A Fairbanks-area miner appeared on “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast last month and sparked international headlines and a treasure hunt in a New York City waterway, raising concerns at the U.S. Coast Guard.
John Reeves, owner of the 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 City’s East River about 80 years ago‚ specifically around the area off 65th Street.
After that, people actually went looking for them. But experts, including a researcher connected to a report Reeves cited when he made the claim, cast doubt on whether valuable tusks will actually be found.
The tusks were part of a vast collection of ice age fossils gathered from Alaska, said Reeves, who’s also a board member for the Alaska Railroad. On the show, he read from a draft report associated with Fairbanks Exploration, a former mining firm 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 historical mining lands in the Interior, including five acres in the Fairbanks area that he calls the Boneyard Alaska. In an amateur hunt for fossils, he has unearthed a massive collection of mammoth tusks and bones, plus remains from other extinct ice age animals like short-faced bears, steppe bison and American lions.
“I been admiring your Instagram page and all your social media stuff forever and it’s crazy and perplexing,” Rogan said. “So I couldn’t wait to get you in here and see, how the hell did you acquire this magical spot that you have in Alaska?”
During the conversation, Reeves told Rogan — whose podcast is among the world’s most popular — that a boxcar of bones and tusks, about 50 tons, were dumped into the waterway because the museum had run out of storage space. Someone with diving equipment and a boat might want to look for it, Reeves suggested, noting that a nice set of tusks can go for well over $100,000.
“It’s gonna be the biggest goddamn bone rush in world history,” Reeves said on the show.
In the days after the show, the Daily Mail, a British tabloid, blared out incorrect headlines about what Reeves had to say, including that 500,000 tusks worth up to $1 billion had been dumped. (Reeves called the article “BS” on the Boneyard’s Instagram page.)
But all the talk about the potential value of the tusks and bones prompted at least a few boaters and divers to go looking, including Don Gann, known as “Dirty Water Don” on the “Sewer Divers” show on Discovery, according to news accounts and social media.
The New York City museum said in a statement it wasn’t aware of a dumping or the report Reeves cited.
“The American Museum of Natural History has no record of any such disposal, including no record of a paper published that alleges this,” said a statement from Kendra Snyder, with the museum.
But Bob Sattler, lead archaeologist for the Tanana Chiefs Conference in Fairbanks, said he has a copy of the report, which lists him as co-author.
Sattler said Wednesday that the museum likely wouldn’t have knowledge of the draft report. But he said it was written by a “very credible” anthropologist and geneticist, Dick Osborne, around the mid-1990s, about the time Sattler was starting his long career with the Interior Alaska tribal organization.
Osborne, an Alaskan who was 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 unearth some of the fossils that were sent to the New York museum, which has one of the leading collections of ice age fossils in the world, Sattler said.
Osborne would have had firsthand knowledge of the dumping into the East River, Sattler said.
The draft report was Osborne’s first crack at creating a larger book that looked at fossil collecting in the Fairbanks Mining District, Sattler said. The book wasn’t finished because Osborne died, Sattler said.
Osborne wrote the draft while he was communicating with Sattler and Robert Evander, formerly with the museum’s department 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 only “scrap tusks,” plus other “unidentifiable material” and bones, were disposed.
“I can’t imagine it’s correct that the museum would dump entire tusks in the East River, because those are prized items that go on display and any museum would want those,” Sattler said.
Pat Druckenmiller, a vertebrate paleontologist and director of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Museum of the North, said the university was part of an agreement to send many of the fossils found by Fairbanks Exploration to the New York museum.
He’s skeptical ice age bones from Alaska were dumped into the East River.
“The proof is in the pudding,” Druckenmiller said. “If someone actually dives in the river and gets through the muck and ooze and who knows what is at the bottom, maybe some investment bankers and mobsters, and they find a big pile of bones, then there’s the proof.”
Reeves did not return multiple requests for an interview for this article. While he indicated on the Joe Rogan show he’s not talking to other media about the Boneyard, he has allowed a filmmaker to create the 2019 documentary “Boneyard Alaska,” which Rogan touted.
Reeves told Rogan that he’s safely storing the items he unearths, but he’s done the work largely without scientists present.
Druckenmiller said the Boneyard is a little-known but “especially rich little spot” for finding animal remains that are tens of thousands of years old.
Druckenmiller said the site holds a lot of scientific potential, such as well-preserved DNA, and he’d like to see experts at the site extracting and detailing the finds.
He said it could provide a rare window into a Pleistocene ecosystem, with scientists able to study insects and small mammals like voles or foxes, alongside the higher-profile large animals that the miners collected such as mammoths.
Also, scientists could try to better understand why so many animal remains are being found in this area — a mystery that Reeves and Rogan mulled over in the show.
“To collect that information carefully while it’s in place would be important,” Druckenmiller said. “There’s not that many places to do that anymore.”
To find his specimens, Reeves sprays water at ledges of earth, and the bones break free from the permafrost and muck, he said. Reeves said he’s collected around a quarter-million fossils over about 15 years.
Rogan and Reeves, with lots of tough-guy talk and cigarette and cigar smoke swirling, chatted for three hours. They often talked about Reeves’ life and his fossil hunting.
“Do you know how crazy it’d be if there’s f—ing mammoth bones right there in the East River?” Rogan said. “Tusks? Right there in the East River.”
Rogan said he’ll invite anyone who finds a tusk to be on his podcast.
The report Reeves quoted from, which he posted on the Boneyard’s Instagram page, suggests that the material would have been damaged bones or tusks in unacceptable condition. The remains came not just from mammoths, but from ice age bison and horses.
But that hasn’t stopped people from looking for the bones.
Reports of the treasure hunting have raised concerns with the U.S. Coast Guard in New York, said Coast Guard spokesman Logan Kaczmarek, a third-class petty officer.
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 that could be dangerous in the busy East River, he said.
New York City police have responded to reports of a diver, and another person called the Coast Guard saying he planned to use an underwater drone, apparently on the hunt for tusks, Kaczmarek said.
“We are just trying to figure this out because as you can imagine it’s a pretty strange thing,” he said. “As odd as this story is,” the Coast Guard wants to make sure no one is hurt, he said.
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