- The Steppe bison once roamed across Europe, North America, and Asia during the Ice Age, and is believed to be ancestral to modern American bison.
- The Blue Babe, a mummified Steppe bison discovered in Alaska, is estimated to be around 36,000 years old and likely died from an Ice Age American lion attack.
- Visitors can see the Blue Babe on display at the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks, which is open year-round but it is advised to dress warmly due to the city’s extremely cold temperatures.
Today there are only two extant species of bison: the European bison and the American bison (split into the Plains bison and the Woods bison). But thousands of years ago there was also the Steppe bison. By visiting the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks, Alaska, visitors can discover a remarkably mummified Steppe bison called the Blue Babe (even if its discoverers took a bite out of it).
One of the best places to see Plains bison today is in Yellowstone National Park (America’s first national park). The European bison were also almost driven to extinction but are now making a comeback and the bison have recently been reintroduced to the Highlands of Scotland. Here’s what to know about Alaska’s prehistoric bison discovery.
What To Know About The Prehistoric Steppe Bison
The skeleton of a primitive steppe bison
The Steppe bison once roamed the vast mammoth steppes from the British Isles across Northern Europe, Central & North Asia, through Central North America. During this period, North America and Asia were connected by a land bridge called Beringia (a surviving fragment of which is preserved in the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve in Alaska).
- Range: Across European, North American, & Asian Ice Age Steppe
- Extinct: Perhaps 3,000 Years Ago
The range of the Steppe bison was truly impressive, going as far south as Mexico and even to Japan at certain times during the Pleistocene.
The Steppe bison is believed to have been ancestral to modern American bison. They are believed to have first evolved during the Middle Pleistocene in Asia and then dispersed around the steppes of the Northern Hemisphere.
The Pleistocene is colloquially known as the Ice Age and lasted from around 2.58 million years ago to 11,700 years ago as the last Ice Age ended. It is thought that the Steppe bison migrated across the Bering land bridge into North America from around 195,000 to 135,000.
The Steppe bison stood around 6 feet and 7 inches or over two meters tall at the withers and weighed up to around 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms). They are also notable for their large horns.
Steppe Bison Skull
The Steppe bison lasted into the mid-Holocene (human period). The last specimen recovered so far in Alaska died around 5,400 years ago while the last one found in Europe lived around 3,000 years ago.
They have also been found in cave art, including the Cave of Altamira in Spain famous for its prehistoric paintings (as well as the Lascaux Cave in France).
The Blue Babe: The 36,000-Year-Old Mummy Steppe Bison
The Blue Babe is perhaps the most dramatic Steppe bison discovery. It is a male Steppe bison that froze around 36,000 years ago north of modern Fairbanks, Alaska.
- Discovery: 1979
- Sex: Male
- Cause Of Death: Possibly Ice Age American Lion Attack
The Blue Babe was discovered in 1979 by gold miners in the area. It was found in Alaska’s Interior permafrost and had been there since the Ice Age. It has been dated to 36,000 years ago, but that date is expected to be refined in future studies.
Judging from marks found on the rear of the ancient carcass with tooth punctures, it is believed that the bison was killed by an Ice Age American lion. It likely succumbed to its wounds during the fall or winter when it was cold, and it quickly froze, becoming difficult for animals to scavenge.
European bison in the Knyszyn Forest
The researchers set to prepare Blue Babe for the permanent display at the University of Alaska Museum are recorded to have cut off a piece from its neck. They then stewed it and ate the 36,000-year-old piece of the mummy.
Since the discovery of the Blue Babe, more mummified Steppe bison have been discovered in their former range. As with the Wooly Mammoth, there have been suggestions to extract DNA from the mummies and use it for cloning the species back into existence in the future.
Visit The University of Alaska Museum In Fairbanks
Today, visitors can see the Blue Babe on display at the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks (Fairbanks is also one of the best places to see the Northern Lights).
A Mastodon skeleton from the Ice Age
- Summer Hours: 9:00 am to 7:00 pm (Daily – May 19 to August 17)
- General Admission: $16 (per adult)
- Museum Movie Theater: $5 Extra per person
- Address: UAF Campus, 1962 Yukon Drive, Fairbanks, AK
The museum is open year-round (although the opening hours change seasonally). While the museum is open in the winter, take an extra coat as Fairbanks is the coldest city in the United States.