Bone circles made from the remains of mammoths reveal clues about Ice Age

Mysterious bone circles made from the remains of mammoths reveal clues about Ice Age

Mysterious bone circles made from the remains of dozens of mammoths have revealed clues about how ancient communities survived Europe's ice age.

About 70 of these structures are known to exist in Ukraine and the west Russian Plain.

The majority of the bones found at the site investigated, in the Russian Plains, are from mammoths. A total of 51 lower jaws and 64 individual mammoth skulls were used to construct the walls of the 30ft by 30ft structure and scattered across its interior Credits: Alex Pryor

New analysis shows the bones at one site are more than 20,000 years old, making it the oldest such circular structure built by humans discovered in the region. The bones were likely sourced from animal graveyards, and the circle was then hidden by sediment and is now a foot below current surface level.

The majority of the bones found at the site investigated, in the Russian Plains, are from mammoths. A total of 51 lower jaws and 64 individual mammoth skulls were used to construct the walls of the 30ft by 30ft structure and scattered across its interior. Small numbers of reindeer, horse, bear, wolf, red fox and arctic fox bones were also found.

bone cicles mammoths
Credits: Alex Pryor

Archaeologists from the University of Exeter have also found for the first time the remains of charred wood and other soft non-woody plant remains within the circular structure, situated just outside the modern village of Kostenki, about 500km south of Moscow. This shows people were burning wood as well as bones for fuel, and the communities who lived there had learned where to forage for edible plants during the Ice Age. The plants could also have been used for poisons, medicines, string or fabric. More than 50 small charred seeds were also found - the remains of plants growing locally or possibly food remains from cooking and eating.Dr Alexander Pryor, who led the study, said: "Kostenki 11 represents a rare example of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers living on in this harsh environment. What might have brought ancient hunter gatherers to this site? One possibility is that the mammoths and humans could have come to the area on masse because it had a natural spring that would have provided unfrozen liquid water throughout the winter - rare in this period of extreme cold.

"These finds shed new light on the purpose of these mysterious sites. Archaeology is showing us more about how our ancestors survived in this desperately cold and hostile environment at the climax of the last ice age. Most other places at similar latitudes in Europe had been abandoned by this time, but these groups had managed to adapt to find food, shelter and water."

bone cicles mammoths
Credits: Alex Pryor

The last ice age, which swept northern Europe between 75-18,000 years ago, reached its coldest and most severe stage at around 23-18,000 years ago, just as the site at Kostenki 11 was being built. Climate reconstructions indicate at the time summers were short and cool and winters were long and cold, with temperatures around -20 degrees Celsius or colder. Most communities left the region, likely because of lack of prey to hunt and plant resources they depended upon for survival. Eventually the bone circles were also abandoned as the climate continued to get colder and more inhospitable.

Previously archaeologists have assumed that the circular mammoth bone structures were used as dwellings, occupied for many months at a time. The new study suggests this may not always have been the case as the intensity of activity at Kostenki 11 appears less than would be expected from a long term base camp site.

Other finds include more than 300 tiny stone and flint chips just a few millimetres in size, debris left behind the site's inhabitants as they knapped stone nodules into sharp tools with distinctive shapes used for tasks such as butchering animals and scraping hides.

The research, conducted by academics from the University of Exeter, University of Cambridge, Kostenki State Museum Preserve, University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Southampton, is published in the journal Antiquity.

 

Press release "Mysterious bone circles made from the remains of mammoths reveal clues about Ice Age" from the University of Exeter.


5,000-year-old milk proteins point to the importance of dairying in eastern Eurasia

5,000-year-old milk proteins point to the importance of dairying in eastern Eurasia

Recent findings push back estimates of dairying in the eastern Steppe by more than 1,700 years, pointing to migration as a potential means of introduction

 

Today dairy foods sustain and support millions around the world, including in Mongolia, where dairy foods make up to 50% of calories consumed during the summer. Although dairy-based pastoralism has been an essential part of life and culture in the eastern Eurasian Steppe for millennia, the eastward spread of dairying from its origin in southwest Asia and the development of these practices is little understood. The current study, led by Shevan Wilkin and Jessica Hendy of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, presents the earliest evidence for dairy consumption in East Asia, circa 3000 BCE, and offers insights into the arrival and evolution of dairy pastoralism in prehistoric Mongolia.

dairying Eurasia
These are horses on the steppe. Credits: Björn Reichhardt

Earliest dairy consumption & a possible path of entry

The highly mobile nature of pastoralist societies and the severe winds of the Eastern Steppe make detecting occupied sites with direct evidence into the lives and culture of ancient Mongolians exceedingly rare. Instead, the researchers looked for clues in ritual human burial mounds, often marked by stone monuments and occasionally featuring satellite animal graves.

