Late Holocene Subsistence Practices among Cis-Baikal Pastoralists, Siberia: Zooarchaeological Insights from Sagan-Zaba II

Article excerpt


For many people the term Siberia conjures up images of vast tracts of tundra and boreal forests, but in truth much of its southern reaches consist of steppe and forest-steppe environments that are in effect northern extensions of Central Asia eco-regions. Long-term human history in these southern regions is also strongly interwoven with that of Central Asia, especially with the development and expansion of nomadic pastoralism over the last several thousand years. The Lake Baikal region of eastern Siberia is no exception to either of these patterns. This region has a fairly extensive Holocene archaeological record of both hunter-gatherers and pastoralists, both in terms of mortuary remains and habitation sites. Most archaeological research on pastoralist sites around Lake Baikal has focused on cultural historical periodization and mortuary analyses, but very little work has been directed at pastoralists' subsistence practices. One could get the impression that pastoralism simply arrived here and then remained unchanged until the late historic period, despite several episodes of widespread population displacements and other significant culture changes. This paper represents one of the first attempts at using both modern recovery techniques and zooarchaeological quantification measures to understand temporal trends in nomadic pastoralist subsistence patterns in the Baikal region. This archaeological data, in combination with ethnographic and historic material on more recent Baikal populations, reveals long-term trends in the unique nature of late Holocene subsistence practices here, including the regular use of the lake's freshwater seals and fishes by pastoralist groups.


Nomadic pastoralists first arrived in the Cis-Baikal region of eastern Siberia roughly 3000 years ago, and eventually displaced or partially absorbed local hunting and gathering populations. At least two broad processes seem to have contributed to these population movements. First is the formation of large pastoralist polities outside of Cis-Baikal (see Grousset 2005), which displaced competitors at their margins northward toward the Lake Baikal area or expanded their own territories to this region. Second was the aridization of Cis-Baikal which brought about the formation of three steppe patches in the region roughly 4000 years ago (Goriunova and Vorob'eva 1986; Kharinskii 1995; Vorob'eva and Goriunova 1997). These patches (Fig. 1) became focal regions for pastoralists, who depended heavily on animal husbandry and periodic shifting of grazing areas (Kharinskii 1995).

Here we specifically focus on long-term trends in subsistence practices of pastoralist groups inhabiting Cis-Baikal, the region west of Lake Baikal including the islands and western shores of the lake itself. Our primary geographic focus is the Priol'khon'e microregion of Cis-Baikal, the steppe patch directly adjacent to the lakeshore (Fig. 1). Archaeological surveys and excavations have revealed a variety of late Holocene sites in Priol'khon'e, including cemeteries, ritual constructions, habitation sites, and fortified settlements (Goriunova and Svinin 1995, 1996, 2000). One of the habitation sites recently excavated by the interdisciplinary Baikal Archaeological Project (BAP) is Sagan-Zaba II (hereafter simply Sagan-Zaba) located on the western shore of Lake Baikal within Priol'khon'e (Goriunova et al. 2007a). This site has produced just under 80,000 faunal remains with almost 30 percent deriving from late Holocene deposits. As one of the few stratified late Holocene habitation sites in the region, it offers a unique opportunity to examine diachronic patterns in diet and subsistence of local pastoralists. In addition, the assemblage described here was excavated using modern recovery techniques that allowed for the collection of whole categories of faunal remains (fish, small mammals) typically under-represented (or not represented at all) in the region's previously excavated assemblages. …


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