Category Archives: RUSSIA

Prehistoric population once lived in Siberia, but mysteriously vanished, genetic study finds

Prehistoric population once lived in Siberia, but mysteriously vanished, genetic study finds

Prehistoric population once lived in Siberia, but mysteriously vanished, genetic study finds
A skull from one of the individuals analyzed in the new study, which revealed the existence of a previously unknown group of hunter-gatherers living in Siberia more than 10,000 years ago. (Image credit: Sergey V Semenov)

Researchers investigating prehistoric DNA have discovered a mysterious group of hunter-gatherers that lived in Siberia perhaps more than 10,000 years ago. 

The find was made during a genetic investigation of human remains in North Asia dating from as far back as 7,500 years ago. The study also revealed that gene flow of human DNA not only traveled from Asia to the Americas — as was previously known — but also in the opposite direction, meaning people were moving back and forth like ping pong balls along the Bering Land Bridge. 

Furthermore, the team examined the remains of an ancient shaman who lived about 6,500 years ago in western Siberia. This spot is more than 900 miles (1,500 kilometers) west of the group that he had genetic ties with, according to the new genetic analysis.

North Asia, particularly the area stretching from western to northeastern Siberia, was pivotal in humanity’s trek across the globe. Previous work has shown that the first people to arrive in the Americas, since at least 13,000 years ago, likely came either across or along the coast of the land bridge that once connected North Asia with North America. This corridor, known as Beringia, is now flooded by the Bering Strait.

However, much remains unknown about the genetic makeup of the people who lived in this key region at that time. This is because prehistoric human remains with enough DNA to examine from this region “are extremely rare and hard to find,” study senior author Cosimo Posth, an assistant professor in archaeo- and paleogenetics at the University of Tübingen in Germany, told Live Science.

Many of the prehistoric individuals examined in the study were found in the Altai region of Siberia.

In the new study, the scientists analyzed 10 prehistoric human genomes from previously discovered individuals who lived in North Asia as far back as 7,500 years ago. 

Many of the individuals were found in an area known as the Altai, a crossroad for migrations between northern Siberia, Central Asia and East Asia for millennia, located near where modern-day Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan come together. Previous research in the Altai revealed the first evidence of the mysterious and much older human lineage known as the Denisovans, who together with the Neanderthals are the closest extinct relatives of modern humans.

A view of the Nizhnetytkesken Cave site in Altai, Russia

The scientists discovered that a previously unknown group of hunter-gatherers in the Altai was “a mixture between two distinct groups that lived in Siberia during the last Ice Age,” Posth said. DNA from these prehistoric hunter-gatherers was found in many later communities across North Asia, from the Bronze Age (about 3000 B.C. to 1000 B.C.) to the present day, “showing how great the mobility of those foraging communities was,” he added. 

In addition, the researchers discovered multiple episodes of gene flow from North America to Asia over the past 5,000 years, with genes from the New World reaching Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula on the Pacific Ocean and central Siberia. 

“While there has been a lot of work showing flows of genetic ancestry into the Americas, there has been less evidence for backflow from the American continent to Eurasia,” said Vagheesh Narasim, a geneticist at the University of Texas at Austin, who did not participate in this study. “This work presents a new sample from northeastern Asia to support these results.”

By examining 10 prehistoric genomes, researchers found multiple episodes of gene flow from North America to Asia over the past 5,000 years.

Study lead author Ke Wang, a junior professor in anthropology and human genetics at Fudan University in China, was most surprised by the findings concerning a man’s remains in Nizhnetytkesken Cave in the Altai, who was found with a religious costume and artifacts one might expect of a shaman. His bones date back about 6,500 years, making him about a contemporary of the newly revealed Altai group, but the research team’s analysis revealed that he had genetic ties with groups in the Russian Far East, more than 900 miles to the west of his remains.

“This implies that individuals with very different [genetic] profiles were living in the same region,” Wang told Live Science. “His grave goods appear different from other archeological sites, implying mobility of both culturally and genetically diverse individuals into the Altai region.”

This discovery raises a number of interesting questions and possibilities about people in the region at that time. 

