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Early Siberia / Northern Asia

Siberia (Sibir to modern Russians) is a vast eastern region of the Russian state, one which was gained during its imperial expansion of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries AD. Effectively it forms Northern Asia in contrast to the neighbouring rest of Asia. It extends from the Ural Mountains which form the eastern edge of Europe to the Pacific Ocean in the east, and southwards from the Arctic Ocean to the hills of northern-central Kazakhstan and the borders of Mongolia and China.

FeatureThe system which has evolved to catalogue the various archaeological expressions of human progress is one which involves cultures. For well over a century, archaeological cultures have remained the framework for global prehistory. The earliest cultures which emerge from Africa and the Near East are perhaps the easiest to catalogue, right up until human expansion reaches the Americas. The task of cataloguing that vast range of human cultures is covered in the related feature (see link, right).

IndexThe beginnings of human history in Siberia date back to the late Pleistocene, between 40,000 to 25,000 years ago, which includes the last full interglacial period and the last glaciation. The latter was followed by the interglacial period that still persists today. In Europe the Aurignacian culture of the Upper Palaeolithic coincided with that last glaciation, which was much more severe there than in Northern Asia. Siberia below the latitude of 60° N was ice-free (although not without associated freshwater flooding-related problems), and therefore so also was early China and early Japan. From this point in time, various new cultures emerged, some replacing earlier ones. Others were expressions of human expansion, not least into the Americas which largely took place through Siberia and over the temporary Bering land bridge (see the 'Prehistoric World' index for information on pre-modern human Earth, via the link on the right).

FeatureThe origins of 'Asia' as a name appear to lay in a confederacy in western Anatolia known as Assuwa or Assua (Arzawa). Certainly by about 1400-1300 BC this confederacy had already been formed by a number of regional minor states which, collectively, were allied to the Hittite empire which dominated Anatolia at that time. The city of Troy (or Wilusa) was also a member of this confederacy. However, a far older word could be the basis of the 'Asia' name. This option relates to the Indo-Europeans and their spread from the Pontic-Caspian steppe to dominate Central Asia (see the feature link, right, for a fuller exploration of this theory).

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, from Investigating Archaeological Cultures: Material Culture, Variability, and Transmission, Benjamin W Roberts & Marc Vander Linden (Eds), and from External Link: Encyclopaedia Britannica.)

Siberian cultural bone markings

c.49,000 BC

Modern humans move from Africa into the Near East as early as 120,000 years ago, according to fossils of archaic modern humans at the Skhul and Qafzeh caves in Israel. But they apparently skirt the colder climes of Europe and Northern Asia until much later, at the beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic about 40,000 to 45,000 years ago. Instead, their presence remains firmly rooted in Africa, with seemingly occasional forays into the Near East that perhaps only last a few generations at a time before fading out or retreating back.

Palaeolithic Northern Asia / Siberia
c.40,000 - 9,000 BC
Incorporating Ancient North Siberians & Ancient Palaeo-Siberians

Upper Palaeolithic (Late Old Stone Age) Siberia in the northern extremes of Asia was cold and remote, and living there in the earliest days of modern human expansion out of Africa would have been a tough process of fighting woolly mammoths and wolves for survival. Even so, the earliest habitation of the region seems to have taken place around 40,000 BC - and perhaps even a little earlier - by a hardy and only recently uncovered group of humans. Dubbed the Ancient North Siberians by their discoverers in the late AD 2010s, they were genetically distinct from both Western Eurasians (but distantly related to them) and East Asians (who eventually supplanted them).

These earliest Siberians split off from Western Eurasians around 36,000 BC, very shortly after Western Eurasians (generally of Europe) and East Asians themselves became genetically distinct. They lived on the tundra and marshes of Siberia as big game hunters of woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros, largely as an eastwards expression of the European Gravettian culture but with its own development and expression. They are known from various sites across Asiatic Russia in a vast area of which spans the River Yenisey (to the north of Tomsk and the border between modern Kazakhstan and Mongolia) and the western shores of Lake Baikal (to the north of central Mongolia).

The type site of Mal'ta - the second syllable is stressed - lies about a hundred kilometres north of Lake Baikal. A sister site of Buret' is a little way to the north of Mal'ta, along the course of the River Angara. Crucially this population does not appear to be the direct ancestor of Native Americans, although a distantly-related group around 20,000 BC does seem to have provided part of the genetic mix which was transferred across into North America to form the groups of Palaeo-Indians which would populate two continents, primarily through East Asians.

The East Asians who were largely responsible for the North American migration also mixed with other descendants of Ancient North Siberians to give rise to another group, dubbed the Ancient Palaeo-Siberians, who went on to generally supplant the existing Ancient North Siberians. They too were supplanted in time, by another band of East Asians which headed north about 9000-8000 BC and which gave rise to a group dubbed the Neo-Siberians. The vast majority of the genetic makeup of present-day Siberians comes from this last push. It is also the reason that there is no very close connection between contemporary Siberians and Native Americans. The Palaeo-Siberian populations became restricted to north-eastern Siberia, as represented by an individual from Ol'skaya, Magadan (circa 1000 BC), who closely resembles present-day Koryaks and Itelmens.

FeatureThere were no Neanderthals alongside modern humans in Siberia but there was another human species. The Altai Mountains at the junction between Siberia, Central Asia, and China were home to a species of human called Homo denisovan. It is still unclear what part - if any - this descendant of Homo Heidelbergensis and cousin of Homo sapiens played in the modern human occupation of the region. Knowledge about them is only recent (since 2010), and is still undergoing a process of understanding and expansion. Early research does seem to show that, by around 18,000 BC, populations of H denisovan and H sapiens were interbreeding on mainland East Asia (see more on Homo denisovan via feature link).

