In the early 2000s, a site near the Yana River in northeastern Siberia revealed that hunters made settlements 480 kilometers above the Arctic Circle 30,000 years ago, twice as early as previously thought. Excavations reveled hundreds of stone artifacts, wooly rhinoceros horn and mammoth tusk spear parts nd an abundance of bones from mammoths, wooly rhinoceros, reindeer and bison. While much of the northern hemisphere was covered with Ice Age glaciers, the Yana River areas was ice free and home to many animals that provided people there with food.

In the Stone Age, during occasional subtropical periods that lasted for around 10,000 years or less, hyenas and lions roamed parts of Russia. Around 40,000 years ago, it is thought, humans reached the steppes of Central Asia and pushed on into Siberia. There is evidence of human habitation on the northern Yana River in Siberia dated to 30,000 years ago. Caves in the Altay region of Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan have been used possibly as far back as 300,000 year ago.

Cro-Magnon man (early ancestors of modern man) inhabited the Russian Plain. They used bone awls and needles to make garments to keep them warm. They made shelters with mammoth bones and animal skins and keep their hearths continually burning. Sometimes they fueled their fires with mammoth bones.

Neanderthals and early modern man lived at a time when Ice Ages were shaping the climate and landscape of the places they lived in Europe and elsewhere. During the Ice Age temperature were only 5 to 10 degrees colder than today. As recently as 20,000 years ago, glaciers hundreds and thousands of feet thick covered all of Canada, much of the United States and most of northwestern Europe. There was less glaciation over Russia.

Neanderthals in Russia

Neanderthals reached the Russian plain around 120,000 years ago. They reached sites as far north as 52 degrees north. During the last ice age Neanderthals retreated to the Crimean peninsula and the Caucasus Mountains. They are believed to have disappeared from the area between 25,000 and 30,000 years ago (that is when the disappeared from the Iberian peninsula).

Well-preserved Neanderthals have been found in Mezmaiskaya in Russia Neanderthals lived mainly in Europe and migrated as far south as Israel and Spain during the ice ages. Flourishing in a relatively cold ice-age climate for 200,000 years, they lived in Europe at that time when it was covered by woods and grasslands that supported large herds of horses, reindeer, bison and species adapted for cold weather. Scientists theorize that the Neanderthals arrived from a place with a warm climate, perhaps migrating south during the winter until they adapted to the colder climate.

In 2011, AP reported: “Neanderthal remains dating back 31,000 years --- over 6,000 years after man's prehistoric cousin was presumed to have disappeared --- have been unearthed in Russia near the Artic Circle, according to a study in the journal Science. "This site challenges the hypothesis that there was a complete replacement of the Neanderthal societies in all of Europe as early as around 37,000 calendar years," the authors wrote about their research released Thursday, and slated for the journal's May 13, 2011 issue. [Source: AFP, May 12, 2011 <\>]

“The French, Russian and Norwegian researchers discovered more than 300 stone tools and the remains of several mammals, including mammoths, black bears and woolly rhinos that appear to have been butchered. The remains were unearthed during several excavations at the Byzovaya site in the foothills of the Urals on the right bank of the Pechora River. In addition to radiocarbon dating, the researchers used a technique known as optically stimulated luminescence, which allows them to tell when sediment has been exposed to light for the last time. <\>

While Neanderthal Man occupied Eurasia at lower latitudes, Byzovaya could have been their last Nordic refuge before their extinction, according to the study's authors. Until now, Neanderthal remains have all come from areas at least 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) south of Byzovaya. The objects discovered at Byzovaya, which appears to have been occupied just once in 3,000 years, belong to the Mousterian tool tradition used by Neanderthal Man, according to the authors. This culture developed during the Middle Paleolithic era in Eurasia 300,000 to 37,000 years ago and is distinguished by a wide range of stone tools.

Don Valley Site and Sungir Site

The oldest known site in Russia is a 36,000 year-old site in the Don Valley. Here archaeologists have found beads from an amber-like mineral called belemnite that had been drilled from each side. Experiments have shown that each bead took about an hour to make. An adult was buried with 3,000 beads and a child was found with 5,000 beads, representing between 3,000 and 5,000 hours of work. Scientist speculated that beads buried with the child either were an expression of extreme grief or an indication of the child's high status.

A teenage boy and girl found at a 20,000-year-old site called Sungir near Vladimir were buried with clothing with 3,000 ivory beads attached to it. The arrangements for the beads indicated that the boy wore long pants, a cape, short cloak, and knee-high boots. A hat and belt were decorated with arctic fox and cave lion teeth.

The inhabitants of the Russian site of Sungir made elaborate personal ornaments of ivory and schist that often were in the form of abstract geometric designs. One of the most interesting pieces is a wheel-like carved ivory disk. The Sungir site also yielded 11 dartlike spears, three daggers and two long spear. One of the spears is 8-feet-long and is made of mammoth tusk.