Could this discovery regarding this potential shaman “that far west mean that his ancestral group was more widespread than we previously thought?” Shevan Wilkin, a biomolecular archaeologist at the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich, who did not take part in this research, told Live Science. “Or does it mean that he was, in fact, a traveling religious practitioner or healer? All very interesting.”

Overall, the study shows that prehistoric groups were more connected than previously believed. 

All in all, “geographically distant hunter-gatherer groups showed evidence of genetic connections to a much larger extent than previously expected,” Posth said. “This suggests that human migrations and admixtures [interbreeding between groups] were not the exception but the norm also for ancient hunter-gatherer societies.”

Wang, Posth and their colleagues detailed their findings online Jan. 12 the journal Current Biology.

1,500-year-old Crypt of Rich Warrior Buried With Wife and Children Discovered in Ancient Russian City

1,500-year-old Crypt of Rich Warrior Buried With Wife and Children Discovered in Ancient Russian City

An Ancient warrior has been unearthed from a Russian crypt, buried alongside his wife and three children. The discovery has sparked an archaeological mystery, with experts unable to confirm whether the family died from plague – or were butchered by local tribesmen.

1,500-year-old Crypt of Rich Warrior Buried With Wife and Children Discovered in Ancient Russian City
The Russian crypt was littered with bodies
The family was buried 16 feet below ground
Rare artefacts buried with the family indicate high status or wealth

Archaeologists say the “noble” family was buried at the site in Fanagoriya, Russia around 1,500 years ago. The adult male skeleton was found buried with riding stirrups and spurs, according to the Russian Academy of Sciences.

He was also equipped with a sword belt, which suggests he was a mounted warrior.

And the 16-foot-deep crypt also contained valuables, indicating wealth or high status.

Archaeologists think the family may have been butchered by local tribesmen
It’s likely the crypt belongs to a noble warrior family
It’s also possible that the family were killed by plague
Skeletons were unearthed at the lost Russian city of Fanagoriya, founded by Ancient Greek colonists

This ancient warrior may have been like a real-life version of Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones.

“Judging by what we have found here, the man served the city’s army,” said Aleksei Voroshilov, who led the dig.

“He was a horseman because we found riding stirrups and spurs too.

“There is also a leather harness attached to a belt, which was used to carry a sword.

“The buckles on the harness are really worn out, which means this warrior has seen a lot of fighting.

“He was unsheathing and sheathing his sword again and again.”

The long-dead warrior was also buried alongside his wife and three children.

It’s not clear how they died, but archaeologists believe they may have been killed by the plague.

Another leading theory is that they were butchered by nomadic tribesmen in the local area.

The eerie burial site was dug 1,500 years ago.
The ancient lost city has produced important artefacts

In any case, the dig site at Fanagoriya is of huge interest to archaeologists.

The site is believed to have major historical importance to Christianity and has produced a number of rare artefacts.

“This year we have discovered very accurate and strong evidence that Christianity was founded in Fanagoriya in the fifth century, which is a marble tabletop, which could be used as an altar in a church,” said Aleksei.

“We have discovered a marble baptistery for infants or probably for toddlers as well. It is not very big, nevertheless, it is massive and made from marble.

“One of our underwater expeditions discovered a ship some time ago, which was sunk following the uprising in Fanagoriya against Mithridates VI of Pontus which occurred exactly in 62 BC.

“This ship is one of the most ancient ones ever found in the world.”

Graves of Elite Warrior and Aphrodite Cult Priestess Uncovered in Russia

Graves of Elite Warrior and Aphrodite Cult Priestess Uncovered in Russia

A silver medallion was discovered in the grave of an Aphrodite priestess, showing the goddess and signs of the zodiac, minus Aquarius and Libra.

About 1,900 years ago, a woman died and was buried in Phanagoria – a city established centuries earlier on the coast of the Taman Peninsula in southern Russia. Her grave was together with others in the ancient city’s necropolis and while there was nothing particularly unusual about it, she was a priestess of the Aphrodite cult, the archaeologists excavating the ancient city concluded.

Another intriguing find at the Black Sea site was a warrior’s tomb featuring a sword that had been made in early medieval Iran. The woman’s grave was found by archaeologists Nikolay Sudarev and Mikhail Treister, during the 2022 summer season of the Phanagoria archaeological expedition, which has been supported since 2004 by the Oleg Deripaska Volnoe Delo Foundation, says its spokesman Ruben Bunyatyan.

