Bones, Tools Push Back Human Settlement in Arctic Region

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
October 2, 2001
Humans lived within the Arctic Circle tens of thousands of years earlier than previously believed, paleontologists from Norway and Russia report.

The common assumption has been that humans first colonized the far north at the end of the last Ice Age, around 13,000 to 14,000 years ago. But stone artifacts, animal bones, and a mammoth tusk with human-made marks found at a Paleolithic site in the Russian Arctic push this date back to nearly 40,000 years ago.

The discovery confounds earlier beliefs about human expansion, and raises the question of who colonized the hostile north.

Did Neandertals expand further north than previously assumed? Or did early modern humans move to the far north much more quickly than assumed?

Anatomically modern humans began arriving in Europe and the Middle East about 40,000 to 35,000 years ago. Neandertals are thought to have appeared in Europe about 120,000 years ago. They disappear from the fossil record about 28,000 years ago.

The bones found at the Mamontovaya Kurya site, along the Usa River in northern Russia, show that humans hunted—or at least ate—mammoth, wild horses, reindeer, and wolves.

Besides animal bones and stone tool artifacts, John Inge Svendsen of the University of Bergen, Norway, and his colleagues found a mammoth tusk with grooves that were made by chopping with a sharp stone. The grooves are unequivocally the work of humans, say the authors, who reported on the research in the September 6 issue of Nature.

The researchers speculate that human occupation probably occurred during a mild period of the Ice Age. Pollen and other evidence indicate that the Arctic was at that time a treeless, semi-arid plain, with herbs, grasses, and willow scrubs along the riverbank.

Western Europe experienced a similar interlude around 39,000 to 36,000 years ago, when the Netherlands and northern Germany were shrub-covered tundra.

Even if the region was not covered in ice at that time, it was quite cold, with temperatures dropping to about 12 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 11 degrees Celsius) during the coldest months.

Living in such a challenging environment, the researchers say, would have required long-term planning and an extended social network, both of which are associated with modern humans.

"It takes a great deal of planning to be able to survive even the cold summers that far north," said Jan Mangerud, a colleague of Svendsen's.

The technology needed to thrive in such an enviroment—tools made of different materials such as wood, antler, tusk, and hide—are more often associated with modern humans, said John Gowlett, an archaeologist at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom. The ability to smoke and store enough food to last through the winter is also more often attributed to skill levels attained by modern humans.

Still, the authors say that the evidence for either Neandertals or modern humans as the early occupants is inconclusive.

"It is very easy to argue this either way," said Gowlett.

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