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Far East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Afontova Gora Culture (Upper Palaeolithic) (Central Asia & Siberia)
c.21,000 - 12,000 BC
Incorporating the Shigir Idol People

FeatureEarly Asia's Palaeolithic period following early migration from Africa and the Near East is one of gradually encroaching human activity from coastal regions towards vast inland areas (see feature link). Initial habitation was scattered, and it is safe to assume that, prior to this period, Siberia and the sub-Arctic areas of Europe can be classified within the same civilisation, this being the Aurignacian culture.

The first appearance in Central Asia and Northern Asia of the Upper Palaeolithic (Late Old Stone Age) Mal'ta-Buret' culture precedes that of the Afontova Gora culture (Афонтова Гора in Cyrillic) by about a millennium. The latter emerged several hundred kilometres to the south-east of the former.

The Afontova Gora bears clear cultural and genetic links to the Mal'ta-Buret', probably being a northwards expression of it. Its core location was along a northwards-flowing river, the Yenisei (Енисея - very close to the south-western edge of the modern city of Krasnoyarsk), with a settlement which can be dated to 18,000-16,000 BC. This was a very cold period in the most recent ice age, and the northern ice sheet cannot have been far away.

The available archaeology from this site - which gives the culture its name - comes from five or more camp sites of the period in question. The site was first excavated by I T Savenkov in 1884, with the first human remains appearing at Level II in the 1924 excavations. Low quality DNA data confirmed clear links with the people of Mal'ta-Buret' while also showing a significant level of similarity with the Karitiana people of Brazil, and much more affinity with them than with the modern population of China. The Afontova Gora people were involved to an extent in the peopling of the Americas.

Little of note in archaeological terms seems so far to have originated on the eastern side of the Urals across the next six thousand years or so. However, the tentatively-named Shigir Idol people clearly inhabited the eastern Ural region (see circa 10,500 BC, below), with some interaction with the Butovo culture on the other side of the Urals.

These hunter-gatherers of a sparsely-populated Eurasian zone which was still emerging from the ice age were remarkable for the level of detail they seemingly managed to get in their totem poles, only one of which has survived to be examined by scientists. This occurred just a millennium before the appearance of the Yangelka Mesolithic culture of the southern Urals.

However, it was the European side of the Ural mountain range which seemed to progress in more detail, during the Hamburg, Ahrensburg, and Swiderian cultures. The next prominent Eurasian archaeological culture to be noted towards the east is actually located much farther to the south of the Afontova Gora, in the form of the Kel'teminar and then, more locally, by the Afanasevo.

Siberian cultural bone markings

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Laurie Stevens, and from External Links: Don's Maps, and Upper Palaeolithic Siberian genome reveals dual ancestry of Native Americans (US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health), and How the World's Oldest Wooden Sculpture Is Reshaping Prehistory (New York Times), and This Wooden Sculpture... (Smithsonian Magazine).)

c.13,000 BC

The Siberia region during the Upper Palaeolithic is still poorly understood. The people of the Mal'ta find that their habitat may be affected by the most recent glaciation to occur in Siberia.

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 today's Caspian Sea.

Afontova Gora scraper
A flint scraper found at the Afontova Gora archaeological site(s), used to scrape and clean off animal hides following a kill

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.

The lake also exists 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.

Possibly this is when Afontova Gora people may, potentially, influence the appearance of Ienevo and Resseta people on the European side of the Urals as an alien insert there.

c.10,500 BC

The world's oldest known wooden sculpture, dug out of a peat bog near Kirovgrad by gold miners in 1890, is carbon-dated twice in the early 2000s to pinpoint a date of construction. Carved from a great slab of freshly cut larch, scattered among its geometric patterns (zigzags, chevrons, and herringbones) are eight human faces, each with slashes for eyes which peer not so benignly from the front and back planes.

Shigir Idol
Two views of the head of the Shigir Idol, a 2.7 metre-tall totem pole made of larch and discovered in a Russian peat bog in 1890

This portable piece of 'mobiliary art' is known as the Shigir Idol, the only example of its type to survive, thanks to its being submerged in a now-gone palaeo-lake roughly twenty to thirty years after it had been erected.

For the moment the task of assigning it to any particular culture is one which will have to wait. No clear cultural connection has been established in this poorly-populated region (at the time), which is still in the process of emerging from ice age tundra to become habitable biome. Shigir artefacts do appear amongst the Butovo people though.

Early forests are still in the process of spreading across this warmer late glacial-to-post-glacial Eurasia. Hunter-gather population groups here are still likely to be small and scattered, although the situation is changing rapidly.

Shigir Idol
Seeing as the Afontova Gora people were involved to an extent in the peopling of the Americas, it seems highly likely that they carried local influences with them, including - perhaps - the origins of the classic North American totem pole

For the purposes of comparison, the sculpture is a little over a millennium older than the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A temple of Göbekli Tepe in Anatolia. Today its remains reside in Sverdlovsk Regional Museum of Local Lore in the Ural Mountains, not far from the Siberian border.

c.10,000 BC

Although the Afontova Gora fades by about 12,000 BC, Its proximity to the Shigir Idol people on the eastern side of the Ural Mountains suggests that the same general grouping is still thriving until at least 10,000 BC.

This is roughly when the West Siberian Plain floodwater lake finally drains out. In terms of detail, though, this region is very much a question mark for now.

With no recognised cultural designation to cover the Shigir people, the Eurasian Yangelka Mesolithic culture is the next to emerge hereabouts, around 9500 BC.

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