The Arctic Circle — during the Ice Age — may not seem like a suitable place for human habitation.
And until recently, archaeologists would have agreed: Many thought the far north remained unpopulated until after the last glacial period began to wane, some 18,000 years ago.
But archaeological discoveries in Siberia, made in the last two decades, have overturned this view. Sites frozen in the banks of Russia’s Yana River reveal that a sophisticated culture lived north of the Arctic Circle 30,000 years ago.
We’re just beginning to learn who these northern pioneers were, and how they adapted to life on frozen lands.
Arctic Eurasia is vast and sparsely inhabited today — making archaeological exploration of the region logistically challenging. Consequently, at the start of the 21st century, our understanding of polar prehistory was lean.
The oldest known site north of the Arctic Circle was dated to about 13,000 years ago, suggesting humans didn’t venture far pole-ward until the Ice Age abated.
But there was a glaring reason to think otherwise: It was known that by at least 14,000 years ago, people had spread from northeast Siberia through Alaska and into the Americas. Whether they traveled by land or sea, these migrants must have faced freezing conditions along the way. Presumably, they came from a culture accustomed to extreme cold and high latitudes. Yet, no archaeological evidence for Ice Age Siberians had been found.
Archaeologist Alla Mashezerskaya at the Yana Site. (Credit: Elena Pavlova)
The situation changed when a Russian geologist, searching for animal fossils, came across a foreshaft (the detachable end of a spear) crafted from a wooly rhinoceros horn. At 70 degrees latitude, the site was well north of the Arctic Circle, along the Yana River about 60 miles from its outlet to the Arctic Ocean. The artifact was almost certainly ancient, considering wooly rhinos were Ice Age creatures, now extinct.
In 2001, excavations began at this Yana “Rhinoceros Horn Site” (RHS), led by archaeologist Vladimir Pitulko of the Institute for the History of Material Culture in St. Petersburg, Russia. Over the next two summers, the team unearthed hoards of stone tools, animal bones and artifacts carved from mammoth ivory. Because the finds were buried under about 30 feet of frozen ground, perishable remains were exceptionally well preserved.
But the most exciting results from these initial digs were radiocarbon dates published in a 2004 Nature paper: The Yana RHS site was roughly 30,000 years old, which more than doubled the age for humans in the Arctic Circle.
Several older Arctic Circle sites have been reported, dating between 40,000 to 45,000 years old. Two of the sites only contained animal remains (no human-made tools), but some of the bones exhibited wounds or cutmarks. According to the excavators, these injuries were inflicted by human weapons — meaning people were in the Arctic at this time (though ). Farther west, the roughly 40,000-year-old They also recovered about 6,000 beads made of minerals, mammoth ivory and animal teeth. It’s clear the Yana people were skilled artisans.
The Yana folks were capable and strategic hunters who regularly ate bison, horse and reindeer, and who also targeted different prey for raw materials. For example, researchers found many complete hare skeletons, suggesting the animals were snared and skinned, providing fur for clothing.
Mammoth, too, were killed for materials rather than meat, according to a