Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov in Karelia, northwest Russia, is one of the largest Early Holocene cemeteries in northern Eurasia, with 177 burials recovered in excavations in the 1930s; originally, more than 400 graves may have been present. A new radiocarbon dating programme, taking into account a correction for freshwater reservoir effects, suggests that the main use of the cemetery spanned only some 100–300 years, centring on ca. 8250 to 8000 cal bp. This coincides remarkably closely with the 8.2 ka cooling event, the most dramatic climatic downturn in the Holocene in the northern hemisphere, inviting an interpretation in terms of human response to a climate-driven environmental change. Rather than suggesting a simple deterministic relationship, we draw on a body of anthropological and archaeological theory to argue that the burial of the dead at this location served to demarcate and negotiate rights of access to a favoured locality with particularly rich and resilient fish and game stocks during a period of regional resource depression. This resulted in increased social stress in human communities that exceeded and subverted the ‘normal’ commitment of many hunter-gatherers to egalitarianism and widespread resource sharing, and gave rise to greater mortuary complexity. However, this seems to have lasted only for the duration of the climate downturn. Our results have implications for understanding the context of the emergence—and dissolution—of socio-economic inequality and territoriality under conditions of socio-ecological stress.
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The radiocarbon dates reported here were funded by the Natural Environment Research Council’s (UK) NRCF programme (grant no. NF/2016/1/5 to R.J.S.) and by the Baikal-Hokkaido Archaeology Project and the Baikal Archaeology Project, funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (grant nos 412-2011-1001 and 895-2018-1004 to A.W.). We thank the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography/Kunstkamera, St Petersburg, for permitting sampling of the YOO materials, and the crew of the Посейдон (Poseidon) for a most interesting journey to YOO and for supplying modern fish from Lake Onega. We also thank C. Leipe for drafting the maps used in Fig. 1 and Ilkka Matero for providing data used in Fig. 3.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Identified mammalian remains from YOO 2007 (total Mammalia n = 1190)); 1b. Identified fish remains from YOO 2007 (total Teleostei n = 753) (Murashkin et al.104 tab. 2).
Bayesian model of radiocarbon dated calcined bone from 2007 excavations at Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov (data from Murashkin et al.104, tab. 3).
Calibration of the average age for three modern fish live-collected at YOO in 2019. The calibration makes use of an unpublished extended NH1 post-bomb dataset (Hua pers. comm.).
Multiple Grave 55 (right), 56 (middle) and 57 (left). Glass negative MAE I 1886-46: From the collection of the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera), Russian Academy of Sciences © MAE RAS 2021. Photo of elk teeth by K. Mannermaa.
6a. The relationship between the 14C offset in human and faunal determinations and human δ13C values (r2 = 0.267, p = 0.049, n = 15); 6b. The relationship between the 14C offset in human and faunal determinations and human δ15N values (r2 = 0.311, p = 0.031, n = 15) (see Supplementary Table 4).
A comparison of the predicted and observed human-faunal 14C offsets (r2 = 0.588, p = 0.001, n = 15) (see Supplementary Table 7).
Bayesian model of the radiocarbon-dated fauna from Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov plotted against the Greenland ice core δ18O records39.
Bayesian model of the FRE-corrected radiocarbon-dated humans from Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov plotted against the GISP2 ice core temperature record39. Graves 160 and 49 are shown but excluded from the model as outliers.
Extended Data Fig. 10 Median calibrated date versus human stable carbon and nitrogen isotope values.
10a. Median calibrated date against δ13C values (Spearman’s rho = –0.120, p = 0.353, n = 36); 10b. Median calibrated date against δ15N values (Spearman’s rho = –0.188 p = 0.272, n = 36). Error bars approximate a 95% confidence interval.
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Schulting, R.J., Mannermaa, K., Tarasov, P.E. et al. Radiocarbon dating from Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov cemetery reveals complex human responses to socio-ecological stress during the 8.2 ka cooling event. Nat Ecol Evol 6, 155–162 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-021-01628-4