Just outside Dawson City in northwest Canada, an unmarked gravel road branches from the main highway and snakes along Bonanza Creek—so named by the fortunes that were discovered in this remote outparcel. After a half-day drive the road loops back into the highway, circumscribing a lasso-shaped patch of land that has been divided, staked, and claimed by prospectors since the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896.
Along with gold nuggets sleuthed from hillsides or sifted from streambeds, the land has yielded a bounty of ice-age fossils unintentionally excavated from the thawing permafrost. Unglaciated pockets of Yukon land have concentrated all manner of ice-age biodiversity. While miners dig for gold concentrated in white gravel layers, they move first through meters of ice-age sediment. This confluence of planetary geology, human history, and sheer opportunism has brought miners and researchers together in one place for over 100 years. Early photographs from the region show miners posing with sacks of precious metal, and next to enormous mammoth skulls.
As I ride down Bonanza on a dusty midsummer afternoon, paleontologist Grant Zazula points over the creek to some bones piled casually onto one of many iron grated platforms. That, he tells me, is a sign that the Yukon Fossil Rush continues to this day.
The involvement of miners has led to the recovery of countless ice-age bison, horse, and mammoth bones.
I traveled north to meet him in the summer of 2016, shortly after finishing graduate school, as a kind of unorthodox sabbatical that had me trade my laboratory freezers and centrifuges for a handheld movie camera. The early documentary filmmakers—Robert Flaherty and John Grierson, specifically—inspired me to embed within a community as an ethnographic observer, to find a place where science and society mixed in unexpected ways. The Yukon provided the perfect place for that immersion, a study site of sorts, where miners and scientists converge for a few short months every summer.
In early June, as the winter thaw brings miners back to their claims, a small team of paleontologists make the five-hour drive from Whitehorse to a makeshift field station outside Dawson City. Most of the miners they will encounter are familiar friends, some the inheritors of a relationship started by the original “old-timers” and the museum curators summoned from all over the world to prospect for their own collections. While tensions are high elsewhere in the world between miners and paleontologists, an unusual mutualism has developed in the Yukon.
This spirited collaborative has filled the collections of national museums—the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, and the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, to name a few—with exquisite specimens that have informed scientific papers published in prestigious academic journals over decades, including a landmark Nature paper that sequenced the genome of a 700,000-year-old horse recovered from Thistle Creek, the oldest ancient genome ever assembled at the time.1
The vested involvement of miners has not only led to the recovery of countless ice-age bison, horse, camel, and mammoth bones, but also scarcer specimens of short-faced bears, mastodons, wolverines, and the most elusive of all, frozen mummified carcasses that contain soft tissue for genetic analyses.
As we make our way out to Paradise Hill, the gold claim of infamous placer miner Tony Beets, Grant reminds me that “these people are pretty far removed from the ivory tower, but in reality, that paper in Nature would not be possible without them.”
1. Orlando, L., et al. Recalibrating Equus evolution using the genome sequence of an early Middle Pleistocene horse. Nature 499, 74-78 (2013).