Archaeologist whose research in Yukon made waves in science world remembered


Jacques Cinq-Mars, a man perhaps best known for his research in some of the more remote parts of the Yukon, has died. His son, a colleague and a resident of Old Crow, where a large portion of his work took place, share their memories of Cinq-Mars.

Jacques Cinq-Mars was a man known for his research in some of the more remote parts of the Yukon. He found evidence of human beings in Yukon's Bluefish caves near Old Crow, Yukon, dating back 24,000 years. He died on Nov. 27.(Submitted by Eric Cinq-Mars)

The archaeologist best known for his work in Yukon's Bluefish Caves where he found that human beings set foot in North America much earlier than originally thought, died Nov. 27. He was 79.

Jacques Cinq-Mars discovered that humans were in the Yukon 24,000 years ago instead of the scientifically accepted notion for a long time that it had only been 13,000 years.

It made him an unpopular figure in the research community for a time.

Cinq-Mars worked for the Canadian Museum of History, where he began many of his research trips in the Old Crow area, beginning in the early 1970s.

That's when Elder William Josie of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow, Yukon, first met him. Josie was around 12 or 13 years old at the time.

Josie said Cinq-Mars got along well with the locals he met, and that his research helped with his community's land claim negotiations.

"It really helped us, you know," he said. "Our people, we took less money for more land that means a lot to us. And, you know, the elders that time said, we won't regret it. And we definitely don't today."

Josie described him as a "very passionate guy."

"He sort of took us under his wing and he taught us a lot," he said. "I really appreciate that."

"I will remember him as a good teacher and mentor."

A colleague of Cinq-Mars, Yukon archaeologist Ruth Gotthardt, said she first met Cinq-Mars in 1975, while she was an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto.

'His best legacy'

Cinq-Mars and Bill Irving had just started up the northern Yukon research program and were looking for students to help them catalog collections.

At the time, Gotthard was a second-year archaeology student and was "desperate" to get her hands on some real archaeology, so she volunteered.

"He was very gruff," she remembers with a laugh.

"He didn't suffer fools gladly. He was very intimidating in terms of you know, you would ask questions, and he would say, 'well, that's a stupid question.'"

But when he did answer questions, he knew "so much," she said.

Gotthardt said she wasn't surprised when Cinq-Mars announced the findings at bluefish dated to 24,000 years ago, because she was there.

"We were all thinking, this is really worth entertaining that human beings came not after the last ice age, but you know, during the last ice age at some point, and we figured, 'well, why not?'" Gotthardt said.

She said she'll remember Cinq-Mars's curiosity about the world.

"It's his interest in everything, right?" she said. "He's worked at such a range of different sites [in Yukon]," Gotthardt said.

Jacques Cinq-Mars and Ruth Gotthardt in front of Bluefish Cave II in 1997.(Government of Yukon)

She said he not only "had so much knowledge," but he also encouraged other researchers to work in the area too.

"His kind of scholarly … energy that encourages others to do research and expand the research, I think, is what I'll remember about him," she said.

"I think that's his best legacy."

'Never only about him'

For his son, Eric Cinq-Mars, the scientist was something of a role model.

"My dad is pretty much someone that my brother and I looked up to," Eric said.

While Cinq-Mars was "very kind and generous" to his sons, Eric said, he was that way toward others in his life, including citizens of the Gwich'in community, with whom he spent a lot of time. Eric said he had the chance to go to Yukon to see his father's work in 1998 and 1999.

Jacques Cinq-Mars at Bluefish Cave I in 1979, mapping the bone pit in front of the cave.(Submitted by Ruth Gotthardt)

He remembers the interactions between his dad and the community elders as one of mutual "utmost respect."

"I think that it was very reciprocal. I think they very much enjoyed each other's company, to say the least," Eric said.

When it comes to the ripples his father made in the science world with his Bluefish Caves findings, he said he always remained sure of himself.

"My father was a very stubborn man," Eric said. "He had to fight for his results. But, in the end, he was always quite clear about how accurate his research was."

And several years later, when Cinq-Mars was proved to be right about his initial findings that humans were in Yukon 24,000 years ago, Eric said it was soothing for him.

"My father was quite happy to know that he was finally recognized within the scientific community, yet, he always knew that he was right," Eric said.

"For him, archeology was a passion obviously … but he was a very kind and human and gentle person who enjoyed sharing with others," Eric said.

"It was never only about him."

Cinq-Mars leaves behind his wife, Andrée Favre, and his two sons, Marc and Eric Cinq-Mars.

With files from Elyn Jones and Leonard Linklater

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