World's Oldest Sculptures

The world's oldest known sculpture is an animal head carved in wooly rhinoceros vertebrae. Found in Tombaga Siberia, it is 34,960 years old.

The oldest known sculptures of human figures are the Upper Paleolithic "Venuses" found in Russia, the Ukraine, Austria, the Ancient Near East, the Czech Republic, Crete, Western Asia, France and the Aegean. The figurines are 27,000 to 20,000 years old and were usually made of soapstone, limestone, calcite serpentine and ivory, possibly from the tusks of wooly mammoths. Some were made from ceramics. Most of the known Venus figurines are from Central Europe and Russia.

The first fired ceramics appeared in the Gravettian cultural period (roughly 28,000 to 22,000 years ago). Thousands of fragments of human figures, as well as the kilns that produced them in sites in Morabbia in what is now Russia the Czech republic dated at 26,000 years ago. The figurines were made from moistened loess a fine sediment fired at high temperatures. Predating the first known ceramic vessels by 10,000 years, the figurines, some scientists believe, were produced and exploded on purpose based on the fact that most of the sculptures are fond in pieces.

Mammoth Huts

Archaeological evidence from 30,000 to 10,000 B.C. shows that early homo sapiens built 40-foot-long and 12-foot-wide animal skin dwellings in southern Russia. Winter dwellings found in Czechoslovakia that back to 10,000 B.C. had round plans, animal-skin rugs, beds and hearths made with bones and animal dung.

Modern men generally didn't live in caves, it is thought, because they were too dark although cave mouths may have been used for shelter. Caves, archaeologist contend, were used primarily for religious and artistic purposes.

It has been theorized that modern man families lived in small settlements made up of moss-covered huts during the winter and carried reindeer skin tents with them when they followed game during the summers. Families may have slept under bearskin bedding and children may have been rocked to sleep in reindeer-skin cradles. Their equivalent of hot chocolate may have reindeer fat mixed with boiling water. [Source: John Pfieffer, Smithsonian magazine, October 1986]

A 15,000-year-old modern man hut was excavated in the Ukraine southeast of Kiev at the junction of two Dnieper River tributaries. About eight feet high and the size of a small bedroom, it was held up with a retaining wall made of stacked mammoth bones. This is the oldest example of human's living in a shelter other than a cave. [Source: John Pfieffer, Smithsonian magazine, October 1986].

Four 15,000-year-old huts made from mammoth bones and tusks near the village Mezhirich in Ukraine were quite sophisticated. The walls were made of leg bones and skulls piled one another. The roof was made of tusks likely covered by hide. They contained the mandibles or more than a hundred mammoths, probably taken from a nearby mammoth "graveyard." Some have described them as proto yurts. Pits were dug in to the permafrost nearby may have been used to store frozen meat for a year-round meat supply. The site is viewed by some as an early village.

Mammoths in Siberia

Wooly mammoths lived from 400,000 to 3,900 years ago. They lived at the same time as American mastodons (who lived from 3.75 million to 11,500 years ago) and African elephants and Asian elephants (who first appeared about 4 million years ago). Mammoths were like elephants adapted for cold weather. They had thick skin and a heavy wooly coat. Reaching a height of 14 feet at the shoulder and possessing upward curving tusks, considerable larger than those of an elephant, they lived in Africa, North America and Eurasia.

During the Pleistocene Era (10,000 to 180,000 years) ago, large numbers of wooly mammoths roamed the forests and tundra of Siberia. When Ice-Age glaciers moved across Siberia, many mammoth fell into icy pools of water and were entombed in permafrost. Mammoths thrived particularly well in Siberia, where they grazed on steppe grasses along with bisons and other large herbivores that in turn were fed on by cave lions, saber-toothed tigers and wolves. Animals of large size and with lots of hair thrived in the frigid weather. The animals endured through ice ages and periods of global warming,

The last wooly mammoths died out only 3,800 years ago (700 years after the pyramids) on the Wrangel island north of Siberia. The mammoths that lived on the island were smaller than other mammoths. They stood only six feet at the shoulder. Animals that evolve on islands are usually smaller than their mainland counterparts.

It is not clear why the mammoths became extinct possible explanations include overhunting by humans, rapid climate change or a mysterious virus. Many mammoths are believed to have died out after the end of the most recent ice age. It has been suggested they may have been done in by human hunters and a diet of low-nutrient mosses that took over the grassland after the Ice Age.

Cliff Kills and Early Modern Man Hunting

During the Ice Age between 30,000 and 15,000 years ago, Europe was covered mostly by open steppe, an ideal habitat for grazing animals like horses, rhinos, deer, mammoth, reindeer and bison. Vast herds of these animals fed on grass, nourished by glacier melt, and roamed across Europe and Asia. As the Ice Ages ended and the climate warmed up, the habitat for the large animals herds declined as the vast grasslands were invaded by birch and evergreen forests.

