Canadian Family Finds Ancient Bison Skeleton In Their Basement
May 3, 2012

Canadian Family Finds Ancient Bison Skeleton In Their Basement

Brett Smith for

Canadian Craig Duncan was digging a trench in the basement of his new house in the Yukon Territory capital of Whitehorse when he stumbled over something unusual.

“We were down about three feet, sifting through some of the stones down there to lay the electrical lines when I kicked what looked like a piece of bone,” Duncan said in an interview with the Canadian Press.

“First, I thought it could be a dinosaur or something, but when we saw the hoof, we thought it could be a horse or a bison.”

The next morning, Duncan went to the Yukon Department of Tourism and Culture to notify government archeologists and paleontologists of his findings.

"They got pretty excited. It was pretty funny – they just basically all came running," he said.

Within hours the excavation team began digging and eventually uncovered a nearly complete prehistoric bison skull and skeleton, a rare find in this remote area of northwestern Canada.

“There have only been about 10 partial bison finds in the Yukon and nothing as complete as a full skeleton,” said Grant Zazula, a paleontologist with the Yukon government.

“We expect findings in the Dawson area, but we would never have thought we´d find something like this in the city.”

Zazula added that the bison likely died an accidental death while roaming the area where Duncan´s house now stands.

"We're finding little shells of snails and what not. And if I took a guess, it was probably an animal on the ice that probably fell through," he said.

The bones have yet to carbon dated, but researchers estimate they may be 10,000 years old, about the same time Homo sapiens were taking the first steps toward civilization. The bones are believed to be remnants of one of two ancient groups of bison which roamed the Whitehorse area as early as the last ice age.

The skeleton most likely belongs to Bison antiquus, an extinct species of bison that was replaced by the modern bison, Bison bison, about 10,000 years ago.  The extinct species was likely hunted by the earliest Native Americans, as many of their weapons have been found with B. antiquus skeletons. Some scientists believe hunting led to their extinction.

Other theories point to Ice Age bison and wooly mammoths becoming extinct as a result of a dramatic shift to our current climate zones.

“At that time, we witnessed a wholesale collapse of many ecosystems throughout the region,” Zazula said.

The modern bison was nearly hunted to extinction in the late 19th century after European settlers hunted the population down to a few hundred animals. This process was expedited by the U.S. Army which endorsed the wholesale killing of bison herds.

Repopulation efforts have raised the current population of American bison to about 350,000. Many of these bison travel in free roaming herds of several hundred animals.

Yukon scientists said the newly discovered skeleton should serve as a notice to homeowners and construction workers digging in the earth.

“The lesson here is anyone out there digging basements should keep their eyes peeled for bones,” said Zazula.

“No one would have ever guessed that there would be bison bones there, and there were. So who knows where else they could be?”