‘Quite rare’: 12,000 year old bison bones discovered at Saanich construction site

'Quite rare': 12,000 year old bison bones discovered at Saanich construction site
Broadmede Care
Construction workers in Saanich were excited when they learned their discovery dated back roughly 12,000 years.

A long-term care home construction site in Saanich turned into a paleontological site after bison bones were discovered which experts believe date back at least 12,000 years.

Two weeks ago, Steve Oatman was afraid of his discovery while working onsite at the future home of Broadmead Care’s Nigel House.

“I was very like cautious, worried that it was something else,” said Oatman, an operator with Michell Excavating LTD.

But after finding various bones too large to be human, he thought it may have been a sabertooth tiger or a mammoth. Workers at the construction quickly put in a call.

“It was really exciting, I was really excited to dig it up. I wanted to keep going. Of course, we had to wait for everyone to come in and do their actual job,” said Oatman.

Paleontologist Edward Davies was among one the handful of experts who were called to examine the fossil. The team was able to uncover around 20 per cent of the animal bones including parts of the backbone, feet, shoulder, skull, horn, and pieces of its ribcage.

“Finding this number of bones together is quite significant,” said Davies.

Davies estimates that the bison was an older male and the bones were found at least four meters below the surface, surrounded by marine clay which was formed after the last age around 14,000 years ago. Bison were known to be in British Columbia at least 12,000 years ago.

“We have grey clay, marine clay which would have occurred after the glacier started to retreat,” said Davies.

The paleontologist added that volcanic ash was found in the soil above the bones, which dates back to an eruption in Oregon over 7,000 years ago,

Volcanic ash remnants (Courtesy Broadmede Care)

Derek Larson, collections manager and researcher for paleontology at the Royal BC Museum says a fossil find like this on Vancouver Island is quite rare. The museum believes the last time that a bison fossil was found was in the 1980s.

Bison have been known to live throughout parts of North America including Alaska, Yukon, Alberta, and parts of British Columbia. Experts believe that bison were able to travel to Vancouver Island through an ‘ice-free corridor’ during the ice age.

“The rest of Canada would have been glaciated 12 to 14,000 years ago. Along the coast, there was land where bison as well as well as people and a number of other animals could move between Alaska and the United States basically all along the coast of Canada,” said Larson.

All of the bones have been excavated and are safely stored away for examination. RBCM currently does not have plans to carbon-date the bones since there is enough evidence to support the timeline of when the bison may have died.

“The geology of Victoria is very well known. We have a good sense of the different layers of sediment that were laid down as those glaciers receded,” said Larson. “We don’t necessarily have to carbon date it because we know exactly what layer it belongs to in this sort of layer-cake of sediment.”

Bison bones discovered at a Saanich construction site. (Courtesy Broadmede Care)

The construction project has been slightly set back due to the excavation process, according to Broadmead Care CEO Derrick Bernardo. He says that they had to pay for the cost of digging the bones out, but the non-profit organization is hoping to use this opportunity to get the community involved.

“Our fundraising team is working diligently to look at way in which we can offset this additional cost. Some themes have come up,” said Bernardo.

Broadmead Care says once the Nigel House project is complete, they’ll look at ways to showcase the discovery.

“Whether it’d be a painting, a picture or photo, and hopefully a casting,” said Bernardo.

Oli HerreraOli Herrera

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