Web Extra     September 13, 2001

Early Arctic survival

Ancient humans were present north of the Arctic Circle almost 20,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to a study in last week’s Nature. Norwegian researchers Pavel Pavlov, John Svendsen and Svelin Indrelids from the University of Bergen, present new archaeological discoveries of various stone tools and mammalian bones.  The artifacts represent the oldest documented evidence for a human presence at such high Arctic latitudes.

Pavlov and his colleagues dug up a riverbed at a site in the Russian Arctic known as Mamontovaya Kurya. They found several stone artifacts, in addition to 123 mammalian bones from animals, including mammoths, horses, reindeer and wolves.  Among the bones was a mammoth tusk more than a meter long with a series of human-made grooves, perhaps with artistic or symbolic significance.

Radiocarbon dating of the new remains suggests that human ancestors braved sub-zero temperatures on the Arctic tundra in the last ice age between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago.  Previous findings placed humans at these northern latitudes in the last stages of the ice age, only about 13,000 years ago. “They tell us that humans crossed the Polar circle and were able to cope with this Arctic environment not much later than the first modern humans entered Europe,” Svendsen says.

The findings also suggest the Arctic landscape 35,000 years ago was relatively dry and ice-free.  “Even though the winters were probably colder than today, the climate was significantly milder than during the peak of the last glacial maximum,” Svendsen says.

As for the identity of the Arctic dwellers, researchers say they cannot yet determine whether they were Neanderthal ancestors or modern humans. But, Svendsen says that earlier finds from other studies 300 kilometers further to the south give them good reason to believe that modern humans were present in the region no later than 30,000 years ago.

Lisa M. Pinsker

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