Human presence in the European Arctic nearly 40,000 years ago

Abstract

The transition from the Middle to the Upper Palaeolithic, approximately 40,000–35,000 radiocarbon years ago, marks a turning point in the history of human evolution in Europe. Many changes in the archaeological and fossil record at this time have been associated with the appearance of anatomically modern humans1,2. Before this transition, the Neanderthals roamed the continent, but their remains have not been found in the northernmost part of Eurasia. It is generally believed that this vast region was not colonized by humans until the final stage of the last Ice Age some 13,000–14,000 years ago3,4. Here we report the discovery of traces of human occupation nearly 40,000 years old at Mamontovaya Kurya, a Palaeolithic site situated in the European part of the Russian Arctic. At this site we have uncovered stone artefacts, animal bones and a mammoth tusk with human-made marks from strata covered by thick Quaternary deposits. This is the oldest documented evidence for human presence at this high latitude; it implies that either the Neanderthals expanded much further north than previously thought or that modern humans were present in the Arctic only a few thousand years after their first appearance in Europe.

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Figure 1: Map showing the location of the Palaeolithic sites Mamontovaya Kurya and Byzovaya discussed in the text and the maximum extent of the Eurasian ice sheets during the Last Glacial Maximum (21,000–18,000 yr BP)10.
Figure 2: The excavated sediment section at Mamontovaya Kurya on the southern bank of the Usa river.
Figure 3
Figure 4: Photograph of the mammoth tusk from Mamontovaya Kurya.

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Acknowledgements

This work is a contribution to the Russian–Norwegian research project Paleo Environment and Climate History of the Russian Arctic (PECHORA), which forms part of the European Science Foundation Program Quaternary Environment of the Eurasian North (QUEEN). We thank E. Giria, Institute of History of the Material Culture, St Petersburg University, for carrying out microscopic analysis of the marks on the mammoth tusk. We thank J. Mangerud for his comments on this manuscript and for discussions. The bond material was identified by I. Kuzmina and D. Ponomarev. The drawing of the tusk and the stone artefacts were done by N. Pavlov and the figures by E. Bjørseth. We thank the Norwegian Research Council for financial support.

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Correspondence to John Inge Svendsen.

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Pavlov, P., Svendsen, J. & Indrelid, S. Human presence in the European Arctic nearly 40,000 years ago. Nature 413, 64–67 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1038/35092552

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