History Files

Far East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


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

Upper Palaeolithic (Late Old Stone Age) Siberia in Asia's northern extremes was cold and remote, and living there in the earliest days of modern human expansion out of Africa and the Near East 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 both from Western Eurasians (albeit being 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 (of the Afontova Gora culture) does seem to have provided part of the genetic mix for North America to form the groups of Palaeo-Indians which would populate two continents, primarily through East Asians.

Those 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, at least partially through the Sumnaginsk culture.

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.

This layered population replacement process 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. This is best represented by an individual from Ol'skaya named Magadan (circa 1000 BC), who closely resembles present-day Koryaks and Itelmens.

There 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 possible descendant of Homo Heidelbergensis and cousin of Homo sapiens played in the modern human occupation of the region.

FeatureKnowledge 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).

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 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), and Some of the first humans in the Americas came from China (The Guardian).)

c.36,000 BC

The earliest Siberian Palaeolithic habitation 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 both from Western Eurasians (largely of the 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

This is the earliest generally-accepted arrival date for the first migrants to enter North America from Siberia via the Bering land bridge, despite repeatedly being shown to be far too late for such an event. Perhaps surprisingly, this North American Palaeolithic migration is not limited solely to Siberians. East Asians are included, in a period of migration which lasts from about 24,000 BC to 17,500 BC.

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.

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

There may be some crossover finds which 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 North Asia does not begin until Neolithic times, and is marked by tremendous technical progress and a wide diversification of cultures. This is also the starting point for the Asian-Siberian Mal'ta-Buret' culture.

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 (and at least partially through the Afontova Gora culture).

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

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 such interbreeding 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.

Tibet's Jiangla river valley
This autumn view of Jiangla river valley shows the general location in which Baishiya Karst Cave is located, home to a population of Homo Denisovan which also populated the Altai Mountains in Siberia

c.13,000 BC

The people who live in ancient Mal'ta live a semi-nomadic way of life, building dwellings which 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. 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.

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

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.10,500 BC

The Sumnaginsk culture emerges around Yakutia in eastern Siberia to replace the Dyuktai people of the Siberian Palaeolithic. The new culture is initially focussed around a Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) settlement in the lower reaches of the River Aldan, but it quickly expands outwards within a millennium.

Siberian mammoth bones
Mammoth populations declined at the end of the Late Pleistocene, but the last groups on mainland Siberia survived until about 8000 BC, making them part of the ecosystem of Sumnaginsk hunters

c.9000 - 8000 BC

Those East Asians who are largely responsible for the migration into the Americas which forms the Palaeo-Indians have also intermixed with ancient Siberian groups to give rise to the Ancient Palaeo-Siberians.

Now, following the rise of the Sumnaginsk, another band of East Asians heads north to supplant that Palaeo group and give rise to the Neo-Siberians. The vast majority of the genetic makeup of present-day Siberians comes from this last push.

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