The Oldest Art of the Eurasian Arctic: Personal Ornaments and Symbolic Objects from Yana RHS, Arctic Siberia

By Pitulko, Vladimir V.; Pavlova, Elena Y. et al. | Antiquity, September 2012 | Go to article overview

The Oldest Art of the Eurasian Arctic: Personal Ornaments and Symbolic Objects from Yana RHS, Arctic Siberia


Pitulko, Vladimir V., Pavlova, Elena Y., Nikolskiy, Pavel A., Ivanova, Varvara V., Antiquity


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Introduction

Early life, art and symbolic behaviour in the Eurasian Arctic have been glimpsed only from a handful of Pleistocene and Early Holocene sites. The world-famous Malta-Buret complex was discovered in the Angara Valley, west of Lake Baikal, Siberia, almost a century ago (Medvedev 1998). After decades of work and multiple revisions, its age is now put at 22 000-21 000 BP (Sulerzhitsky 2004). Like sites in Central (Svoboda et al. 1996) and Eastern Europe (Abramova 1995; Gvozdover 1995) it has an impressive assemblage of symbolic materials. Recent discoveries have extended the record earlier than the LGM after Kara-Bom and Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains yielded decorated objects and symbolic artefacts (Derevianko & Rybin 2003). To date, the overwhelming majority of EUP symbolic objects are from the southern part of central Siberia and the Baikal region, from Khotyk, Kamenka (Lbova 2000) and Podzvonkaya (Tashak 2009). Elsewhere in East Siberia only three sites (Ushki, Kheta and Berelekh) have yielded ornamented objects, and only one, Berelekh, is in the Arctic. This site produced a few stone pendants, unclear engravings on ivory splinters, and a fragment of mammoth tusk with an engraving of a mammoth (Abramova 1995; Pitulko 2011). These three sites date to about 12 000 BP at the earliest.

Here we present symbolic and artistic objects from excavations at Yana RHS, which document the earliest known and probable initial stage of human dispersal in the Arctic regions before the LGM, at ~28 000 BP (Pitulko et al. 2004). The importance of Yana relates to a combination of factors, including its date, character and geographic location. It has also produced one of the richest and most sophisticated assemblages of Palaeolithic art found for half a century, and many of the objects remain unparalleled in the Palaeolithic world. Here we present an overview of those objects that can be considered as having symbolic properties, and provide them with a context and a likely meaning.

The site

Yana is a group of six sites located several hundred metres apart discovered on the left bank of the Yana River in the Siberian Arctic (Figures 1 & 2). Three of them (Upstream Point, ASN and SP) yielded surface finds only, while the others (Yana B, Yana RHS/NP and TUMS 1) have a well-preserved in situ cultural layer forming part of the middle portion of the second river terrace, which is 16-18 m high. The cultural layer is 7.5 m above the average summer water level and is overlain by 7-8 m of frozen sediments, commonly known as Ice Complex deposits. These conditions required the development of special excavation techniques (Pitulko 2008; Figure 2). To date, more than 1000[m.sup.2] of the cultural layer has been excavated, mostly in the Yana RHS/NP locality.

Radiocarbon dates limit the occupation at Yana to a period of less than 1800 years, from 28 500[+ or -]200 to 27 140[+ or -]180 BP (Pitulko & Pavlova 2010). These age determinations agree with the dating of underlying and overlying deposits (Figure 1C). The faunal assemblage includes mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, Pleistocene bison, reindeer, musk ox, Pleistocene horse, brown bear, wolf, wolverine, arctic fox, Pleistocene hare and ptarmigan. Most numerous are horse, reindeer and hare bones (Pitulko et al. 2004, 2007). Mammoth remains are relatively rare except for certain areas of the site (Basilyan et al. 2011). Judging by the abundance of fully-articulated hare remains found during the excavations, this animal must have been hunted (snared) for its fur rather than its meat. Hare pelts are very light and warm but not durable. The fur was used by many northern peoples for underclothes, insoles and socks. According to Malorie (1968), Inuit hunters of Thule District in Greenland trapped as many as 1000-1500 hares each season for use in clothing but rarely ate them as they considered the meat to be tasteless.

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