Klondike placer miner makes rare discovery of extinct muskox skull

A placer gold miner in Yukon's Klondike region has a found a rare for-the-Yukon helmeted muskox skull and horns.

Stuart Schmidt discovered the helmeted muskox skull and horns during routine work on Monday

The skull and horns of a helmeted muskox found at mining operation south of Dawson City, Yukon. (Nancy Schmidt)

A placer gold miner in Yukon's Klondike region has found a rare for-the-Yukon helmeted muskox skull and horns.

Stuart Schmidt was using a machine to dig a drainage ditch at his operation on a creek in the Indian River valley, south of Dawson City, on Monday when he noticed what he thought was the tip of a bison horn sticking out of the muck.

"I gave a pull on it and it was solid, finally I managed to get it out of there, I looked at it, I thought I've never seen anything like this before," said Schmidt.

"It took me a minute to realize what it was," he said.

Stuart Schmidt with the helmeted muskox skull he found Monday at his placer mining operation on a creek in the Indian River valley. (Nancy Schmidt)

Schmidt grew up on mining creeks in the Klondike and is knowledgeable about bones and fossils.

Miners began discovering massive tusks, bones and other fossils at the beginning of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898. The Natural History Museum in Paris, the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution all sent expeditions in the early years of the Gold Rush to collect specimens.

Gold Rush era miners with a mastodon skull. (Dawson City Museum Archives)

Schmidt says it's not unusual for him to find pieces of extinct animals.

"Over the past several years, there's been bits of pieces of lion bone, short-faced bear, lots of bison and horse and mammoths, that type of thing, but I've never found a helmeted muskox before or heard of anybody that has actually, I think they're kind of rare," he said.

The only other similar discovery in the North that Grant Zazula, the Yukon government's paleontologist, knows of was in the Fairbanks, Alaska, area in the 1920s. He says the helmeted muskox skulls are more common in the southern United States.

Yukon paleontologist Grant Zazula says the skull is a rare find in the North. It will be radiocarbon dated to find out its age. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

Nevertheless, he said he was shocked when he received an email Tuesday from Schmidt with photos of the skull and horns.

"All of a sudden I look at these photos, this incredible skull he's holding in these photographs," said Zazula.

"I couldn't believe what I was looking at," he said.

"If it wasn't for placer mining and great people, placer miners like Stuart, these sort of fossils would never have become available," he said.

Zazula said a special feature of the horns is that they're still covered by sheaths that provided protection to the horns. He said they were preserved because they were buried in permafrost for thousands of years. He said the skull will be radiocarbon dated to determine its age. Zazula is guessing it's around 25,000 years old.

Another angle of the skull and horns. (Nancy Schmidt)

The skull is in Dawson City, where heritage officials are showing it to members of the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nation. Zazula said it will then be brought to Whitehorse where it will be used for research by members of the Yukon government's paleontology unit.

Schmidt said bones and fossils must, by law, be turned over to the government

"When you find something like that, it's not yours to keep," he said.

Schmidt hopes the skull stays in Whitehorse — perhaps at the Beringia Centre — and that at some point in the future a museum dedicated to ancient bones and fossils found in the Klondike region will be established in Dawson City.

With files from Mike Rudyk