Miner unexpectedly unearths 'most important' paleontology discovery in North America

·4 min read
Miner unexpectedly unearths 'most important' paleontology discovery in North America

A young miner called for backup when his front-end loader unexpectedly struck something in the Canadian permafrost last week on the first day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere. Roughly 67 miles east of the Alaskan border, in Yukon's Eureka Creek, the miner, who was originally searching for gold, uncovered a whole mummified baby woolly mammoth, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reported.

Scientists hailed the find as one of the "most important" paleontological discoveries ever made on the continent of North America.

The miner's supervisor immediately sent a picture of the woolly mammoth to Dr. Grant Zazula, the Yukon government's paleontologist. Tuesday, June 21, was National Indigenous People's Day, a statutory holiday in Yukon, so when Zazula received the email, he scrambled to find someone in Dawson City, which is just south of the creek, who could go out to the site to recover the find.

In a race against inclement weather, a geologist from the Yukon Geological Survey and another with the University of Calgary were able to drive to the creek to recover the baby woolly mammoth and do a complete geological sampling of the site.

"And the amazing thing is, within an hour of them being there to do the work, the sky opened up, it turned black, lightning started striking and rain started pouring in," Zazula told CBC. "So if she wasn't recovered at the time, she would have been lost in the storm."

Scientists believe this baby woolly mammoth "is the most complete mummified mammoth found in North America," according to a press release announcing the discovery.

A mummified baby woolly mammoth found in Yukon's Eureka Creek on Tuesday, June 21, 2022.

After a close examination, the baby woolly mammoth, named Nun cho ga, meaning "big baby animal" in the Han language, was identified as a young female who was probably only a month old when she died nearly 30,000 years ago. Han is the language spoken by the Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin, indigenous peoples who lived on the land for thousands of years.

The two geologists who recovered the baby woolly mammoth found a piece of grass in her stomach, indicating that the young mammoth spent its last minutes grazing on grass in a territory that was once populated by wild horses, large bison and cave lions, The Guardian reported.

The nearly perfect state of the specimen's preservation suggests that the baby woolly mammoth may have gotten stuck in the mud just a few steps away from her mother before she was frozen in the permafrost.

"And that event, from getting trapped in the mud to burial, was very, very quick," Zazula told the CBC.

Zazula said the young miner had made the "most important discovery in paleontology in North America," the CBC reported. "She has a trunk. She has a tail. She has tiny little ears. She has the little prehensile end of the trunk where she could use it to grab grass."

According to the news release, Nun cho ga is roughly the same size as Lyuba, a 42,000-year-old infant mummy woolly mammoth discovered in Siberia in 2007. In 1948, another partial calf named "Effie" was unearthed in Alaska.

"As an ice age paleontologist, it has been one of my lifelong dreams to come face to face with a real woolly mammoth," Zazula said. "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. I am excited to get to know her more."


According to Reuters, after the discovery, members of Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin, scientists, Yukon government officials and miners participated in a ceremony in which they prayed as a baby woolly mammoth was unveiled from a tarp and blessed by the elders.

"It's amazing. It took my breath away when they removed the tarp. We must all treat it with respect," Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in Elder Peggy Kormendy said. "When that happens, it is going to be powerful and we will heal. We must as a people."

According to National Geographic, woolly mammoths roamed the cold tundra of Europe, North America and Asia from about 300,000 years ago until about 10,000 years ago. While their extinction has been commonly attributed to overhunting by humans, research from 2021 suggests that the disappearance of the species could have resulted in part from climate change.

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