Chapter 2 – Archaeology and Yukon’s First Peoples

Yukon’s Landscape and Geology

Located in the northwest corner of Canada, Yukon is 482,443 km2, of which approximately 474,000 km² is land and 8,000 km² is water. The territory is bordered by Alaska, the Northwest Territories, and British Columbia and is part of the Canadian Cordillera, which consists of large mountains and plateaus connected to the Rocky and Coast mountain ranges. Various minerals can be found in Yukon, including silver, gold, copper, lead, asbestos, and ochre.

There are four major river systems in Yukon. The largest is the Yukon River, which begins in Atlin, Teslin, Tagish, and Bennett lakes in British Columbia and the southern Yukon and runs more than 3,000 km through Yukon and Alaska, draining into the Bering Sea. This river has many tributaries, including the Porcupine, White, Klondike, Stewart, Pelly, and Teslin rivers in Yukon. The other major river systems are the Peel River in the northeastern Yukon, the Liard River in the southeast, and the Alsek River in the southwest. Some of the larger lakes in Yukon include Kluane, Aishihik, Dezadeash, Kusawa, Laberge, Bennett, Tagish, Marsh, Teslin, Little Salmon, Tatlmain, Big Kalsas, Ethel, Mayo, Frances, and Finlayson lakes.

The climate of Yukon is both arctic and subarctic and is characterized by long cold winters, with an average temperature of –29.5°C, and brief warm summers when the average temperature is 21°C. The Coastal Mountains block moisture from moving inland from the Pacific Ocean, which creates a drier climate than that on the Alaska side of the mountain range.

The ecology of Yukon is part of the boreal forest ecoregion.[1] Most mountain peaks and higher elevations are characterized by alpine tundra,[2] while the coastal plain is Arctic coastal tundra.[3] The boreal forest developed after the last ice age when the ice sheets retreated, leaving behind new lakes, rivers, and valleys. As the environment began to warm up, new species of fish and animals began to appear (Ember et al. 2012:159).


  1. This ecoregion is characterized by mountain ranges, which contain numerous high peaks and plateaus separated by wide valleys and lowlands. These have been modified as a result of glaciation, erosion, the gradual movement of wet soil or other materials downslope, and rock fragments and particles ejected and deposited by volcanic eruptions (Smith et al. 2004:158).
  2. Alpine tundra is an ecozone that does not contain trees because it is at high altitude.
  3. Arctic coastal tundra is an ecozone that is low, flat, and boggy. The below-ground soil is damp and thick and contains permafrost (permanently frozen ground), often to great depths, and only the surface active layer thaws in the summer (Smith et al. 2004:32).

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ECHO: Ethnographic, Cultural and Historical Overview of Yukon's First Peoples by Victoria Elena Castillo, Christine Schreyer, and Tosh Southwick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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