About 350 pairs of antlers, 5,000 reindeer molars, thousands of vertebrae and foot bones, and part of a mammoth skeleton were found in a huge fire pit under a 100-foot-cliff in southern France. These remains are offered as proof that modern men hunted entire herds of animals by driving them off cliffs. It is also believed that modern men hunters ambushed animals at narrow passes, attacked prey vulnerable during river crossings and ambushed prey at water holes during the dry season. [Source: John Pfieffer, Smithsonian magazine, October 1986]

The bones of 1,000 mammoths have been found in Czechoslovakia and the remains of 10,000 wild horses that were driven over a cliff at various times have been found near Soultré-Pouilly in Burgundy, Solutré, France. The bones under the cliffs at Soultré-Pouilly are three feet thick and cover 2.5 acres.

Predation by early men and the shrinking of Ice Age grasslands are both believed to have led to the sudden extinction of the wooly mammoth, cave bears, mastodons, saber tooth tigers, cave lions, wooly rhinoceros, steppe bison, giant elk, and the European wild ass. Other species such as the musk ox and saiga antelope managed to survive in only small pockets. The mass extinctions are believed to have been partly the result of these animals having never been hunted by humans and having little fear of them.

The end of the large-game hunting cultures marked the end of the early stone age (Paleolithic period) and the beginning of the middle stone age (Mesolithic period) when early man derived his protein from fish, shellfish and deer instead of large animals like mammoth and buffalo.

Siberian Hunters May Have Made Mammoths Go Extinct

In 2010, AP reported, “During the last Ice Age, shaggy mammoths, woolly rhinos and bison lumbered across northern Siberia. Then, about 10,000 years ago - in the span of a geological heartbeat, or a few hundred years - the last of them disappeared. Many scientists believe a dramatic shift in climate drove these giant grazers to extinction. But two scientists who live year-round in the frigid Siberian plains say that man - either for food, fuel or fun - hunted the animals to extinction. [Source: AP, November 29, 2010 ^^^]

"Paleontologists have been squabbling for decades over how these animals met their sudden demise. The most persuasive theories say it was humanity and nature: Dramatically warming temperatures caused a changing habitat and brought a migration of men armed with deep-piercing spears. No one knows for sure what set off global warming back then - perhaps solar activity or a slight shift in the Earth's orbit. But, in an echo of the global warming debate today, Sergey Zimov, director of the internationally funded Northeast Science Station, and his son Nikita say man was the real agent of change. ^^^

"For the Siberian grasses to provide nutrition in winter, they needed to be grazed in summer to produce fresh shoots in autumn. The hooves of millions of reindeer, elk and moose as well as the larger beasts also trampled choking moss, while their waste promoted the blossoming of summer meadows. As the ice retreated at the end of the Pleistocene era - the final millennia of a 1.8 million-year- long epoch - it cleared the way for man's expansion into previously inaccessible lands, like this area bordering the East Siberia Sea" ^^^

How Humans Changed the Siberian Ecosystem

According to AP: "Northeastern Siberia, today one of the coldest and most formidable spots on the globe, was dry and free of glaciers. The ground grew thick with fine layers of dust and decaying plant life, generating rich pastures during the brief summers. When humans arrived they hunted not only for food, but for the fat that kept the northern animals insulated against the subzero cold, which the hunters burned for fuel, say the scientists. They may also have killed for prestige or for sport, in the same way buffalo were heedlessly felled in the American Old West, sometimes from the window of passing trains. [Source: AP, November 29, 2010 ^^^]

"The wholesale slaughter allowed the summer fodder to dry up and destroy the winter supply, they say. "We don't look at animals just as animals. We look at them as a system, with vegetation and the whole ecosystem," said the younger Zimov. "You don't need to kill all the animals to kill an ecosystem." During the transition from the Ice Age to the modern climate, global temperatures rose 5 degrees Celsius, or 9 Fahrenheit. But in Siberia's northeast the temperature soared 7 degrees, or nearly 13F, in just three years, the elder Zimov said. ^^^

"The theory of human overkill is much disputed. Advocates of climate theory say the warm wet weather that accompanied the rapid melting of glaciers spawned birch forests that overwhelmed the habitats of the bulky grass eaters. Adrian Lister, of the paleontology department of London's Natural History Museum, said humans may have delivered the final blow, but rapid global warming was primarily responsible for the mammoth's extinction. It brought an abrupt change in vegetation that squeezed a dwindling number of mammoths into isolated pockets, where hunters could pick off the last herds, he said. ^^^

People "couldn't have done the whole job," he told the Associated Press Television News. Mammoths once ranged from Russia and northern China to Europe and most of North America, but their numbers began to shrink about 30,000 years ago. By the time the Pleistocene era ended they remained only in northern Siberia, Lister said.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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