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from External Links: Ancient DNA Links Native Americans With Europe, Michael Balter (Science, 25 Oct 2013: Vol 342, Issue 6157, pp409-410), and Ancient Denisovans (Archaeology Daily), and DNA from Mysterious 'Denisovans' Helped Modern Humans Survive (Live Science), and The Mal'ta - Buret' venuses and culture in Siberia (Don's Maps), and A giant Siberian lake during the last glacial, and From Siberia to the Arctic and the Americas, Douglas Wallace (DNA Learning Center), and Tracking the First Americans, Glenn Hodges (National Geographic), and Ancient Siberia was home to previously unknown humans (The Guardian), and The population history of northeastern Siberia since the Pleistocene (Nature).)

c.36,000 BC

The earliest habitation of Siberia seems to take place around 40,000 BC - and perhaps even a little earlier. By this period those early inhabitants - the Ancient North Siberians - begin the process of becoming genetically distinct from both Western Eurasians (largely of Europe's Aurignacian culture) and East Asians, shortly after the latter two have also begun to develop their own genetic distinctions.

River Yana archaeological site of Ancient North Siberians
An archaeological site near the River Yana in Siberia is where two baby milk teeth were discovered, dated to about 29,000 BC

These early Siberians are living as big game hunters of woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros, Crucially this population does not appear to be the direct ancestor of Native Americans: that is a role to be played by later groups, from around 20,000 BC onwards.

c.25,000 BC

For the moment, despite increasing evidence to the contrary, this is the earliest generally-accepted arrival date for the first migrants to enter North America from Siberia via the Bering land bridge.

c.22,000 BC

FeatureIt is safe to assume that prior to this period Siberia and the sub-Arctic areas of Europe belong to the same civilisation, this being the Aurignacian culture. The Aurignacian succeeds the Neanderthal-led Châtelperronian culture. There may be some crossover finds that are assigned to the latter but, essentially, that is the final expression of Neanderthal mastery of Europe. Any differentiation between cultures of Europe, Asia, and Northern Asia does not begin until Neolithic times, and is marked by tremendous technical progress and a wide diversification of cultures.

The Venus of Hohle
The earliest undisputed human sculpture dates to about 38,000 BC and is part of the Aurignacian culture, designed to be worn as an amulet and small enough to be enclosed by a fist

c.20,000 BC

Crucially Ancient North Siberians do not appear to be the direct ancestor of Native Americans, although a distantly related group of around this period does seem to provide part of the genetic mix which is transferred across into North America, primarily through East Asians.

The Ancient Palaeo-Siberians who have largely supplanted the earlier North Siberians include the Chukchi, Koryak, Itelmen (Kamchadal), Nivkh (Gilyak), Yukaghir, and Ket. The Chukchi and Koryak are traditional reindeer breeders and hunters; maritime groups are sea-mammal hunters and fishers. The Itelmen and Nivkh are primarily coastal sedentary hunters and fishers, and the Yukaghir are hunters, fishers, and reindeer herders.

FeatureHomo denisovan still exists at this time, although little understood at present. Populations still occupy the Altai Mountains in Siberia, as well as the Tibetan Plateau. Research in 2011 shows that anatomically modern humans and Homo denisovans are interbreeding (see feature link). Largely it is with East Asians, and primarily populations which end up in South-East Asia. As East Asians largely supplant Ancient Palaeo-Siberians too, they bring this genetic diversity with them, to which is added that of ancient Siberians.

c.13,000 BC

The people who live in ancient Mal'ta live a semi-nomadic way of life, building dwellings that are temporary but rather well-founded. As hunter-gatherers they hunt mammoth and reindeer for meat, bones, and fur and, to an extent, fish too. Around this time their habitat may be affected by the most recent glaciation to occur in Siberia.

Mal-ta-Buret' boy
DNA from the skeleton of a boy of the Mal'ta-Buret' culture in Siberia offers clues to the first Americans, with this culture being the first to the east of the Ural Mountains to show differences from its European counterparts, albeit before any admixture from East Asians had taken place

The Sartan glaciation, although contentious and not fully agreed, theorises the formation of a vast freshwater lake covering much of the West Siberian Plain. Stretching some 1,500km from north to south, and a similar distance east to west at its widest points, at its maximum extent it may have a surface area at least twice that of the Caspian Sea.

Formed by the damming of the Yenisei and Ob rivers by an eastward lobe of the Ural and Putorana ice sheets, this mega-lake appears from the available dates to reach its maximum extent by around 22,000 BC, and to exist in some form until around 10,000 BC (three thousand years longer than the Black Sea has existed in its current form). At the end of this period the lake may drain into the Arctic Sea, perhaps with regionally-catastrophic effects.

c.9000 - 8000 BC

The East Asians who are largely responsible for the migration into North America which forms the Palaeo-Indians have also mixed with other descendants of ancient Siberian groups to give rise to the Ancient Palaeo-Siberians. Now another band of East Asians heads north to supplant that group and give rise to the Neo-Siberians. The vast majority of the genetic makeup of present-day Siberians comes from this last push.

c.3500 BC

Evidence collected from the Ulchi suggests an initial expansion outwards of Tungusic-speakers from the River Amur region by this time, and possible predating it by a century or two. The Tungusic language can be grouped together with the origins of Turkic and Mongolian under the Altaic banner, although significant differences are introduced along the way.

Tungusic-speakers gradually expand towards the west and north-west of the River Amur. Tribes eventually reach Lake Baikal and follow its river system to the River Yenisei which exits into the Kara Sea. In doing so they largely displace or absorb the languages of the earliest Siberians, the Palaeo-Siberians, as part of the East Asian Neo-Siberian migratory movement into the region.