Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Early Arctic Adventurers Volume 54 Number 6, November/December 2001
by Eric A. Powell

[image] The mammoth tusk excavated from a riverbank above the Arctic Circle (Courtesy John Inge Svendsen) [LARGER IMAGE]

Archaeologists have long thought the inhospitable Russian Arctic was colonized by humans relatively late in the game, but new evidence suggests that modern humans--or perhaps even Neandertals--were present in the Arctic about 22,000 years earlier than thought.

The new date comes from a four-foot mammoth tusk excavated by Norwegian and Russian scientists from a riverbank above the Arctic Circle. Covered on all sides with regular cut marks, there seems to be no question that the tusk was modified by someone around 36,000 years ago. But just who remains unclear.

The earliest unequivocal evidence for modern humans in Europe dates to 35,000 years ago. Could the Arctic colonizers have been Neandertals? They were certainly capable of making the stone tools found with the tusk, but modern humans produced similar artifacts.

Regardless of who is responsible for the marks on the tusk, the finding comes as a big surprise. Neandertals are generally thought to have lacked the sophisticated social organization necessary to survive in the Arctic, while modern humans were not supposed to have gravitated toward northernmost Eurasia until the end of the last Ice Age, over 20,000 years after the tusk was cut.

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America