Her adornments included a silver medallion showing the goddess and signs of the zodiac, minus Aquarius and Libra. Such medallions were common in the territory of the Bosporan Kingdom as early as 2,300 years ago, says Maria Chashuk, senior research associate of the Phanagoria archaeological expedition. No, the medallion, a big one – about 7 centimetres (2.75 inches) in diameter and 15 millimetres thick – was not broken, so it is puzzling why Aquarius and Libra are missing, she adds.

Rings and belt found by the priestess

Medallions of the sort were used in many ways: as brooches, as headgear accessories and as pendants, Chashuk explains. “It was found on the lower part of the woman’s chest. On the flip side, there is a brace through which one could put a cord and wear the medallion as a pendant. It looks like that was how the medallion was worn by the woman, but that question is still being studied.”

How did the researchers conclude that the ornament shows none other than Aphrodite? Sudarev and Treister based their decision on iconographic features of the image of the goddess, as well as similar images on other analogous findings in the region, Chashuk and Bunyatyan say.

“The images of the zodiac signs around the goddess also point to the fact that this is indeed Aphrodite Urania, as they emphasize her heavenly hypostasis,” Chashuk adds.

“Aphrodite Urania” refers to the divine aspect of the goddess as opposed to her earthly aspect “Aphrodite Pandemos,” not to mention the legend that she was sired by emissions from the genital package of Uranus that had been hacked off by his son Cronos. Moving on.

One of the grave goods was found in the tomb at Phanagoria, southern Russia.

The woman also wore silver earrings with pendants in the form of doves and rings that had images so poorly preserved that they can’t quite be made out: possibly images of cornucopia and Eros with wings, Chashuk suggests.

Other grave goods included a red clay jug with a twisted handle, iron scissors with a bronze handle, a bronze mirror, a string of 157 beads (somebody counted) and three bronze coins. The implication – that members of the ancient Greek pantheon were worshipped in first-century Taman – is not surprising. Christianity would only reach the region in the Middle Ages, around the ninth and 10th century, before which the people followed Slavic pagan religions – and before which some evidently adored the Hellenistic pantheon.

Some of the findings at Phanagoria.

The medallion also suggests belief in astrology, a pseudoscience that posits causative relationships between the positions of celestial bodies and events on Earth. Astrology goes back at least 4,000 years and has been suspected for at least much of that time. Cicero, for instance, wrote roughly 2,050 years ago that divination (by any means) would be awesome if it wasn’t hooey: “A really splendid and helpful thing it is – if only such a faculty exists,” he wrote in “Defense Divinatione.” He added that all men believe “signs are given of future events” – which applies, more or less, to this day.

While Cicero wrote arguments (at remarkable length) for and against astrology’s merits, centuries before him Xenophanes, born in the sixth century B.C.E., reportedly took an actual stand against trying to peer into the future through omens and portents – if only because the gods can’t be bothered to communicate with us, lowly humans.

So, a woman died in first-century Phanagoria and was buried with a medallion showing Aphrodite and 10 signs of the zodiac, and some goods for the afterlife. But maybe she was a groupie of the goddess – why think she was a priestess?

The site is at Phanagoria in southern Russia, by the Black Sea.

Sudarev, an archaeologist with the Russian Academy of Sciences, believes that some of the items from the burial have specific semantic meanings, Chashuk says. “For example, silver earrings with pendants in the form of doves could be associated with different deities, but most often doves are mentioned as a symbol of Aphrodite Urania. The mirror and scissors often had a ritual meaning (as a tool for trimming hair) and could also be one of the symbols of the goddess.”

The excavators also found two scarab-type beads made of Egyptian faience, found with other beads on her neck, but they bear highlighting because they bore hieroglyphs at the bottom: one showing a sitting cat-raptor and the other a cobra-Uraeus with a solar disk.

“Mr. Sudarev notes that the symbols on the scarabs relate to the Egyptian analogues of Aphrodite Urania – Wadjet [the cobra goddess] and Hathor,” Chashuk sums up. 

At the end of the day, the presence of Aphrodite worship and, possibly, the burial of a priestess to her cult support the belief that Phanagoria was founded as a Greek colony on the Taman Peninsula, the archaeologists say.

