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By Amy Kenny

Photos by Mark Kelly

“When I started [this job] in 2006, I think there were only 4,000 specimens from fossils in our collection. And now we have over 40,000 cataloged and probably 10,000 more that have never been even opened.”

If you’re in Whitehorse’s industrial section, looking to buy a couch at The Brick or a security system at the nearby strip mall, chances are you wouldn’t also have the 700,000-year-old metatarsal of a mid-Pleistocene-era horse on your shopping list. But you could find it, and all on the same corner of Quartz Road.

Here in Marwell, an area built for oil-refinery operations during WWII, the Government of Yukon stores most of the territory’s paleontological and archaeological  collections. Artifacts are maintained in a beige and brick unit that was once occupied by an automotive paint shop. The only thing giving it away as home to one of the world’s most significant collections of ice-age fossils is the glimpse of a fossilized bison skull visible through the blinds.

If it doesn’t look like adequate housing, that’s because it’s not, which is why Yukon paleontologist Grant Zazula is excited the government is scouting locations for a new building that’s currently in the design phase.

“When I started [this job] in 2006, I think there were only 4,000 specimens from fossils in our collection,” says Zazula. “And now we have over 40,000 cataloged and probably 10,000 more that have never been even opened.”

As if to illustrate this point, on a spring day, assistant paleontologist Elizabeth Hall cleans and catalogs specimens in a loading bay at the facility. She uses paintbrushes, toothbrushes, and barbeque skewers to get in the bone crevices. Behind her, rolling shelves are filled with fossils. Through a set of double doors, archaeological finds are stored in cabinets and plastic bins stacked atop each another. Collections even creep into the staff kitchen, where shelves are filled with specimens, from the microscopic to huge, heavy slabs of stromatolite.

Hall points to a Rubbermaid bin filled with gunny sacks. What’s inside is a surprise. The summer season, when the teams can dig, is short. The work can be frenetic. They might throw 1,000 bones into a bag in a single day, not having the chance to go through them for months or even years.

Hall was a student in 2003, during a dig at Thistle Creek, northwest of Pelly Crossing. That’s where the aforementioned metatarsal was uncovered, encased in permafrost. It was a decade later, in 2013, that the fragments were found to contain the world’s oldest known DNA, a record that stood until 2021.

 The two forearm bones on the left are from a 30,000-year-old giant short-faced bear found at Hester Creek. On the right are the forearm bones of a present-day male grizzly. 

Sometimes finds like these arise out of well-known sites, like the shores of Herschel Island, where the Firth and Mackenzie rivers dump material from the mainland, or the bluffs over the Old Crow River, which contain volcanic ash that helps date items. Other times, the department
gets a call from a placer miner who has found something significant while digging up permafrost in the goldfields.

Relationships with miners, as well as Yukon’s 14 First Nations, are vital to the work of researchers and scientists.

When Christian Thomas, a Yukon special projects archaeologist,  was doing his master’s thesis, he asked the Selkirk First Nation what site they wanted explored. The response led to a dig at Ta’tla Mun (Tatlmain Lake) southeast of Pelly Crossing. Historically, the site was used as a seasonal village where First Nation people fished and, during the winter months, created items for trade.

Thomas found evidence of trapping and fishing, but he also found copper, obsidian originating from the Northwest interior, and luxury trade goods from all over. The collection tells a story of relationships and of the land as a place of plenty, where First Nation people knew they could find abundance in hard times.

 “It’s not so much the story of the artifacts,” explains Thomas, “but it’s also a way of showing people that there’s a sense of place. It’s not an empty wilderness. Places have meanings and that’s often preserved in the collection.”

Found a Fossil?

• Leave it there

• Photograph and note its location

• Contact the Yukon Palaeontology Program at (867) 332-8980 or grant.zazula@yukon.ca

• Contact the First Nation on whose traditional territory the artifact was found.

Yukon Archaeology has about 75,000 collections from close to 5000 different sites. That’s another reason a new building, whose completion is likely still four years away, is needed to house artifacts. Ideally, it will have space to exhibit items so the public can access them. Right now, some are displayed at the Beringia Centre, in Whitehorse, and at Yukon First Nations cultural centres. But more could be available.

Zazula says scientists around the world clamber to work on Yukon fossils and conduct research here, and he wants Yukoners to have a sense of pride about that. Instead, the average Yukoner probably doesn’t know there are camel bones in the paleontological collection (cheetahs and hyenas also roamed here) or that one of the replica woolly mammoths out front the Beringia Centre is modelled after the famous Whitestone mammoth skeleton found near Old Crow in 1967.

“If you grew up in Southern Alberta, you got inundated with dinosaurs.… I kind of want Yukon to be a little bit more like that with woolly mammoths,” Zazula says. “People who live in the Yukon, I want them to know that where they live is absolutely spectacular.”