Gold miner in Canada finds 35,000-year-old woolly mammoth mummified

It was a young miner, digging through the permafrost of northern Canada at the seemingly aptly named Eureka Creek, who sounded the alarm when his front loader hit something unexpected in the Klondike goldfields.

What he had found would later be described by the territory’s paleontologist as “one of the most incredible mummified ice age animals ever discovered in the world”: an amazingly preserved carcass of a woolly baby mammoth more than 35,000 years old.

“She’s perfect and beautiful,” Grant Zazula, a paleontologist from the Canadian Yukon Territory, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

“She has a trunk. She has a tail. She has small ears. She has the little prehensile end of her trunk where she could use it to pick up grass.”

He described the discovery as the “most important discovery in paleontology in North America”. With much of the skin and hair intact, officials said the find is the most complete mummified mammal found on the continent.

It is believed that the woolly mammoth was just over a month old when it died. At 140 cm long, she is slightly longer than the only other woolly mammoth baby discovered in Siberia in 2007.

The discovery was made in the traditional territory of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation. In ceremony earlier this week, the elders named the calf Nun cho ga, which means “big baby animal” in the Hän language.

“It’s amazing,” said Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in elder Peggy Kormendy in a statement. “I was breathless when they removed the tarp.”

Chief Roberta Joseph of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nations said she will seek to move forward with the remains “in a manner that honors our traditions, culture and laws”, adding that the cho ga nun “chose to reveal herself to all we”.

The words may have been a nod to the stroke of luck that facilitated the discovery. The miner’s phone call arrived on an official holiday in the territory, leaving Zazula scrambling to track down anyone in the area who could hastily travel to the site to retrieve the find.

He ended up tracking down two geologists in the region. “And the amazing thing is, an hour after they were there to do the work, the sky opened up, turned black, lightning started to fall, and rain started to fall,” Zazula said. “So if she hadn’t recovered at that time, she would have been lost in the storm.”

Related: Woolly mammoth walked far enough to circle the Earth twice, study says

The geologists who recovered her found a patch of grass in her stomach, suggesting the child’s last moments were spent grazing as she roamed territory that at the time was home to wild horses, cave lions and giant steppe bison.

Its almost perfectly preserved state suggests that it may have become trapped in the mud before ending up frozen in permafrost during the ice age. “And that event, from getting stuck in the mud to the burial, went really, really fast,” he said.

Days after the discovery, the excitement still hadn’t faded. “It will take days, weeks and months to understand,” Zazula said. “And it will take days, weeks and months working with Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in to decide what we do and learn from it.”

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