Graves of Elite Warrior and Aphrodite Cult Priestess Uncovered in Russia
Grave with Sassanian sword
Signs of Sassanians

While the existence of deities and their amiable propensity to share information is dubious, and if anybody had consistently gotten their forecasts right, we would probably have heard about it – there is no similar dubiety about the existence of war. The discovery of the Sassanian sword in a burial in Phanagoria, from about 1,500 years ago, is more information about practical matters. “Archaeologists believe that the weapon is part of the Iranian group of swords due to the distinctive golden top of its wooden hilt,” explains Bunyatyan.

Finding a fine sword of Iranian (Sassanian) origin in the territory of the Kingdom of the Cimmerian Bosporus supports historic sources describing the Sassanid Empire’s political and military influence in the Caucasus region and along the Taman Peninsula, says Alexey Voroshilov, head of the Phanagorian expedition’s necropolis team. It could have been a diplomatic gift.

Buried with a precious sword

Or, might it reveal the use of mercenaries, foreign soldiers fighting for filthy lucre, which was apparently not unknown in Classic times? It seems that even the “Greek army” that combated the “Carthaginian forces” were stuffed to the gills with hired help.

Not likely, because the sword was just too good, says Voroshilov. “Expensive prestigious weapons were either made to order or came as war trophies. The ceremonial arms and horse harness were part of the diplomatic gifts,” he says. “Hence, it is highly unlikely that the owner of the sword was a mercenary. There is no doubt that this person was a representative of the elite of Phanagoria and was a bearer of the military aristocratic culture of the Bosporan Kingdom in the Migration Period.”

It’s the only sword of its kind to be found in Phanagoria, he says, adding that “this is the first major discovery in Phanagoria testifying to cultural ties between the elites of Phanagoria and the Sassanid Empire.”

The warrior was also buried with other fine stuffs. “In the tomb itself, a lot of rare things were discovered, including imported items: glass jugs, wooden and metal utensils, and wooden boxes with decayed cloths. The tomb is notable for its monumentality and considerable depth (about 7 meters), as well as for its opulent burial rites. There is a lot to suggest that noble and wealthy city dwellers were buried in the crypt along with the warrior,” Voroshilov sums up. The priestess seems to have gotten relatively short shrift a few centuries earlier.

DNA Analysis Identifies Neanderthal Family Members

DNA Analysis Identifies Neanderthal Family Members

The first snapshot of a Neanderthal community has been pieced together by scientists who examined ancient DNA from fragments of bone and teeth unearthed in caves in southern Siberia.

DNA Analysis Identifies Neanderthal Family Members
The remains were found in caves in southern Siberia.

Researchers analysed DNA from 13 Neanderthal men, women and children and found an interconnecting web of relationships, including a father and his teenage daughter, another man related to the father, and two second-degree relatives, possibly an aunt and her nephew.

All of the Neanderthals were heavily inbred, a consequence, the researchers believe, of the Neanderthals’ small population size, with communities scattered over vast distances and numbering only about 10 to 30 individuals.

Laurits Skov, the first author on the study at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, said the fact that the Neanderthals were alive at the same time was “very exciting” and implied that they belonged to a single social community.

Neanderthal remains have been recovered from numerous caves across western Eurasia – territory the heavy-browed humans occupied from about 430,000 years ago until they became extinct 40,000 years ago. It has previously been impossible to tell whether Neanderthals found at particular sites belonged to communities or not.

“Neanderthal remains in general, and remains with preserved DNA in particular, are extremely rare,” said Benjamin Peter, a senior author on the study in Leipzig. “We tend to get single individuals from sites often thousands of kilometres, and tens of thousands of years apart.”

In the latest work, researchers including Svante Pääbo, who won this year’s Nobel prize in medicine for breakthrough studies on ancient genomes, examined DNA from the remains of Neanderthals found in the Chagyrskaya cave and nearby Okladnikov cave in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia.

Neanderthals sheltered in the caves about 54,000 years ago, seeking cover to feast on the ibex, horse and bison they hunted as the animals migrated along the river valleys the caves overlook. Beyond Neanderthal and animal bones, tens of thousands of stone tools were also found.

