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Palaeontology Isn’t Protected In The NWT

Palaeontology Isn’t Protected In The NWT

And with climate change melting permafrost, that means history could be lost.
By Jessica Davey-Quantick
Jul 02
From the July/August 2019 Issue

The first thing Shane Van Loon noticed about the ancient bones was the smell. He was walking along the river in September, 2007, behind his parent’s house in Tsiigehtchic, NWT, in an area known locally as “Church Hill” because it’s directly underneath the Roman Catholic Church and cemetery.

“It smelled like something was rotting, I wasn’t sure if it was something from the graveyard maybe,” he says. “So I climbed up there anyway and I saw a big bone sticking out of the side [of the hill] about six feet down from surface, and so I went in a little closer and I could see fur lining the bank. And I could tell it was something.”

That “something” was a steppe bison that had been frozen in permafrost for over 13,600 years. With a skull, horns, hair, and organs, it’s the first Pleistocene mammal with soft tissue recovered from the glaciated regions of the Northwest Territories.

“It really stinked, so I thought I’d just leave it alone, come back in a couple of days when it thawed out a little bit more,” says Van Loon. By the time he went back, it had defrosted to the point where the carcass almost slid into the river.

That wasn’t the only time the bison was nearly lost. Because in the NWT, Van Loon never legally had to tell anyone about his find. While there is legislation in the NWT protecting archaeological finds, there are no territorial rules governing palaeontological discoveries—the only province or territory in Canada without such protection.

“I got somebody to come and help me carry the skull up and then I went back with a shovel and picked up whatever bones and everything I could find,” says Van Loon. “First I put it in my back porch in a tarp, and then I found what sort of looked like intestines and stuff, and the skin I put in the freezer. I just didn’t want it to rot.”

Which is where Glen MacKay, a territorial archeologist, found it.

“The Tsiigehtchic steppe bison fossil is incredibly unique because I believe it’s still the only known fossil that was frozen and had soft tissue outside of Beringia in Canada,” he says.

MacKay is one of just two archaeologists working for the GNWT. There is no paleontologist. So, when news of the discovery reached MacKay at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Museum, he called Grant Zazula, a paleontologist in the Yukon, where Pleistocene fossil finds are more common. The two first journeyed out to inspect the site where the bones had been found. “There’s an ice lens there so the slump was probably related to the thawing of ice-rich permafrost. In the headwall of the slump there was still kind of ice visible,” says MacKay. Then, it was time to peek into the freezer. Tucked away in bags was something much, much older than frozen peas and freezer-burnt popsicles.

“It was a pretty unique experience for me to see soft tissue,” says MacKay. “It has soft tissue preserved which really means it was probably frozen quite rapidly after its death and covered in sediment and then probably permafrost formed in that sediment in fairly short order to preserve it, and there it stayed for thousands and thousands of years.”

It’s happened before where wood bison carcasses float downriver, or newer fossils of the 400-year-old vintage have been discovered on the Tuk peninsula. “But once we started looking at the skull and measuring the horns, it became pretty obvious this was older.”

Despite the find’s significance, MacKay had to close the freezer door and leave it behind. “Shane at that time wasn’t willing to part with the bones, and in the absence of palaeontological regulations, we requested to take one bone on loan, so that we could radio carbon date it,” he says. They took a metacarpal, a bone from the lower forelimb and left the rest. “We bagged some of it for him, we brought some big bags, and then sort of suggested a few more things that could maybe be frozen.”

“The Tsiigehtchic steppe bison is what really kind of alerted us to the risk of permafrost thaw exposing frozen fossils,” says Glen MacKay, territorial archaeologist.

Eventually, Van Loon decided to donate the find to the museum, on the condition they create a replica and display for the local community, as well as putting the remains on display for the public in Yellowknife. This way, people in the community will have access to their own history, where it was found, without having to travel to far off centres to experience their own territories' past.

MacKay calls the steppe bison a “really dramatic case,” but in the years since, they’ve had a few other ice age fossils emerge from thaw slumps in the Delta region. “The Tsiigehtchic steppe bison is what really kind of alerted us to the risk of permafrost thaw exposing frozen fossils.”