In collaboration with the National University of Mongolia, researchers analyzed dental calculus from individuals ranging from the Early Bronze Age to the Mongol Period. Three-quarters of all individuals contained evidence that they had consumed dairy foods, which demonstrates the widespread importance of this food source in both prehistoric and historic Mongolia. The study's results include the earliest direct evidence for dairy consumption in East Asia, identified in an individual from the Afanasievo site of Shatar Chuluu, which dates to roughly 3000 BCE. Previous DNA analysis on this individual revealed non-local genetic markers consistent with Western Steppe Herder populations, presenting Early Bronze Age Afanasievo migrations westward via the Russian Altai as a viable candidate for the introduction of dairy and domestic livestock into eastern Eurasia.

Multiple different animal species were used for their milk

dairying Eurasia
These are sheep and goat herds in Mongolia. Credits: Björn Reichhardt

By sequencing the milk proteins extracted from the dental calculus, the scientists were able to determine which animal species were being used for dairy production, and thereby help to trace the progression of domestication, dairying, and pastoralism in the region. "Modern Mongolians use cow, sheep, goat, yak, camel, horse and reindeer for milk today, yet when each of these species were first utilized for dairy in Mongolia remains unclear," says Shevan Wilkin, lead author of the study. "What is clear is that the crucial renewable calories and hydration made available through the incorporation of dairying would have become essential across the arid and agriculturally challenging ancient Eastern Steppe."

The earliest individuals to show evidence of dairy consumption lived around 5000 years ago and consumed milk from ruminant species, such as cattle, sheep, and goats. A few thousand years later, at Bronze Age sites dated to after 1200 BCE, the researchers find the first evidence of horse milk consumption, occurring at the same time as early evidence for horse bridling and riding, as well as the use of horses at ritual burial sites. In addition, the study shows that during the Mongol Empire circa 1200-1400 CE, people also consumed the milk of camels. "We are excited that through the analysis of proteins we are able to see the consumption of multiple different animal species, even sometimes in the same individual. This gives us a whole new insight into ancient dairying practices" says Jessica Hendy, senior author of the study.

Millenia after the first evidence of horse milk consumption, horses remain vital to the daily lives of many in modern Mongolia, where mounted pastoralists rely on them to manage large herds of livestock, transport people and supplies, and provide a primary source of meat and milk. "Our findings suggest that the incorporation of horses into dairy pastoralism in Eastern Eurasia was closely linked to a broader economic transformation in the use of horses for riding, movement, and diet," says William Taylor of the University of Colorado-Boulder, one of the study's coauthors.

Although the earliest individual sampled in this study showed evidence of dairy consumption, the researchers hope future studies will examine individuals from previous time periods. "In order to form a clearer picture of the origins of dairying in this region, we need to understand the impact of western steppe herder migrations and confirm whether dairying was occurring in Mongolia prior to their arrival," Shevan Wilkin concludes.

dairying Eurasia
This is a horse burial at Morin Mort, Mongolia. Credits: William Taylor

###

Publication information:

Title: Dairy pastoralism sustained Eastern Eurasian steppe populations for 5000 years

Authors: Shevan Wilkin, Alicia Ventresca Miller, William T.T. Taylor, Bryan K. Miller, Richard W. Hagan, Madeleine Bleasdale, Ashley Scott, Sumiya Gankhuyg, Abigail Ramsoe, S. Uliziibayar, Christian Trachsel, Paolo Nanni, Jonas Grossmann, Ludovic Orlando, Mark Horton, Philipp W. Stockhammer, Erdene Myagmar, Nicole Boivin, Christina Warinner, Jessica Hendy

Publication: Nature Ecology & Evolution

DOI: 10.1038/s41559-020-1120-y

 

Press release from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History / DE


Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate

"Arctic: culture and climate", an exhibition on the history of the Arctic people

British Museum announces major exhibition on the Arctic
The Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate

28 May – 23 August 2020
Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery

Lead supporter Citi
Supported by
Julie and Stephen Fitzgerald
AKO Foundation

There's Another One

In May 2020 the British Museum will open the first major exhibition on the history of the Arctic and its indigenous peoples, through the lens of climate change and weather. The Arctic has been home to resilient communities for nearly 30,000 years, cultures that have lived with the opportunities and challenges of one of the most dramatic and dynamic environments on the planet. Today climate change is transforming the Arctic at the fastest rate in human history. The Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate is the first to look at the circumpolar region through the eyes of contemporary Arctic communities, revealing how Arctic peoples have adapted to climate variability in the past and addresses the global issue of changing climate through their stories in a transforming world.

Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate
Arctic Foliage wall hanging

Bringing together the largest and most diverse circumpolar collection ever displayed in the UK, including objects from the British Museum’s world-class Arctic collection and international lenders and commissions, this exhibition will reveal a wealth of artistic expression and ecological knowledge, from the past right up to the present day. From rare 28,000 year old archaeological finds excavated from the thawing ground in Siberia, unique tools and clothing adapted for survival, artworks reflecting the respectful relationship between Arctic people and the natural world, to stunning photography of contemporary daily life, the exhibition will show the great diversity of cultures and ingenuity of communities responding to dramatic changes in seasonal weather and human-caused climate change.