Writing in the journal Nature, the scientists describe how the ancient DNA points to the Neanderthals living at the same time, with some being members of the same family.

Further analysis revealed more genetic diversity in Neanderthal mitochondria – the tiny battery-like structures found inside cells which are only passed down the maternal line – than in their Y chromosomes, which are passed down from father to son.

The most likely explanation, the researchers say, is that female Neanderthals travelled from their home communities to live with male partners. Whether force was involved is not a question DNA can answer, however.

“Personally, I don’t think there is particularly good evidence that Neanderthals were much different from early modern humans that lived at the same time,” said Peter.

“We find that the community we study was likely very small, perhaps 10 to 20 individuals and that the wider Neanderthal populations in the Altai mountains were quite sparse,” Peter said. “Nevertheless, they managed to persevere in a rough environment for hundreds of thousands of years, which I think deserves great respect.”

Dr Lara Cassidy, an assistant professor in genetics at Trinity College Dublin, called the study a “milestone” as “the first genomic snapshot of a Neanderthal community”.

“Understanding how their societies were organised is important for so many reasons,” Cassidy said. “It humanises these people and gives rich context to their lives. But also, down the line if we have more studies like this, it may also reveal unique aspects of the social organisation of our own Homo sapiens ancestors. This is crucial to understanding why we are here today and Neanderthals are not.”

Holding hands for 5,000 years, a couple with mysterious jade rings and dagger

Holding hands for 5,000 years, a couple with mysterious jade rings and dagger

Bronze Age burial near Lake Baikal intrigues archaeologists who have not yet revealed the contents of the leather pouch between man’s kneecaps.

Holding hands for 5,000 years, a couple with mysterious jade rings and dagger
The man’s skeleton had a ring made of rare white jade over one eye socket.

Experts speculate that this ancient couple is an elderly man and his wife or concubine, buried for eternity in a show of affection. There are some unique aspects to the couple who are believed to be from the Bronze Age Glazkov culture.

The man’s skeleton had a ring made of rare white jade over one eye socket. Three more were on his chest. Archaeologist Dr Dmitry Kichigin said: ‘It was probably somehow connected with their ideas about the afterlife.’

Samples of the bone of the couple have been sent to Canada for radiocarbon analysis, but the Russian team involved in the excavations believe the couple to be 4,500 to 5,000 years old. 

The site is a sacred burial place since Neolithic times overlooking the waters of Lake Baikal, the oldest and deepest lake in the world.

‘In the grave we found male and female skeletons, lying on their backs, heads to the west, hand in hand,’ he said. The site is a sacred burial place since Neolithic times overlooking the waters of Lake Baikal, the oldest and deepest lake in the world.

The male skeleton is complete but rodents destroyed the upper part of the female. Near the woman was a ‘massive’ knife made of jade, some 13 centimetres in length and 7 cm in width. 

Pendants of red deer and musk deer teeth were found on the male skull, and around the feet. Most likely, they decorated the hat and footwear.

‘Were they relatives, or an owner and his concubine?’ asked the archaeologist. For now, the answer is unclear: he would like to conduct DNA tests to check if the pair were related, but this appears to be too expensive.

The burial unearthed this summer is located at a cape on Maloe More, the strait that separates the mainland and the Olkhon island, close to Chernorud settlement, some 260 kilometres north-east of Irkutsk. 

The precise location is being kept secret, for now, to avoid amateur diggers wrecking a site which is likely to contain more burials, possibly older than this one. 

‘We were lucky to find at least one skeleton in excellent condition, with implements and decorations – it is the dream of many archaeologists,’ said Kichigin. ‘It would be very interesting to find out the purposes the massive jade knife, which we found near the woman, was used for. 

‘We also found some metal implement in a small leather bag between male’s kneecaps.’ The analysis will begin with the finds in the autumn. 

‘The cape, where we conducted excavations, was obviously a sacred place for ancient people,’ he said. It was not a settlement but used for religious rites and as a graveyard from ancient times.

‘We can expect a lot of interesting discoveries on this archaeological site, so we plan to continue our work next year.’ 

The archaeological team led by Dr Kichigan is from Irkutsk National Research Technical University, with the assistance of Yuliana Yemelyanova, from the Laboratory of Archeology, Paleoecology, and Life Support Systems of the Peoples of North Asia.

