During the summer solstice of 2022, placer miners with Treadstone Gold were working at Eureka Creek on Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Traditional Territory. In the early afternoon, Travis Delawski was using an excavator to cut into a bank of permafrost when he looked down and saw a face he’ll never forget.
“Something was looking at me,” he said, “so I hopped down to investigate.” Then, Delawski picked up the two-way radio to tell his boss, Brian McCaughan, that he had “found a body”.
It’s common for Klondike miners to uncover fossilized ice age bones, skulls, tusks and teeth buried in black muck, the mixture of silt and organic material that lays atop gold-bearing gravel. But on this day Delawski had unearthed something special and extremely rare — a near complete mummified female mammoth calf with skin and some hair still intact.
Over the next few hours, the miners worked closely with Yukon government scientists to make sure the animal was carefully excavated and safely transported into cold storage.
As the vehicle carrying the mammoth left Eureka Creek, there was heavy rain, strong winds and thunder. It was as if the weather itself was marking the significance of the discovery.
“The storm at the end of the day was right out of the movies … lightning bolts were dropping around us,” said McCaughan. “I shut the crew down and it just poured sideways for … I don’t know how long, but we were drenched. … That was surreal and significant in itself.”
Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in elders named the mammoth Nun cho ga, a Hän name that translates as “Big Animal Baby”. There is no word for mammoth in the Hän language.
There’s still a lot to study and learn about Nun cho ga. Current evidence indicates she was just 30 to 35 days old and possibly standing near a small stream when she was caught in a mud flow that had been triggered by a storm. The quick burial is likely why the whole body was fixed in one place, undisturbed by scavengers, and preserved in the permafrost for many thousands of years.
In fact, it’s believed this young mammoth lived and died 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, during the last ice age. At that time, glaciers covered much of Canada, but the Yukon’s tundra was flush with wild grasses, small hardy flowers, and animals called megafauna — the long extinct relatives of common species, such as giant beavers, scimitar cats, giant short-faced bears, and of course, woolly mammoths.
Since her appearance, Nun cho ga has set scientific hearts aflutter all over the world. She is likely the best preserved, most complete example of a baby mammoth that’s been found … anywhere … ever. And that means she may be able to teach us about evolution and adaptation in a way that bones and partial remains cannot.
For the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, Nun cho ga is much more than a scientific specimen: she’s a “sacred ancestor”, a reminder that life is fragile, and a connection point between past and present on the land that has sustained their people for millennia.
“We are thankful she has chosen to reveal herself to us today,” said Chief Roberta Joseph. “Nun cho ga was and is a living being; she had a heartbeat, lived and passed on to her next journey on Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in lands. As a result, our First Nations people have a responsibility to care for her.”
For Chief Joseph that responsibility is a “happy obligation” that transcends time. She said: “When we look after our relatives, they look after us, including this little big baby female woolly mammoth, Nun cho ga.”
The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in people have thrived on their Traditional Territory for thousands of years. The ancestral connection to the land was crystalized into law when the First Nation, Canada, and the Yukon signed Final and Self-Government agreements in 1998. Among many other things, these agreements empower the First Nation with certain rights, responsibilities, and authorities on its Traditional Territory.
“We respect everything that is on our land, and we reciprocate: We take from the land, but we also have to give back,” said Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Heritage Director Debbie Nagano. “In everything we do and the government we set up, we’re mandated to remember our culture and our traditional knowledge.”
Once the First Nation found out about the remarkable find, they looked to elders for guidance on how to proceed. The elders gave the mammoth a name and planned a ceremony to honour and bless her.
Out at the mine site, elders, youth, and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in heritage employees gathered with the miners and scientists who were involved in the discovery. The group formed a circle around Nun cho ga, and at first, they stood in silence.
“When I first looked at it, it was something I couldn’t fathom,” said Nagano. “There were so many amazing and powerful split-second moments of connecting to the spirit of this animal.”
“We could see the eyelids, the toenails, the tusk … it was a very powerful thing,” she said. “Then, a ceremony was performed and it was blessed in a good and respectful way.”
Nun cho ga has spent many thousands of years on Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Traditional Territory, and that’s where she will most likely remain. In partnership with the Yukon government, the First Nation will decide its next steps with the guidance of elders and citizens in a way that honours their traditions and laws.
Nun cho ga will be a teaching tool, and it could herald a new way for the First Nation and the Yukon government to co-manage heritage.
“This historic moment requires collaboration and commitment from all of us who work together,” said Chief Joseph. “We appreciate the stronger relationship Nun cho ga has already initiated, fosters, and continues to build amongst us.”
Nagano believes there is a reason why Delawski and McCaughan found Nun cho ga. And she hopes the strong partnership that’s been built will open the door for other miners and industries operating in Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Traditional Territory to work more closely with the First Nation.
“There’s a connection there that needs to be played out too,” she said. “This story is just beginning.”
For McCaughan, finding Nun cho ga was a life-long career highlight, a “miracle”, and a “message”.
“For us to get it out of the earth the way we did is a miracle in itself, never mind how it was preserved and how it passed away,” said McCaughan. “It’s a definite message … I truly believe that … and hopefully we’re all going to learn a ton. I think it really brings our worlds together here. “
“I think it’s a super positive thing, and the world needs some positive things these days.”