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Warming Up to Siberia Volume 57 Number 2, March/April 2004

[image]Tundra-preserved: a flaked stone tool and two views of a wolf bone from an Ice Age Arctic settlement (Science) [LARGER IMAGE]

Siberia's frigid tundra is yielding new evidence about medieval life at the Arctic Circlečand, at another site, potential clues to the peopling of North America.

Digging in a medieval cemetery in the Ural Mountains region, archaeologists found 34 graves with human remains mummified by the cold, dry climate of the tundra. The burials, about 1,000 years old, are unlike anything archaeologists have seen in the region.

Five mummies were blanketed with reindeer, wolverine, bear, and beaver fur. Copper masks, hoops, and plates adorned others. Many of the bodies had been bound with leather straps, covered with bronze plates, and surrounded by beads, chains, and broken figurines. The skulls of eleven had been shattered or removed after death. From comparisons to burial rites of the modern native population in the region, archaeologists speculate such treatment was "protective magic" to keep the dead from having an ill effect on the living.

Bronze bowls from Persia dating to the tenth or eleventh century were among the finds, indicating there may have been more trade and travel in the hostile terrain than had been thought.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles east on the Yana River in northeastern Siberia, archaeologists have discovered the oldest known Ice Age settlement north of the Arctic Circle. Carbon-dated to about 30,000 years ago, it is twice the age of the previously known oldest settlement. Excavators found nearly 400 stone artifacts in the area, woolly rhinoceros-horn and mammoth-ivory spear foreshafts, and an abundance of bones from Ice Age mammoth, bison, reindeer, and woolly rhinoceros. Now tundra, the site during the Ice Age was a meadow in the Yana's floodplain.

Though the site is more than 1,200 miles from the Bering Strait, it provides evidence that Ice Age people were living in the far north much earlier than had been expected. Archaeologists are tentatively speculating that a connection might exist between settlements in the Asian Arctic and the peopling of the North American continent. Some see stylistic similarities between the spear foreshafts found at the Yana settlement and those of the Clovis people, among the earliest known migrants to North America, some 12,000 years ago. However, 18,000 years and a continent still separate the two.

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America