The burial unearthed this summer is located at a cape on Maloe More, the strait that separates the mainland and the Olkhon island, close to Chernorud settlement.

The Mysterious 1,300-Year-Old Siberian Lake Fortress

The Mysterious 1,300-Year-Old Siberian Lake Fortress

It is one of the most mysterious archaeological sites in Russia – an ancient complex engulfing a small island in the centre of a remote lake in the mountains of southern Siberia. At first glance, it appears to be an ancient fortress, its perimeter of high walls constructed to keep out enemies.

However, others have proposed the 1,300-year-old structure may have been a summer palace, monastery, memorial complex, ritual centre, or astronomical observatory.

According to the Siberian Times, more than a century after its rediscovery, experts are no closer to understanding the secrets of these enigmatic ruins.

The Mysterious 1,300-Year-Old Siberian Lake Fortress

The archaeological site is known as Por Bajin (also spelt Por-Bazhyn), meaning ‘clay house’. It is located on an island in the middle of Tere-Khol Lake in Tuva, Siberia, just 20 miles (32 km) from the Mongolian border. 

First explored in 1891, the site was not excavated until 1957-1963. However, it was not until 2007-2008 that the first large-scale research was undertaken, carried out by the Por Bajin Cultural Foundation.

What they discovered presented a conundrum – the structure is located in a very remote place on the outskirts of what was the Uighur nomad empire, built with Chinese features, but with no sign of permanent habitation, and abandoned after only a short period of use.

Why was it built? How was it used? And why was it abandoned? These are the questions that have continued to both fascinate and frustrate experts ever since its discovery.

Inside the complex of Por Bajin.

The Construction of Por Bajin

Believed to have been constructed in 757 AD, the ancient complex has outer walls that still rise to 40 feet (12 meters) in height and inner walls of 3-5 feet (1 – 1.5 meters), some still covered with lime plaster painted with horizontal red stripes. The main gate was discovered, opening into two successive courtyards connected by another gate.

The walls enclose an area of about seven acres containing the remains of more than 30 buildings, but with a two-part central structure linked by a covered walkway, which once had a tiled roof and was supported by 36 wooden columns resting on stone bases.

Laser mapping of the site prior to the first major excavation in 2007 helped experts build a 3D model of what the complex might have looked like.

Por-Bajin reconstruction seen from the east.

Only a small number of artefacts were ever recovered from the site – if it had been permanently inhabited one would expect to find a much greater number of items.  There was also no evidence of any kind of heating system, which would have made it impossible to stay there, at 2,300 meters above sea level, in winter conditions.

The main finds include clay tablets of human feet, faded coloured drawings, fragments of burnt wood, roof tiles, an iron dagger, a stone chalice, one silver earring, and iron construction nails. None of the artefacts provides a definitive answer as to why the structure was built, and how it was used.

One of the tiles was found at Por Bajin.

Since the end of the 19th century, Por-Bajin has been linked to the Uighur Khaganate nomadic empire (744 – 840 AD), composed of nomadic Turkic-speaking people held together by forces of warriors on horseback. The empire spanned Mongolia and southern Siberia, however, the location of Por Bajin was still well away from settlements and trade routes.

Why would they build in such a remote location? Could it have been the site of a palace or a memorial for a ruler? The unique layout, more ornate than that of other Uighur fortresses of the period, has led some scholars to suggest that it might have had a ritual role.

Still, there are some other puzzling features. The architecture reflects a distinctive Chinese style, as evidenced by the use of Chinese building materials, such as certain types of roof tiles, and the use of Chinese construction methods.

The layout, with its axial planning, dominant central building, and residential quarters is consistent with styles seen in other Buddhist monasteries. But Por-Bajin shows no evidence of religious practice.

Small yards (left) running along Por-Bajin’s walls each had a building in the centre. A digital reconstruction (right) based on excavations shows that each building could have functioned as a dwelling, perhaps for monks if the site were a monastery.

Why was it abandoned?

Not only has Por Bajin presented a mystery regarding its purpose, but archaeological evidence suggests it was abandoned after only a short period of use.