MacKay speculates that paleontology was probably just left out of the legislation when it was written as an oversight—it wasn’t known that it might be needed. But now, with climate change speeding up permafrost melt, more and more of the past is literally rising to the surface. A study published in the journal Nature in April noted that instead of a few centimetres of soil thawing each year as previously predicted, now several meters of soil in the Arctic and Boreal regions can be destabilized within weeks, even days. It’s happening so fast scientists are losing equipment they’ve left in the areas—swallowed up before they can retrieve the gear. While many studies have focused on the greenhouse gasses being released, or the impact on human habitation as homes are destabilized and roads turn into rivers, for archaeologists and paleontologists, the melt is a double-edged sword. Because permafrost suspends matter in an oxygen-free, neutral pH zone, perishable items can survive thousands of years on ice. In Birnirk, Alaska, archeologists found clothing made from seal and polar bear fur from A.D. 600-1300, and in 2012, researchers at the Russian Academy of Sciences brought Silene Stenophylla, a white tundra flower, back to life from 30,000-year-old fruits found in ancient squirrel burrows. It gives an unprecedented window to the past, but also creates risk: sites can be lost, discoveries destroyed before we even know about them.

In the NWT, melt has revealed single bones, like a steppe bison leg that turned out to be beyond the reach of radio carbon dating—placing it as older than 50,000 years—and a horse bone that was 14,000 years old. Construction, too, has turned up finds, like another skull, this one as the world’s worst speed bump on the Tuk highway. “A guy from Tuk found it in the roadbed. He was working on the project and he saw the horns sticking out of the roadbed. I’m speculating, but it was probably transported from the gravel source,” says MacKay.

No one knows for sure because unlike archaeological sites that have to be registered, paleontology sites aren’t covered by law. And without that legislated protection, history could literally be lost.

“The Tsiigehtchic steppe bison as a specimen itself, it’s amazing. It’s got 13,000-year-old skin: someone looking at that, that’s amazing for anybody I think. And in our exhibit, you can see what colour they were, because we have their hair. Shane van Loon’s parents, like 10 times in that trip, said you should make a toupee out of that, that was the joke of the weekend,” says MacKay.

But it’s more than just a cool find—it helps researchers paint a picture of what was happening in the region millennia ago. “Because that steppe bison was there over 13,000 years ago, it helped us learn more, in more detail, about the glaciers leaving that area. And about the environment of that area, that it was probably viable. We didn’t know for sure that at that time it was a viable environment for this type of fauna. And that’s also interesting because if it was viable for steppe bison it was probably viable for humans. We don’t have any evidence that old of human occupation of that region, but that gives us a clue that it was at least a possibility.”

MacKay stands by the headwall of the thaw slump where remains were discovered.

That kind of possibility weaves paleontology into a larger story that includes archaeology and human history, and centers Indigenous history in the region.

“This territory has a long rich history,” says Sarah Carr-Locke, director at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. “The steppe bison is now part of a Gwich’in story, so that’s also the importance of protecting those pieces, because a Gwich’in community member found it and it was found in the area. So there are a lot of different ways to look at paleontology being part of community stories.”

For rare finds like the steppe bison, she says one of the museum’s roles is to stabilize the find because as soon as it begins to defrost it begins to degrade.

“We do get a reputation sometimes that we want to squirrel it away and hide it, but what we want to do is stabilize and protect it, for the benefit of making sure it’s available for future generations, because it won’t be available to future generations if [finds] are sold or they’re not managed properly.”

Currently, there are over 6,500 known archaeological sites in the NWT—these are designated and given numbers, and developers looking at the area must take precautions around them. But the territory is large, and the number of archaeologists small—just two working for the government of the NWT, covering the entire territory, with a spattering of independent researchers. The nearest paleontologist is in the Yukon, and unlike with archaeological finds (which must go to the designated repository, the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre), there’s no central spot to gather anything that is turned up.

David Finch is one of those independent researchers. Over his 20 years in the field, he’s worked as an archaeologist with the heritage centre, and even on a number of forensic cases including the Robert Pickton case in British Columbia.

“With the exception of myself there are no non-government archaeologists in the territory. And I don’t do it full-time because there’s no money to be made out of it,” he says. “I make it sound horrible—it’s not. But we need more people, we need more money and we need tighter legislation.”

One of his big concerns isn’t just what’s being missed, but what’s being forgotten. Even after sites are discovered and identified, site revisits can be a problem—and with permafrost changing the landscape, it means that a site that was there two years ago may not be now. “If there aren’t people there to actually witness it you’re not going to know that heritage was ever there,” he says. “Quite frankly, heritage issues aren’t a concern for anybody until something goes wrong.”

Carr-Locke says they haven’t heard of any instances of sites being ignored or finds not being donated to the museum—yet. “We don’t know what we don’t know,” she says. She and her colleagues would like to see protection for paleontology added to territorial legislation.

“A lot of people don’t really care about heritage until it impacts them directly,” says Finch. “We need to foster that sense of identity in the Northwest Territories, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, that it does matter and that it’s connected. There’s heritage, it’s our heritage, and we have a responsibility to it.”