Tlingit and Tutchone. But the hope of finding treasure—in an industry that required inexpensive equipment (a pan, a rock pick)—brought thousands to an area that most would consider inhospitable.
Embed from Getty Images
Embed from Getty Images
[image of gold miner, Gerry Ahnert, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]
One of the techniques used to find gold at that time was borrowed from California mining: water monitors. Monitors were also relatively inexpensive and highly effective.
Back then, as now, these monitors revealed not only gold, but a wealth of fossils.
[image of Paleontologist Elizabeth Hall organizing a day’s collection of bones at the field camp near Dawson City, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]
“I’m always pretty fascinated by these stories immediately post-Gold Rush of people finding mammoth skulls,” said Dr. Zazula.
One can see a number of black-and-white images of these and other fossil finds in Ice Age Klondike, written by Dr. Zazula and Duane Froese. Finds such as this prompted museums to send representatives out to the region to bring back fossils for their collections. One such expedition in 1907 and 1908 is detailed in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History in NY.
“Without the gold mining, these fossils would never be found,” Dr. Zazula continued, referring to today’s fossil discoveries. “They’re using heavy equipment and other types of equipment to move this frozen ground because [it] is essentially locked in permafrost that wouldn’t be accessible without the gold mining.”
[images of gold mines near Dawson City, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]
Melting the frozen ground with these jets isn’t as damaging to fossils as one might imagine. Dr. Zazula described a process in which fossils are slowly removed from the heights of the muck—the frozen silt—and slide down into the valleys below. When remarkable fossils are seen by paleontologists, the miners always accommodate them, enabling Dr. Zazula and his colleagues to excavate them manually.
[fossil Arctic Ground Squirrel skull emerging from the muck, image courtesy of the Government of Yukon]
[Dr. Grant Zazula sampling frozen sediment along a vast wall of muck at Quartz Creek, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]
It’s an incredible partnership, one that began in the 1960’s with Dr. Richard Harington of the Canadian Museum of Nature. Dr. Harington made annual summer trips to visit the miners and discuss their fossil finds. It is a tradition that Dr. Zazula and the other two Yukon paleontologists before him have maintained.
But consider the expanse of the Yukon Territory.
[image of land near Dawson City, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]
And consider that, as Dr. Zazula stated, “[t]here are 100 active gold mines, give or take a few dozen here or there. And virtually all of them produce Ice Age fossils. So in a summer, we can collect 5,000 specimens. There’s a lot of material coming out of the ground, and we’re trying to recover it as much of it as we can. It’s almost industrial-scale paleontology.”
This gave me pause: one Yukon paleontologist in the entire Territory, who—in addition to keeping in touch with about 100 mines in the Klondike—is responsible for all of the other fossil discoveries and research of the area.
“Prior to 3 years ago, it was really a one-person operation and that was me,” he admitted.
With the acquisition of funds, however, Dr. Zazula now has two assistants in the field: Elizabeth Hall and Susan Hewitson.
[image of Elizabeth Hall, Dick Mol holding a fossil Bootherium skull, and Susan Hewitson, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]
They have established a field camp near Dawson City in close proximity to the gold mines. This enables them to be in daily contact with the miners in the short mining season—the end of May through October. Dr. Zazula described this work as driving on back roads to the various mines, getting to know the miners and collecting the fossils released from the permafrost.
[image of Elizabeth Hall recording bones at a gold mine, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]
“Since we’ve done that, our collection has just exploded in terms of the quantity of material that we’re finding. But it also really establishes and strengthens the relationships that we have made with the gold miners as well.”
[Dawson City, the previous capital of the Yukon Territory until 1953; At the height of the Gold Rush, this town consisted of numerous wooden buildings and a sea of canvas tents behind them; image courtesy of the Government of Yukon]
“[The] program really hinges on [these] two people,” Dr. Zazula wrote. “Elizabeth Hall oversees most of the field work in the Klondike and is the collections manager, and Susan Hewitson [is] a field technician in the summer months.
“They do most of the work to collect the fossils, clean the fossils, identify the fossils, catalog the fossils and organize the database. This really frees up my time to write, do research and other outreach work.”
[image of Elizabeth Hall holding a baby mammoth tooth, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]
[image of Elizabeth Hall, Susan Hewitson and her husband collecting fossils, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]
“Elizabeth started her as a summer student assistant about 10 years ago, and we finally created a full time position for her 3 years ago. We were also students together at Simon Fraser University. She is in the middle of completing a masters degree in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at University of Alberta; her thesis work is on fossil microtine rodents from Old Crow, Yukon.”
[image of Elizabeth Hall, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]
“When it’s good for gold, it’s a good time to be an Ice Age paleontologist in the Yukon because there’s so much material that’s coming out of the ground.”
[Paleontologist Tyler Kuhn with a mammoth tusk found at a placer mine in Dawson City, Yukon; courtesy of the Government of Yukon]
Again, an enormous thank you to Dr. Grant Zazula for his fascinating insight and most generous time.
Thank you, again, to Dick Mol.
And thank you to all of the gold miners who enable Dr. Zazula, Elizabeth Hall and Susan Hewitson to conduct their research and collect fossils!!
[image of Grant Zazula and Dick Mol, holding a steppe bison skull; taken by Florian Breier, courtesy of Dick Mol]
Yukon Paleontology Program: http://www.tc.gov.yk.ca/palaeontology.html
Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre: http://www.beringia.com/
Publications and articles referenced:
- Ice Age Klondike, by Grant Zazula and Duane Froese, Government of Yukon, 2011
- Ice Age Old Crow, by Grant Zazula and Duane Froese, Government of Yukon, 2013
- Ice Age Mammals of Yukon, by Grant Zazula and Tyler Kuhn, Government of Yukon, 2014
- Yukon At-a-Glance, Government of Yukon
- Yukon Factsheet, Government of Yukon
- Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike by Charlotte Gray, Counterpoint, 2010
- “Notes on Alaskan Mammoth Expeditions – 1907 & 1908”, Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, Article IX, L.S. Quackenbush