No evidence has been found to suggest the complex came under attack from an opposing force. Political changes in the region may offer one possible explanation, although nothing concrete has been presented to support this theory. 

According to Dmitriy Subetto, from the Department of Physical Geography RGPU, the structure may have been abandoned prior to completion due to the builders’ lack of familiarity with the permafrost.

For now, Por Bajin remains one of Russia’s enduring mysteries.

8,200-year-old burials in Russia contain pendants crafted from human bone

8,200-year-old burials in Russia contain pendants crafted from human bone

Nearly a century ago, archaeologists excavating an 8,200-year-old graveyard in northwestern Russia took note of a number of bone and animal-tooth pendants buried with the Stone Age people entombed there. But when researchers recently began to re-analyze the bone pendants to determine which species of animal each came from, they were in for a shock. 

8,200-year-old burials in Russia contain pendants crafted from human bone
An illustration depicting the burial of an adult male on the island of Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov in Russia.

Some of the pendants weren’t made from the animal bone at all. They were human.

“When we got the results, I was first thinking that there must be some mistake here,” said Kristiina Mannermaa, an archaeologist at the University of Helsinki in Finland, who led the research. 

But it was no mistake, Mannermaa told Live Science. Mixed in with ornaments made of bear, elk and beaver teeth were grooved fragments of human bone, including at least two pendants made from the same human femur, or thighbone. 

A surprising discovery

These bits of bone were found at a site called Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov, a cemetery with 177 burials from around 6200 B.C. in the Karelia region of Russia. The people here were hunter-fisher-gatherers, Mannermaa said, with a diet centred primarily around fish.

While some were buried unadorned, others were found with many teeth and bone ornaments, some of which seem to have been sewed onto the hems of long-decayed cloaks or coats or used as noisemakers in rattles. 

As part of a large project seeking to understand how these Stone Age people interacted with animals, Mannermaa and her team had some of these ornaments analyzed with a method that looks at molecular differences in the bone collagen between species. 

Of 37 pendants crafted from fragments of bone from 6 different graves, 12 turned out to be human, the analysis showed. (Another two returned results indicating that they, too, might be human, but the findings were uncertain.) These dozen pendants came from three different graves: two holding single adult men and one of an adult man buried with a child. There may be other human bone pendants in the graveyard, Mannermaa said, but those artefacts are still being analyzed. 

These two pendants are crafted from the same human femur.

Using human bones

Interestingly, the bones didn’t seem to be treated differently than other materials by the people who turned them into decorations. They were carved rather quickly, Mannermaa said, with simple grooves notched into their ends where a cord could be wrapped. They were also similar in size and shape to the animal teeth that were found nearby, perhaps indicating that they were used as a replacement for animal teeth that had been lost from the hem of a garment, Mannermaa and her team reported in the June issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports(opens in new tab). Wear patterns on the ornaments suggest they were worn by their owners before being buried with them.

“It gives an impression that when a human or animal died, they didn’t see so much difference in the body and the parts,” Mannermaa said. 

This apparent interchangeability doesn’t mean that people viewed human bone as meaningless, said Amy Gray Jones, a senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Chester in the U.K. who was not involved in the study.

Animal bone pendants and tools from Stone Age Europe are often treated with care and disposed of in particular ways after being used, Gray Jones told Live Science. Unlike today, when an animal bone is largely unvalued in Western culture, ancient Europeans may have infused both animal and human bone with great symbolism. 

“It means not necessarily that the human bone and the pendant is just another material, but that perhaps it also has an importance or a meaning like the animal bone,” Gray Jones said. 

The archaeological record is thin, however. This is the first such use of human bone from northeastern Europe, Mannermaa said, though human tooth pendants(opens in new tab) from about 6000 B.C. have been found at a site called Vedbaek Henriksholm Bøgebakken in Denmark. In 2020, a couple of human-bone arrowheads were discovered in the Netherlands. There are also a few other scattered examples of carved human bones from around Stone Age Europe, including an arm bone from Serbia with notches cut in it

“We’re probably only getting a partial glimpse into what human bone was used for,” Gray Jones said.

The method of analyzing collagen molecules used in the current study is relatively new, and it’s likely that more already-discovered bone fragments would be identified as human if they were tested, she said. 

