Ancient Tools Unearthed in Siberian Arctic

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
January 14, 2004
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.

Archeological Unknown

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.

Unlike the more sophisticated blade tools found at the 13,000-year-old site, most of the Yana tools were based on flake production from pebbles available in the riverbed. Using radiocarbon dating, Pitulko established them to be more than 30,000 years old.

On the Prowl

Pollen samples taken from the site suggest the Arctic landscape was grassy, tree-less, and vast. The climate was cold and dry, with the Arctic sun shining 24 hours a day for months at a time.

Game appears to be abundant. The researchers discovered shards of bone from mammoths, musk ox, brown bear, wolverine, rhinoceros, hares, bison, horses, reindeer, and cave lion.

"We found bone remains for almost all species from that time," said Pitulko. "But reindeer [appears to be] their most important food source."

These people were probably modern humans (Sapiens sapiens) and accomplished hunters who moved with the herds of their prey. They knew fire and were able to create portable shelters. Pitulko believes they may even have built more permanent dwellings in some places to survive the winters.

"This group camped near the river crossing, perhaps on the side channel or on a small stream that was running into the river," said Pitulko. "It was a good place to camp if you want to hunt animals crossing the river and, at the same time, stay out of sight."

The New World

The Yana findings also have intriguing implications for understanding the origins of the New World. Traditionally, Native Americans are believed to have descended from northeast Asia, arriving over the Bering Land Bridge between Siberia and Alaska some 14,000 years ago.

But the new discovery suggests this migration could have started earlier with the people who inhabited Arctic Siberia.

To add to the intrigue, the foreshaft first found in Yana bears a striking resemblance to others used by the Clovis people, believed by many archeologists to be the first humans in North America.

However, Pitulko says the connection remains tenuous. The Clovis foreshafts are around 16,000 years younger than those found at Yana River and were found 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) away.

"The Yana site doesn't give direct evidence of an earlier human migration to North America, but it suggests that it could be a possibility," said Pitulko. "We can now see the early presence of humans relatively close to the Bering Strait, in the part of the world believed to be the source of initial human migrations to the New World."

The research was published earlier this month in the journal Science.

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