| 2 January 2004
Humans learned to live in the Arctic earlier
Stone-age people lived in the lands north of the Arctic Circle before the peak of the last Ice Age - much earlier than had been thought, suggests new findings. The discovery of the site in eastern Siberia hints that people might have moved from the Old World into the Americas at a much earlier date than believed. The site along the Yanu River, carbon-dated as 30,000 years old, is twice the age of the oldest previously known Arctic settlement, report Vladimir Pitulko of the Institute for the History of Material Culture in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and colleagues.
The area is about 2000 kilometres from the Bering Strait. Archaeologists have long suspected that some of the earliest Americans may have crossed the Bering land bridge from northeastern Asia. However, scientists had little evidence of Arctic settlements in Asia older than 14,000 years - the age of the earliest Alaskan sites. The age of the Yanu River site shows that people learned to live in the Arctic much earlier, and might have reached Alaska earlier than has been recognized.
"Pitulko's find is exciting because it shows that people were living in an ecosystem that stretched continuously between Asia and North America. If they had wandered a little further eastward they could have been the first Americans," said Daniel Mann of the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.
Pitulko's team found 383 stone artefacts in the area, as well as many bones from ice-age Siberian animals. The ancient site would have been an open meadow in the river's flood plain when occupied. It is unclear if people lived in the area all year, or only came north in summer to hunt. The abundance of reindeer bones indicates they were the most common food.
The flaked stone tools resemble those from more southerly sites at the time. However, some of the tools resemble those used by the Clovis people who spread over North America about 12,000 years ago and are believed to be among the continent's first human settlers. But archaeologists are wary about linking the two. "It's a fabulous site," said David Meltzer of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, but he cautions the new settlement and those of the Clovis are separated by 16,000 years and thousands of kilometres.
Sources: New Scientist, Science (4 January 2004)
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