Human remains found in Richardson Mountains
Northern News Services
Published Monday, August 4, 2008
If a satellite collar had not fallen off a Dall's sheep in that exact spot, the bones might have stayed hidden forever.
A group of researchers from the Gwich'in Renewable Resources Board (GRRB) flew by helicopter into the mountains on June 29 to retrieve a number of tracking collars that had dropped off sheep.
The devices are programmed to release after a preset time on the animals.
Kristen Callaghan, acting wildlife biologist with the GRRB, and summer student Chris Greenland were walking above the tree line on one of the mountains looking for a collar with the help of their GPS units. When they spotted the collar, they noticed something nearby.
"I was surprised to see some bone fragments lying next to the collar because it was in good condition and it had obviously not been removed from the sheep by a predator," said Callaghan.
The collar was at the mouth of a crevice in the side of the mountain. She said she noticed more bones further back in the shadows.
"It was a bit difficult to see so I called Chris down with me to come have a look, she said. "I expected the bones to be from a sheep and I thought he would be interested to see what they would look like."
Once inside, she and Greenland quickly realized the bones were human.
"I looked to see if there were any artifacts around the bones to give us an indication of their age, but other than lots of moss on the bones there was nothing apparent," she said. "Given the condition and the relatively protected location, I knew that they could be quite old."
Callaghan said although they were curious to know more, they knew not to touch or move the bones.
Instead she took several pictures so officials will be able to find the remains when they're able to return.
Exactly when the bones will be retrieved for identification remains to be seen. The location of the bones falls under the jurisdiction of RCMP in Aklavik.
Cpl. Holly Glassford said they have received the GRRB's report of the bones and are looking at travelling out to the site sometime this year. They will need a helicopter to get there and the costs and logistics will mean it will take some time to plan.
Because the bones may even be prehistoric, the remains were also reported to the Gwich'in Social and Cultural Institute.
"We're hoping to go in later in the fall, but it will all depend on if there is going to be support and funding," said Ingrid Kritsch, research director with the institute.
She said the GRRB's treatment of the remains was a textbook example of how to handle a culturally sensitive site.
Not touching or moving anything, taking pictures, and noting the location will make the job of police and researchers much easier.
Although there is no way of knowing for sure the age of the remains until an expert can examine the site, the lack of modern artifacts such as zippers or camping gear is leading those involved to think they might be very old.
"It's probably not a unique find if it is old because people were living on the land and travelling a lot in those days, and the tradition was to bury them close to where they had died," said Kritsch.
She said they will have to consult with the Gwich'in community to see what they want done with the remains, if anything.
She said it would be possible to take a tiny fragment to carbon date the bones, which will tell researchers how old the remains are.