It was a young miner, digging through the northern Canadian permafrost in the seemingly aptly named Eureka Creek, who sounded the alarm when his front-end loader struck something unexpected in the Klondike gold fields.
What he had stumbled upon would later be described by the territory’s palaeontologist as “one of the most incredible mummified ice age animals ever discovered in the world”: a stunningly preserved carcass of a baby woolly mammoth thought to be more than 35,000 years old.
“She’s perfect and she’s beautiful,” Grant Zazula, the paleontologist for the Canadian territory of the Yukon, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
“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.”
He described the find as the “most important discovery in palaeontology in North America”. With much of the skin and hair intact, officials said the find ranks as the most complete mummified mammal found on the continent.
The woolly mammoth is believed to have been a little over one month old when she died. Stretching 140cm, she’s slightly longer than the only other whole baby woolly mammoth discovered in Siberia in 2007.
The discovery was made on the traditional territory of the Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin First Nation. At a ceremony earlier this week, elders named the calf Nun cho ga, meaning “big baby animal” in the Hän language.
“It’s amazing,” said Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in elder Peggy Kormendy in a statement. “It took my breath away when they removed the tarp.”
Chief Roberta Joseph of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nations said they would seek to move forward with the remains “in a way that honours our traditions, culture and laws”, adding that the Nun cho ga had “chosen to reveal herself to all of us”.
The words may have been a nod to the stroke of luck that facilitated the find. The call from the mining company came in on a statutory holiday in the territory, leaving Zazula scrambling to track down someone in the area who could hastily travel to the site to recover the find.
He eventually tracked down two geologists in the region. “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,” said Zazula. “So if she wasn’t recovered at that time, she would have been lost in the storm.”
The geologists who recovered her found a piece of grass in her stomach, hinting that the infant’s last moments were spent grazing as she roamed a territory that at the time was home to wild horses, cave lions and giant steppe bison.
Her nearly perfectly preserved state suggests she may have ended up trapped in mud before ending up frozen in permafrost during the ice age. “And that event, from getting trapped in the mud to burial was very, very quick,” he said.
Days after the discovery, the excitement had yet to fade. “It’s going to take days and weeks and months to sink in,” said Zazula. “And it’s going to take days and weeks and months working with Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in to decide what we do and learn from this.”