TORONTO – The appearance of a child in a 120-year-old photo taken during the Yukon gold rush -- has sparked jokes suggesting that the picture features a “time traveller.”

But not just any time traveller: the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg.

The black-and-white photograph entitled “Three children operating rocker at a gold mine on Dominion Creek, Yukon Territory, circa. 1898,” belongs to the archives at the University of Washington.

One of the children, with braids and a stoic stare, bears a striking resemblance to the Swedish teenager and climate change activist.

The resemblance between the gold miner and Thunberg has sent conspiracy theorists into a tailspin.

Among the many tweets, one person tweeted: “So, ‘Greta Thunberg’ is in a photo from 120 years ago, and it’s my new favourite conspiracy. Greta’s a time traveller from the future, and she’s here to save us.”

In a phone interview with CTVNews.ca on Wednesday, Kristin Kinsey, the digital and visual materials specialist at the university archives, called all the attention “really insane.”

But the story behind the photo is not as far-fetched as the jokesters suggest.


SWEDISH PHOTOGRAPHER CAPTURED THE GOLD RUSH

The photo is actually part of a large collection from Swedish photographer Eric Hegg, who documented the Alaska-Yukon gold rush as the 19th century turned into the 20th.

Kinsey says that the set was one of the first collections the school ever received. She dubbed it one of the “core collections” the university has on the gold rush.

“He, along with a lot of photographers, went up and dragged their equipment by dogsled, by boat,” Kinsey said. “He took (photos of) various aspects of the gold mining -- that big adventure, the big explosion of gold-seekers.”

According to the university’s page on Hegg’s life, during the summer of 1898, he and his brother Peter made their way up the Yukon River to document the stampede of prospectors.

“Before Hegg left in June, he turned the majority of his work which was produced in the British Columbia town of Bennett over to the photographer Edward Hamacher who later relocated to Whitehorse,” the site explains.

The biography adds that many of the photographs were developed under “arduous circumstances,” which included a travelling darkroom in the bow of a specially-designed small boat.

But the image featuring the Thunberg-lookalike was of note because the photos didn’t usually capture many children mining for gold, Kinsey said. And the identity and nationality of the children remain a mystery because the photographer didn’t list their names.

“It’s this kind of mini-operation and that little kid looks like he’s around five,” she laughs. “I mean, you don’t see too many families sitting around doing this.”

Since 1997, the university has been digitizing and cataloguing all of their photo collections on a searchable, public online database.

Although staff at the university are unsure how the photograph ended up on the internet’s radar, they’re delighted by all the attention it has brought to their collection.