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Radiocarbon dating from Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov cemetery reveals complex human responses to socio-ecological stress during the 8.2 ka cooling event


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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Fig. 1: Site location and plan.
Fig. 2: Human and comparative faunal δ13C and δ15N data.
Fig. 3: Human and faunal dates plotted against climate record.
Fig. 4: Palaeoenvironmental data.

Data availability

All of the data used in this paper are included in the Supplementary Tables. The OxCal codes used for the Bayesian modelling are provided in the Supplementary Information.


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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.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



R.J.S., C.B.R. and A.W. designed the study. T.H. oversaw the radiocarbon measurements. R.J.S. and C.B.R. performed the Bayesian modelling. R.J.S. analysed the stable isotope results and calculated the reservoir effects. D.G., K.M. and J.O. provided the wider archaeological context. P.E.T. led the palaeoenvironmental overview. D.G., V.K., K.M. and V.M. contributed resources. R.J.S. led the writing of the paper, to which all authors contributed. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Rick J. Schulting.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information

Nature Ecology & Evolution thanks Henny Piezonka, Seren Griffiths and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 YOO faunal remains.

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).

Extended Data Fig. 2 Modelled non-cemetery radiocarbon dates from YOO.

Bayesian model of radiocarbon dated calcined bone from 2007 excavations at Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov (data from Murashkin et al.104, tab. 3).

Extended Data Fig. 3 Bayesian model of previously published human bone dates from YOO.

Bayesian model of previously published radiocarbon dates on human remains from Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov27,28, unadjusted for freshwater reservoir effects, plotted alongside the NGRIP δ18O record39.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Radiocarbon dates for modern fish from Lake Omega.

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.).

Extended Data Fig. 5 Photograph of multiple Graves 55–57.

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.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Plot of 14C offsets versus human stable carbon and nitrogen isotope values.

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).

Extended Data Fig. 7 Plot of predicted versus observed human-faunal 14C offsets.

A comparison of the predicted and observed human-faunal 14C offsets (r2 = 0.588, p = 0.001, n = 15) (see Supplementary Table 7).

Extended Data Fig. 8 Bayesian model of YOO faunal dates.

Bayesian model of the radiocarbon-dated fauna from Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov plotted against the Greenland ice core δ18O records39.

Extended Data Fig. 9 Bayesian model of YOO human dates.

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).

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