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Rural Alaska

Arctic youth finds woolly mammoth bone at least 12,000 years old

  • Author: Jenna Kunze
    , Arctic Sounder
  • Updated: August 29
  • Published August 28

Twelve-year-old Quinton Barnes was out playing by the river when he found something more than 1,000 times his age: a mammoth leg bone, found lying on the eroded ground of a ledge on the Nigiliq River, which connects to the Colville River, in Nuiqsut.

“I thought it was a rock and then I got closer and saw what I think is a dinosaur bone,” Barnes told The Sounder this week. “I just picked it up and started walking with it.”

University of Alaska Museum of the North director and paleontologist Pat Druckenmiller identified the bone this week as a “mammoth ulna,” or the front leg of a woolly mammoth.

“So not a dinosaur, but still very cool,” he said.

Druckenmiller said it’s easy to assume mammoths are related to dinosaurs, since they’re both large and extinct, but dinosaurs are reptiles and mammoths are a type of mammal.

Based on the photos of the bone and the large bump that comes off the bottom, he was able to identify it as one of the two bigger leg bones. He said it’s more than likely a woolly mammoth bone from between 12,000 and 40,000 years ago, though it’s also possible it could be a mastodon bone.

Mammoth and mastodons resemble each other, though they are very distant relatives.

“Ninety-eight percent of large furry extinct elephants we find in Alaska are mammoths, not mastodons,” Druckenmiller said.

Last Friday, Barnes carried the 30-pound bone about a mile to his sister’s home, where they measured it at just over 32 inches long.

Quinton Barnes, 12, holds the mammoth leg bone he found in the eroded bank of the Nigiliq River on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020. (Photo courtesy Maryanne Napageak)

“I was really excited that I found it,” Barnes said on Monday. “I want to keep it, but I also want to sell it at the same time, depending on how much it’s worth.”

Barnes wants to sell the bone to help pay for his mother’s cancer treatment. He thinks he could get about $1,200.

“I think it’s really cool finding something from ancient history because not many people can just find something like this,” he said. “You usually have to dig for this but I just found it with no effort at all.”

He said he would want the bone to go toward further researching dinosaurs (or mammoths) to see how they lived.

“If this is going to resurrect a dinosaur, I might just keep it,” he added. “I think that everything that comes from the bone and should be put to good use, and not (to) bring back dinosaurs, because they can actually misbalance the food chain.”

It’s not very unusual to find a mammoth bone up north, since Alaska was one of their prime stomping grounds, Druckenmiller said.

Barnes’ sister, 36-year-old Maryanne Napageak, said her husband, Thomas Napageak Jr., found a mammoth tusk in a nearby area in 2015. The 7-foot tusk is now on display at The Top of The World Hotel in Utqiaġvik.

A new dinosaur species was also found in the Colville River. The species was a type of duck-billed dinosaur that once roamed Alaska’s North Slope in herds, according to a University of Alaska Fairbanks statement from 2015.

As for a market for the bone, Druckenmiller said it’s not Museum of the North protocol to buy fossils, because they don’t want to incentivize people to go out and dig them up.

But how much is it worth?

“I don’t have an answer to that,” he said.

However, he added that the fossil belongs to whoever owns the land it was found on, whether it be private, state or federal.

Druckenmiller suggested that, once it’s clear who owns it, it would be great to publicly credit Barnes and share the bone with the local school in Nuiqsut. It would add more value for the local community than it would the museum, he said.

In the past 10 years, Druckenmiller has noticed the permafrost increasingly slumping along the Colville River, inevitably leading to more exposure for whatever is in it. “It’s melting faster, and probably going expose more things,” he said.

For now, Barnes will keep the mammoth bone as a keepsake. It’s currently locked away in his sister’s qanitchaq.

“I’m just amazed that a 12-year-old has (this) bone,” Napageak said.

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