Walrus ivory needles, Yana-site, Russia

The Arctic Circle is the most northern region in the world encompassing the area of midnight sun in summer and the polar night in winter that covers 4% of the Earth. It is home to 4 million people including 400,000 indigenous peoples belonging to one or more of 40 different ethnic groups with distinct languages and dialects. Most of the Arctic’s indigenous inhabitants rely on hunting, fishing and reindeer herding. These subsistence resources are supplemented by employment in industries such as government infrastructures, energy, commercial fishing and tourism.

Arctic peoples have traded and engaged across the Circumpolar North for millennia. From Russia, Greenland, Canada and the USA to the Scandinavian nations, the peoples of the region have thrived within this ever-changing and evolving landscape. Scientists predict that the Arctic will be ice-free in 80 years, which will bring dramatic and profound change to the people that live there and will affect us all.

Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate
Sledge

Twyla Thurmond, tribal coordinator, from Shishmaref, Alaska says “Shishmaref and other Alaska Native communities are demonstrating how people can stay strong and unified in their search for answers to climate change, the most challenging problem of the 21st century.”

The exhibition will feature many highlight objects from across the circumpolar region, including an 8-piece Igloolik winter costume made of caribou (wild reindeer) fur, illustrating the relationship between humans and animals in the Arctic. The hunted animal provides food for the community as well as clothing, perfectly adapted to help humans survive the extreme cold. All available natural materials are put to use. A delicate and unique household bag from western Alaska, crafted from tanned salmon skin, demonstrates the beautiful properties that emerge from fishskin when skilled practitioners work and expose material to particular weather conditions.

Icon into mask

Over the past 300 years, Arctic peoples have faced dramatic social, economic, and political changes as a result of European and Russian exploration to the region, quests for the Northwest Passage, and the global fur trade. A key object from this period is the Inughuit (Greenlandic) sled made from narwhal and caribou bone and pieces of driftwood. It was traded to Sir John Ross on his 1818 expedition, marking the first encounter between Inughuit and Europeans. Arctic peoples’ responses to the establishment of colonial governments and state-sponsored religions in the Arctic will feature, including a bronze carved Evenki spirit mask that was made from a 17th century Russian Orthodox icon. Today, Arctic peoples are transforming traditional heritage to meet contemporary needs and safeguard their culture. From performances adapted from ritual practices to commercial artwork inspired by storytelling and material traditions.

Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate
Inukshuk

Stunning contemporary photography of the Arctic landscape and local communities will form part of the immersive exhibition design. There will be a number of new artworks commissioned for the exhibition. These include a limestone Inuksuk, an iconic Arctic monument of stacked stones used to mark productive harvesting locations or to assist in navigation, built by Piita Irniq, from the Kivalliq Region of Nunavut, Canada. A new installation from the art collective Embassy of Imagination will present traditional clothing made from Japanese paper and printmaking by Inuit youth in Kinngait (Cape Dorset) and Puvirnitug, Nunavut, Canada.

Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate
Sami hat

The Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate will tell inspirational stories of human achievement while celebrating the region’s natural beauty. It will encourage debate about the future of this globally significant landscape in the light of the global climate change. Arctic peoples have faced different kinds of change, developing strategies and tools to mitigate the disruptive effects of social and environmental change from which we can all learn.

Lead supporter Citi

Supported by Julie and Stephen Fitzgerald, and AKO Foundation

Amber Lincoln, Curator, Americas Section, British Museum, said ‘Through the generosity of indigenous Arctic people and Arctic scholars, this exhibition weaves together compelling stories, objects and landscapes of the Circumpolar North, at a time when the Arctic is changing before our very eyes.’

Hartwig FischerDirector of the British Museum, said ‘The Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate is a bold and ambitious exhibition that reflects the expanding vision of the British Museum. The show directly addresses the essential question of how humans can live with the impacts of extreme weather. The future and past come together in the present, united by the shared experiences of Arctic peoples. I would like to thank Citi, whose on-going support has allowed the Museum to realise this ground-breaking exhibition.’

James Bardrick, Citi Country Officer, United Kingdom says: “As a global bank, we play an essential role in financing a sustainable economy and supporting indigenous peoples’ rights. We are particularly proud to partner with the British Museum for the forthcoming Arctic: culture and climate exhibition that sheds light on the formidable artistic expression and ecological knowledge of the Arctic populations. We are committed to financing and facilitating clean energy, infrastructure and technology projects that support environmental solutions and reduce the impacts of climate change, on rich and diverse communities such as those that inhabit the circumpolar Arctic.”

Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate
Umiaq and north wind during spring whaling by Kiliii Yuyan

If you want to read more about Arctic: culture and climate, follow the British Museum blog at blog.britishmuseum.org

 

Press release from the British Museum

Pictures courtesy of the British Museum