A Fairbanks-area miner appeared in The Joe Rogan Experience podcast last month and sparked international headlines and a treasure hunt on a New York waterway, raising concern among the US Coast Guard.
John Reeves, owner of Fairbanks Gold Co., told the podcaster and its millions of listeners that the American Museum of Natural History dumped prized mammoth tusks in New York’s East River some 80 years ago, particularly in the area around 65th Street.
After that, people actually went looking for them. But experts, including a researcher linked to a report that Reeves cited when making the claim, doubt whether valuable tusks will actually be found.
The tusks were part of a vast collection of Ice Age fossils collected in Alaska, said Reeves, who is also a board member of the Alaska Railroad. On the show, he Read from a draft report related to Fairbanks exploration, a former mining company whose assets he acquired. For a few decades around World War II, the mining company unearthed many of the Ice Age bones and tusks that were sent to the museum.
Reeves also owns historic mining properties inland, including five acres in the Fairbanks area he calls Boneyard Alaska. On an amateur fossil hunt, he has unearthed a vast collection of mammoth tusks and bones, as well as remains of other extinct Ice Age animals such as short-faced bears, steppe bison and American lions.
Rogan invited Reeves to his December 30 show after following Boneyard’s Instagram account.
“I’ve admired your Instagram page and all your social media stuff for ages and it’s crazy and confusing,” Rogan said. “So I couldn’t wait to bring you over here and see how the heck you acquired this magical spot in Alaska?”
During the conversation, Reeves told Rogan – whose podcast is one of the world’s most popular – that a wagon full of bones and tusks, about 50 tons, was dumped into the waterway because the museum ran out of storage space. Someone with scuba gear and a boat might want to look for them, Reeves suggested, noting that a nice pair of tusks can cost well over $100,000.
“This is going to be the greatest goddamn bone rush in the history of the world,” Reeves said on the show.
In the days following the show, the Daily Mail, a British tabloid, belted out false headlines about what Reeves had to say, including saying that 500,000 tusks worth up to $1 billion had been disposed of. (Reeves titled the article “BS” on Boneyard’s Instagram page.)
But all this talk about the potential value of the tusks and bones prompted at least a few boaters and divers to look around, including Don Gann, known as “Dirty Water Don” on the Sewer Divers show on Discovery, according to news reports and social media.
The New York museum said in a statement it was not aware of any dumping or the report cited by Reeves.
“The American Museum of Natural History has no record of any such disposal, including no record of any published paper claiming it,” Kendra Snyder said in a statement to the museum.
But Bob Sattler, senior archaeologist at the Tanana Chiefs Conference in Fairbanks, said he had a copy of the report, citing him as a co-author.
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Sattler said Wednesday the museum was likely unaware of the draft report. But he said it was written by a “very credible” anthropologist and geneticist, Dick Osborne, in about the mid-1990s, around the time Sattler was beginning his long career with the Indian Alaska tribal organization.
Osborne, an Alaskan educated in Fairbanks, died in 2005.
Osborne’s father worked for Fairbanks Exploration, Sattler said. Before Osborne joined the military in World War II, he helped excavate some fossils that were sent to the New York Museum, which has one of the world’s leading collections of Ice Age fossils, Sattler said.
Osborne would have had first-hand knowledge of the discharge into the East River, Sattler said.
The draft report was Osborne’s first attempt at creating a larger book dedicated to collecting fossils in the Fairbanks Mining District, Sattler said. The book wasn’t finished because Osborne died, Sattler said.
Osborne wrote the draft while communicating with Sattler and Robert Evander, formerly of the museum’s Vertebrate Paleontology Division, who is also listed as a co-author, Sattler said.
Sattler said he believes some fossils were dumped in the East River, but not 50 tons. And he suspects that only “scrap tusks” and other “unidentifiable material” and bones were disposed of.
“I don’t think it’s right for the museum to throw whole tusks into the East River because these are valuable items that are on display and any museum would want them,” Sattler said.
Pat Druckenmiller, a vertebrate paleontologist and director of the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said the university was part of an agreement to send many of the fossils found by Fairbanks’ exploration to the New York museum.
He is skeptical that Alaskan Ice Age bones were dumped into the East River.
“The proof is in the pudding,” said Druckenmiller. “If someone actually dives into the river and gets through the mud and mud and who knows what’s at the bottom, maybe some investment bankers and gangsters, and they find a big pile of bones, then there’s proof.”
Reeves did not respond to multiple interview requests for this article. While he has stated on The Joe Rogan Show that he does not discuss Boneyard with any other media, he has allowed a filmmaker to create the 2019 documentary Boneyard Alaska, which Rogan touted.
Reeves told Rogan that he keeps the items he unearthed safe, but he did the work largely without the presence of scientists.
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said Druckmiller The Boneyard is a little-known but “particularly rich little place” for finding animal remains dating back tens of thousands of years.
Druckenmiller said the site holds a lot of scientific potential, such as well-preserved DNA, and he would like to see experts on site to extract and detail the finds.
He said it could offer a rare window into a Pleistocene ecosystem, with scientists able to study insects and small mammals like voles or foxes, alongside the more familiar large animals miners have collected, like mammoths.
Also, scientists could be trying to better understand why so much animal remains are found in this area — a mystery Reeves and Rogan pondered on the show.
“It would be important to carefully collect this information while it exists,” said Druckenmiller. “There aren’t that many places left where you can do that.”
To find his specimens, Reeves sprays water at ledges, and the bones break out of the permafrost and mud, he said. Reeves said he collected about a quarter million fossils in about 15 years.
Rogan and Reeves chatted for three hours with much harsh talk and swirling cigarette and cigar smoke. They often spoke about the life of Reeves and his fossil hunt.
“You know how crazy it would be if there were fucking mammoth bones in the East River?” said Rogan. “Tusks? Right there in the East River.”
Rogan said he will invite anyone who finds a tusk to his podcast.
The report quoted by Reeves, which he posted on Boneyard’s Instagram page, suggests the material could have been damaged bones or tusks in unacceptable condition. The remains came not only from mammoths, but also from bison and horses from the Ice Age.
But that hasn’t stopped people from searching for the bones.
Reports of the treasure hunt have raised concerns at the U.S. Coast Guard in New York, said Coast Guard spokesman Logan Kaczmarek, a third-class corporal.
Diving in the waterway requires a Coast Guard permit, which must be obtained months in advance, Kaczmarek said. The Coast Guard wants to prevent illegal diving, which could be dangerous in the busy East River, he said.
New York City police have responded to reports from a diver, and another person called the Coast Guard and said he was planning to deploy an underwater drone, apparently hunting for tusks, Kaczmarek said.
“We’re trying to figure that out right now, because as you can imagine, it’s a pretty weird thing,” he said. “As strange as this story is, the Coast Guard wants to make sure no one gets hurt,” he said.
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