Fairbanks-area miner appears on ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’ podcast last month and sparked international headlines and a treasure hunt in a New York waterway that raised concerns with the US Coast Guard.
John Reeves, owner of Fairbanks Gold Co., told the podcaster and his millions of listeners that the American Museum of Natural History dumped valuable mammoth tusks into New York’s East River some 80 years ago‚ specifically around the area of 65th Street.
After that, people really went looking for them. But experts, including a researcher associated with a report cited by Reeves when he made the claim, cast doubt on whether valuable tusks will actually be found.
The tusks were part of a huge collection of Ice Age fossils collected from Alaska, said Reeves, who also serves on the board of the Alaska Railroad. In the show he read from a draft report related to Fairbanks Exploration, a former mining company whose assets he acquired. Over several decades around World War II, the mining company discovered many of the bones and tusks from the Ice Age, which were sent to the museum.
Reeves also owns historic mining lands inland, including five acres in the Fairbanks area that he calls Boneyard Alaska. In an amateur fossil hunt, he found a vast collection of mammoth tusks and bones, plus the remains of other extinct Ice Age animals such as polar bears, steppe bison and American lions.
“I’ve admired your Instagram page and all your social media stuff forever and it’s crazy and confusing,” Rogan said. “So I couldn’t wait to bring you here and see how the hell you got this magical place you have in Alaska?”
During the conversation, Reeves told Rogan, whose podcast is among the most popular in the world, that a wagonload of bones and tusks, about 50 tons, was dumped in the waterway because the museum ran out of storage space. Someone with scuba gear and a boat might want to look for it, Reeves suggested, noting that a nice set of tusks can cost well over $100,000.
“It’s going to be the biggest goddamn bonehead in the history of the world,” Reeves said on the show.
In the days following the show, the Daily Mail, a British tabloid, thundered false headlines about what Reeves said, including that 500,000 tusks worth up to $1 billion were dumped. (Reeves called the article “BS” on Boneyard’s Instagram page.)
But all the talk about the potential value of tusks and bones prompted at least a few boaters and divers to go searching, including Don Gunn, known as “Dirty Water Don” on Discovery’s Sewer Divers show, according to news accounts and social media.
The New York museum said in a statement that it was not aware of the dump or the report cited by Reeves.
“The American Museum of Natural History has no record of such a disposal, including no record of a published article claiming this,” the museum’s Kendra Snyder said in a statement.
But Bob Sattler, lead archaeologist for the Tanana Conference of Chiefs in Fairbanks, said he has a copy of the report that lists him as a co-author.
Sattler said Wednesday that the museum likely won’t know about the draft report. But he said it was written by a “very credible” anthropologist and geneticist, Dick Osborne, around the mid-1990s, around the time Sattler began his long career with the Interior Alaska tribal organization.
Osborne, a Fairbanks-educated Alaska native, died in 2005
Osborne’s father worked for Fairbanks Exploration, Sattler said. Before Osborne joined the army in World War II, he helped with excavations some of the fossils which were sent to the museum in New York, which has one of the premier collections of Ice Age fossils in the world, Sattler said.
Osborne could have known firsthand about the dumping in the East River, Sattler said.
The draft report was Osborne’s first attempt at creating a larger book that looked at fossil collecting in the Fairbanks mining area, Sattler said. The book was not finished because Osborne had died, Sattler said.
Osborne wrote the draft while communicating with Sattler and Robert Evender, a former fellow in the museum’s Division of Vertebrate Paleontology who is also listed as a co-author, Sattler said.
Sattler said he believes some fossils were dumped into the East River, but not 50 tons. And he suspects that only “tusk debris” was dumped, plus other “unidentified material” and bones.
“I can’t imagine that it’s right for a 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 University of Alaska Fairbanks North Museum, said the university is part of an agreement to send many of the fossils found by the Fairbanks Exploration to the museum in New York.
He is skeptical that the Ice Age bones from Alaska were dumped in the East River.
“The proof is in the pudding,” Druckenmiller said. “If somebody actually dives into the river and goes through the mud and silt and who knows what’s at the bottom, maybe some investment bankers and mobsters, and they find a big pile of bones, then that’s the evidence.”
Reeves did not return multiple interview requests for this article. While he indicated on Joe Rogan’s show that he hasn’t spoken to other media outlets about Boneyard, he has allowed a director to create 2019. documentary “Boneyard Alaska” that Rogan touts.
Reeves told Rogan that he kept the objects he found safe, but that he had done the work largely without the presence of scientists.
Drakenmiller said The Boneyard is a little-known but “particularly rich little place” for finding animal remains that are tens of thousands of years old.
Druckenmiller said the site has great scientific potential, such as well-preserved DNA, and he would like to see experts at the site extracting and detailing the finds.
He said it could provide a rare window into the Pleistocene ecosystem, allowing scientists to study insects and small mammals such as voles or foxes, alongside the more famous large animals that miners collected, such as mammoths.
In addition, scientists could try to better understand why so many animal remains are found in the area, a mystery that Reeves and Rogan pondered on the show.
“Careful collection of this information while it is available would be important,” Druckenmiller said. “There aren’t that many places for that anymore.”
To find his specimens, Reeves splashes water on bumps in the ground and the bones are freed from the permafrost and mud, he said. Reeves said he has collected about a quarter of a million fossils over about 15 years.
Rogan and Reeves, with lots of rough talk and cigarette and cigar smoke, talked for three hours. They often talked about Reeves’ life and his fossil hunting.
“Do you know how crazy it would be if there were mammoth bones right there in the East River?” Rogan said. “Tusks? Right there in the East River.
Rogan said he would invite anyone who finds a tusk to appear on his podcast.
The report cited by Reeves, which he published on Boneyard’s Instagram page, suggests the material would be damaged bones or tusks in unacceptable condition. The remains come not only from mammoths, but also from ice age bison and horses.
But that hasn’t stopped people from looking 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, Petty Officer Third Class.
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 can be dangerous in the busy East River, he said.
New York City police responded to reports of a diver and another person who called the Coast Guard saying they planned to use an underwater drone, apparently on a tusk hunt, Kaczmarek said.
“We’re just trying to figure this out because, as you can imagine, it’s a pretty strange 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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