Skip to comments.A Surprising Survival Story in the Siberian Arctic
Posted on 01/02/2004 2:47:55 PM PST by Lessismore
Artifacts dated to 30,000 years ago tell of human resilience in an unforgiving environment, and they may provide new clues to the peopling of the Americas Primates are simply not primed for Arctic survival. A person lost on the tundra in winter will quickly perish, and even the sturdiest shelter atop the permafrost provides scant refuge without a supply of fuel. Yet somehow, at the height of the last Ice Age, humans endured a similarly unforgiving environment in northern Siberia, in the Yana River valley 500 kilometers above the Arctic Circle. That's the surprising conclusion from a trove of artifacts uncovered at Yana and dated to about 30,000 years ago (using corrected radiocarbon dates). The find, described on page 52, pushes back the earliest known human occupation in the Asian Arctic by some 16,000 years.
It's impossible to know what forces drove or enticed these Stone Age pioneers so far north or how long they clung to a precarious existence in the High Arctic. That they were there at all, though, is a revelation. It's "an extremely important site," says Donald Grayson, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Washington, Seattle. Or as paleoanthropologist Frank "Ted" Goebel of the University of Nevada, Reno, sums it up: "Wow."
The discovery, by a team led by archaeologist Vladimir Pitulko of the Institute for the History of Material Culture in St. Petersburg, Russia, poses many questions. For instance, where did the hardy individuals come from? And did they adapt to hyperborean life year round, or were they fair-weather hunters chasing big game to the northern edge of the mammoth steppe?
The biggest question of all, however, is whether this desolate corner of Siberia offers a clue to the peopling of the Americas, one of archaeology's enduring puzzles. Some artifacts from Yana--two beveled foreshafts of spears carved from mammoth ivory and a spectacular specimen fashioned from the horn of a woolly rhinoceros--are strikingly similar to ones left by the Clovis people, long presumed to be the first North Americans, beginning about 13,600 years ago. "This discovery reconfirms the Siberian connection to the early peoples that entered the New World," argues Michael Waters, an archaeologist at Texas A&M University, College Station. But other artifacts, such as chipped stone cutters or diggers, don't resemble Clovis tools, leaving plenty of room for debate.
Yana is only the second site offering evidence that humans penetrated the Arctic before the final deep push of glaciers southward during the last Ice Age, the so-called glacial maximum, between 20,000 and 25,000 years ago. The first to claim this honor is a site near the Arctic Circle in European Russia called Mamontovaya Kurya, where a few years ago Pavel Pavlov of the Komi Scientific Center in Syktyvkar, Russia, and colleagues discovered stone artifacts and a mammoth tusk bearing what appear to be cut marks and dating to roughly 40,000 years ago.
The initial clue that Yana had similar secrets to reveal came in 1993, when Mikhail Dashtzeren, a Russian geologist, came across the rhino horn foreshaft while prospecting for the bones and ivory of Ice Age animals. Pitulko and his colleagues got wind of the find, and over the summers of 2001 and 2002 they uncovered a wealth of artifacts, including 376 flaked slate pebbles--a third of which the team classified as choppers, scrapers, and other tools--along with the three foreshafts.
Just how tough a survival test these Arctic denizens would have faced is uncertain. Clearly, the mammoth steppe extended to the region at the time, as Pitulko's group unearthed nearly 800 bones and bone fragments belonging to typical steppe fauna--mammoths, horses, bison, cave lions, and the like--and pollen data point to a cool, dry climate with stands of larch and birch. "Abudant game means lots of food," says Julie Brigham-Grette, an expert on Beringia at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "It was not stark tundra as one might imagine."
More speculative is Yana's connection, if any, to the New World. The first traces of humans in Alaska date to roughly 14,000 years ago. But surveys have turned up few sites of similar age on the Asian side of the Bering Land Bridge, which linked Alaska and northeastern Asia when sea levels ebbed during the last Ice Age. "Every 'pre-Clovis' archaeological site in Beringia has either been refuted or seriously questioned," says Goebel, whose team recently reported that one site long considered a way station on the Bering road, Ushki Lake in Kamchatka, was inhabited more recently than had been thought (Science, 25 July 2003, p. 450).
Yet Yana's antiquity opens up tantalizing possibilities. "To me, the Yana site finally makes it plausible that the first peopling of the Americas occurred prior to the last glacial maximum," says Daniel Mann of the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Waters agrees: If the Yana people were indeed adapted to circumpolar life, he argues, "then there were no environmental barriers that these people could not overcome that would have prevented them from migrating eastward into the Americas."
Many experts are wary, though, of assuming that the beveled foreshafts from Yana imply a common heritage with Clovis. Such foreshafts from the last Ice Age have turned up in many places in Europe and western Asia, notes archaeologist David Meltzer of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. They may be similar, he says, "because they were independently developed for similar uses." And Yana's stone-tool assemblage is so dissimilar to Clovis technology that it undermines a link. "The intriguing mixture of expected and unexpected artifact assemblages seemingly says little, if anything, about the peopling of the Americas," argues archaeologist Tom Dillehay of the University of Kentucky, Lexington, leader of the team at a 15,000-year-old pre-Clovis site in Monte Verde, Chile.
Only further sites in Beringia could settle the debate. Yana, at least, has reinvigorated that hunt.
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Thanks. Sorry I’m five years late. This is an amazing story.
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