Mannermaa and her team are now studying the animal bone pendants found at Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov to confirm that they were, indeed, worked in similar ways to the human bone. It would be interesting, she said, to try to extract DNA from the pendants to see if the people the bone came from were related to the people who were buried with the pendants. But those studies require the destruction of large amounts of bone, she said, so it’s not likely that researchers will pursue that research at this time. 

Million-year-old mammoth genomes set a record for ancient DNA

Million-year-old mammoth genomes set a record for ancient DNA

Image from the Centre for Palaeogenetics, Stockholm, of steppe mammoths, thought to have preceded the woolly mammoth.

Teeth from mammoths buried in the Siberian permafrost for more than a million years have led to the world’s oldest known DNA being sequenced, according to a study that shines a genetic searchlight on the deep past.

Researchers said the three teeth specimens, one roughly 800,000 years old and two more than a million years old, provided important insights into the giant ice age mammals, including into the ancient heritage of, specifically, the woolly mammoth.

The genomes surpass the oldest previously sequenced DNA, that of a horse dating from 560,000 to 780,000 years ago.

Love Dalén, professor of evolutionary genetics at the Centre for Palaeogenetics in Stockholm, was the senior author of the study, published in Nature. He said: “This DNA is incredibly old. The samples are a thousand times older than Viking remains, and even pre-date the existence of humans and Neanderthals.”

The mammoths were originally discovered in the 1970s in Siberia and had been kept at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

Million-year-old mammoth genomes set a record for ancient DNA
Palaeontologists Love Dalén and Patricia Pecnerova with a mammoth tusk on Wrangel Island, Arctic Ocean.

Researchers first dated the specimens geologically, using comparisons with other species, such as small rodents, known to be unique to particular time periods and found in the same sedimentary layers.

This suggested that two of the mammals were ancient steppe mammoths more than a million years old. The youngest of the trio is one of the earliest woolly mammoths yet found.

The team also extracted genetic data from tiny samples of powder from each mammoth tooth, “essentially like a pinch of salt you would put on your dinner plate”, Dalén told a press briefing.

While the material had degraded into very small fragments, the scientists were able to sequence tens of millions of chemical base pairs – which make up the strands of DNA – and conduct age estimates from the genetic information.

This suggested that the oldest mammoth, named Krestovka, was even older than thought, at approximately 1.65m years, while the second, Adycha, was about 1.34m years old, and the youngest, Chukochya, was 870,000 years old.

Dalén said that, regarding the oldest mammoth, the DNA dating process could indicate the creature was probably about 1.2m years old, as suggested by the geological evidence. But it was possible the specimen was older than that and had thawed out of the permafrost at one point and then become wedged in a more recent layer of sediment.

Tom van der Valk, of the Science for Life Laboratory, Uppsala University, in Sweden, said the DNA fragments were like a puzzle with millions of tiny pieces “way, way, way, smaller than you would get from modern high-quality DNA”.

Using a genome from an African elephant, a modern relative of the mammoth, as a blueprint for their algorithm, the researchers were able to reconstruct parts of the mammoth genomes.

The study found that the mammoth named Krestovka represented a previously unrecognised genetic lineage, which researchers estimated diverged from other mammoths around two million years ago and was ancestral to those that colonised North America.

The study also traced the lineage from the million-year-old Adycha steppe mammoth to Chukochya and other more recent woolly mammoths.

Researchers also found gene variants associated with life in the Arctic, such as hairiness, thermoregulation, fat deposits and cold tolerance in the older specimen, suggesting mammoths were already hairy long before the woolly mammoth emerged.

Siberia has alternated between dry and cold ice age conditions and warm, wet periods. Now climate change is causing the permafrost to melt and reveal more specimens, Dalén said. There was a risk that amid more rainfall, remains could be washed away, however.

Dalén said new technologies could allow the sequencing of even older DNA from remains found in the permafrost, which dates back 2.6m years.

Researchers are keen to look at creatures such as the ancestors of moose, musk ox, wolves and lemmings, to shine a light on the evolution of modern species.

“Genomics has been pushed into deep time by the giants of the ice age – the wee mammals that surrounded them might soon also have their day,” said Alfred Roca, a professor at the department of animal sciences at the University of Illinois, US, in a comment piece published in Nature.