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Far East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Mal'ta-Buret' Culture (Upper Palaeolithic) (Central Asia & Siberia)
c.22,000 - 13,000 BC

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 Aurignacian succeeded the Neanderthal-led Châtelperronian culture. There may be some crossover finds which can be assigned to the latter but, essentially, that was the final expression of Neanderthal mastery of Europe. The humans of the Aurignacian displaced Neanderthals, consigning them to a slow extinction in southern Iberia.

The Upper Palaeolithic (Late Old Stone Age) Mal'ta-Buret' culture was located in Siberia, largely as an eastwards expression of the European Gravettian culture but with its own development and expression. It is known from a vast area of Asiatic Russia 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 site of Mal'ta - the second syllable is stressed - lies about a hundred kilometres north of Lake Baikal. It is composed of a series of subterranean houses which were made from large animal bones and reindeer antler and which had likely been covered with animal skins and sod to protect the inhabitants from the severe, prevailing northerly winds. The site of Buret' is a little way to the north of Mal'ta, along the course of the River Angara. The culture (known in full in Russian as Maltinsko-Buretskaya) also seems to have been involved to an extent in the Palaeo-Indian peopling of the Americas.

Another (Late) Upper Palaeolithic culture soon emerged alongside the Mal'ta-Buret' in north-eastern Asia. The Afontova Gora culture bears clear cultural and genetic links to Mal'ta-Buret', probably being an eastwards expression of it. However, little of note in archaeological terms seems so far to have been found after this period and for the subsequent six thousand years or so. The next prominent archaeological culture to be noted is much farther to the south in the form of the Kel'teminar.

FeatureThere were no Neanderthals alongside modern humans in Siberia but there was another human species - the Denisovans. Knowledge about them is only recent (since 2010), and is still undergoing a process of understanding and expansion (see feature link, right). They would have occupied areas of Siberia and parts of Asia when Homo sapiens arrived and, it seems, by around 18,000 BC years ago populations of H denisovan and H sapiens were interbreeding on mainland East Asia.

Siberian cultural bone markings

(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 Wet and wonderful: the world's largest wetlands are conservation priorities, Lauchlan Hugh Fraser (Thompson Rivers University, 2009).)

c.22,000 BC

The third oldest-discovered Homo sapiens genome (by 2016) comes from a boy who dies around this time, near the Siberian hunter-gatherer village of Mal'ta. Generally part of the Gravettian culture, itself a development of the broader Aurignacian, this boy also belongs to the more regionally-specific Mal'ta-Buret' culture of Siberia.

The boy's DNA shows close ties to that of today's Native Americans. Yet he apparently descends not from East Asians, but from people who had lived in Europe or western Asia. The findings suggest that about a third of the ancestry of native Americans can be traced to 'western Eurasia', with the other two-thirds coming from eastern Asia.

This also implies that traces of European ancestry which have previously been detected in modern native Americans do not come solely from mixing with European colonists, but have much deeper roots.

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

FeatureAround the same time, a sharp freeze could be responsible for dealing the dwindling Neanderthal populations in Europe a killer blow which finishes them off (see feature link). A climate downturn may cause a drought, placing pressure on the last surviving Neanderthals by reducing their supplies of fresh water and killing off the animals they hunt.

The cause of this chill may be cyclical changes in the Earth's position relative to the sun - so-called Milankovitch cycles. The resultant cold event seems to be pretty severe and also quite short.

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.

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).

West Siberian Plain
The 2.745 million square kilometres of today's West Siberian Plain is dominated by peatlands, such as this floodplain which is surrounded by tundra

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 Siberia region during the Upper Palaeolithic is still poorly understood. The people who lived in ancient Mal'ta have lived a semi-nomadic way of life and have built dwellings which are temporary but rather well-founded.

As hunter-gatherers they have hunted 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. 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 through 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).

c.13,000 BC

At the end of this period the lake may drain into the Arctic Sea, perhaps with regionally-catastrophic effects. The neighbouring Afontova Gora culture continues to survive for another millennium but both cultures eventually fade.

The Kel'teminar in the south is the next notable culture to emerge in this region, while East Asia soon sees the rise of the Nanzhuangtou and the arrival of early farming.

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