for National Geographic News
An astonishing new archeological discovery suggests that humans colonized the rugged lands of Arctic Siberia almost twice as early as generally thought.
Russian researchers have found a wealth of hunting tools, which date back 31,000 years, along central Siberia's Yana River. The artifacts include hundreds of stone tools and flakes, as well as spear foreshafts made of rhinoceros horn and mammoth tusk.
The oldest evidence of humans in the Arctic had previously dated back approximately 15,000 years. The new discovery pushes human habitation of the region back to glacial times, although Siberia was not covered by the ice sheet that entombed much of the Northern Hemisphere.
"The discovery of Yana doubles the history of human occupation in this part of the world," said archeologist Vladimir Pitulko of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg, who led the research team. "It also demonstrates that humans were adapted to the harsh, unforgiving arctic environment much earlier than we might have thought."
The new findings may eventually help researchers piece together the peopling of the Americas via the Bering Land Bridge. Intriguingly, some of the foreshafts (a spear component joining the shaft and tip that enabled hunters to quickly replace broken spear tips) that were found in Siberia resemble those used by the Clovis people, believed by many experts to be the first humans in North America.
One archeological site containing blade tools dating back about 13,000 years was discovered in the late 1960s at a latitude of 70° north. It was long believed to be the oldest and northernmost site in the entire Arctic.
Many researchers believed the early humans lacked the technology or the adaptive ability to live in Siberia's frigid environment. The new find suggests they were wrong.
As has been the case with other sites in the remote, archeologically-unknown lands of Siberia, this latest discovery happened almost by chance. The site, which is located at a latitude of 71&176; north in northeast Asia, was first identified in 1993 when a Russian geologist wandering around the area picked up a rhino horn foreshaft.
"This is a very remote area, with low industrial activity, that doesn't get a lot of visitors," said Pitulko. "Many of these sites become known as a result of amateur efforts or by occasional finds."
Over the summers of 2001 and 2002, Pitulko and colleagues began digging along the terraces created by the Yana River.
They soon unearthed a trove of artifacts: axes, stone scrapers, worked quartz crystals, tools made of wolf bone, and spear foreshafts made of mammoth tusk and rhinoceros horn.
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