Analysis and Commentary
Vladimir Pitulko, senior research associate at the Paleolithic Department, Institute for the History of Material Culture, the Russian Academy of Sciences, PhD (History)
© From personal archive

Vladimir Pitulko: the Arctic was and remains an archaeologic enigma

When did people appear in the Arctic? How did they cope with the severe northern conditions? What were they doing? These and other questions are answered by Vladimir Pitulko, senior research associate at the Paleolithic Department, Institute for the History of Material Culture, the Russian Academy of Sciences, PhD (History).

Please tell us about the geography of your exploration. What excavations in the Arctic have you taken part in?

I'm primarily interested in the archaeology of the Stone Age in the Arctic and eastern Siberia, quaternary geology, paleogeography, and changes in human culture under the impact of environmental change. Since 1977 and up to the present time I have taken part in expeditions in various parts of the Arctic and the northern areas of the Russian Far East and conducted independent studies of these regions.   From 1977 to 1982  I participated in expeditions under Nikolai Dikov and Alexander. Lebedintsev in Kamchatka, Chukotka and the Okhotyskoye Sea coast; from 1984 to 1987 I took part in expeditions under Leonid Khlobystin on Vaigach Island and the Bolshezemelskaya tundra; and in 1988 (after Khlobystin passed on) I participated in the expedition of Oleg Ovsyannikov (in Pustozyorsk, and the lower reaches of the Pechora River) where I had an independent goal of finding Stone Age artifacts. That was the end of my scholarly period.

Since 1989 I have conducted independent studies: from 1989 through the 1990s, the first excavations of the Zhokhov site (one of the most ancient Stone Age monuments in the high-latitude Arctic) on Zhokhov Island (part of the New Siberian Islands at 76 degrees north latitude); in 1991 I worked on Wrangel Island (under the research project on its paleogeography in cooperation with Sergei Vartanyan); and in 1993, 1994, and 1997 I took part in Russian-German expeditions on the Laptev Sea system project conducted by the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI) in St. Petersburg and the Alfred Wegener Institute in Potsdam).

In 1998 and 1999 I took part in field work in northwestern Alaska (the search and studies of the most ancient Stone Age artifacts relating to the turn of the Pleistocene-Holocene epochs) at the invitation of the Department of Anthropology of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington D.C.) and the US National Park Service.

In 1999 I conducted a joint expedition with Sergei Vartanyan and Andrei Golovnyov in the lower reaches of the Pegtymel River in western Chukotka to study the Pegtymel petroglyphs and search for Stone Age artifacts from the turn of the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs.

We were lucky with petroglyphs. Andrei Golovnyov made a great film (accessible on YouTube, as are many of his pieces, including his film from Zhokhov Island in 2000-2001). As for artifacts from 10,000 years ago, we didn't find any during this expedition. Generally, it's hard to find authentic items of this age in northeast Russia — none have been found yet. 

From 2000 to 2012 I headed the international interdisciplinary research project "Zhokhov-2000) and the eastern Yakutian (Yana-Indigirka) expedition of the RAS Institute of Material Culture History. They were funded by grants from the RAS Presidium and the Russian Foundation for Basic Research. Now they are supported by the Russian Science Foundation. We worked on Zhokhov Island from 2000 to 2005; we discovered a Paleolithic site in the lower reaches of the Yana River (Yana site) and conducted excavations there, as well as large-scale searches for and excavations of archaeological sites (including newly-discovered ones), and studies of paleogeography and the quaternary geology of the north of the Yana-Indigirka lowland and the New Siberian islands.

We developed a method for studying Stone Age artifacts in multi-year frozen ice deposits. This is particularly important for Russia, since 60 percent of its area is covered by multi-year frozen sediment (cryolithic zone). This method will be in demand if the future plans for the development of these lands are carried out.

When did people arrive in the Arctic? What is the oldest evidence of human activity in this region?

Opinions on the timing of various events that can indicate when humanity arrived in the Arctic have changed with each new exploration in these territories. New findings and improved date-tracking methodology tend to alter the theories on the Arctic region's natural history. For a long time, the history of settlements in the European north — Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula — were the point of reference. People could only settle here after the deglaciation of these territories on the threshold of the Holocene Age, about 10,000 years ago.

Famous Soviet and Russian paleontologist Nikolai Vereshchagin made impressive archaeological discoveries near the well-known Berelyokhskoye "graveyard" of mammoths in the early 1970s. His findings were dated to about 13,000 years ago (or a bit younger according to our research, 11,000 years ago). This "record" remained unbeaten until 2001 when my expedition discovered the Yana site, the oldest archaeological dig in Arctic Siberia and the Arctic region as a whole. e Its main component  is about 32,000 calendar years old (28,500 in uncalibrated radiocarbon years).

However, people lived in the Arctic before this. The oldest evidence of anyone's presence was found a few years ago at the Yana Bunge-Toll site/1885 on the Yunigen (a tributary of the Yana) and in western Taimyr, the mouth of the Yenisei, near the polar station of Sopochnaya Karga.

The Bunge-Toll site/1885 has an interesting history. In 1885, the Russian government sent an expedition led by Alexander von Bunge to the lower reaches of the Yana and New Siberian Islands, with legendary Russian polar explorer baron Eduard Toll invited as a geologist. In the same year, Toll described a pile of bison skulls found at the site where more fauna remains were also discovered later, in 2012. The pile of skulls was most likely caused by man, providing evidence of ancient man's activities here. I couldn't identify the location of Toll's discoveries from his report, but he did put up a bronze plaque on a larch tree with the name of the expedition and the date. Local residents found the sign in 2011 or 2012…

To commemorate this great explorer, I named this site Bunge-Toll/1885. Both Sopochnaya Karga and Bunge-Toll/1885 provide evidence but are not the exact sites (which is a very general term). In other words, it's a location of more or less long human settlement as indicated by material evidence of activity in the form of artifacts or items (made of stone or bone). The findings in Bunge-Toll/1885 and Sopochnaya Karga are the traces of human activity, i.e. hunting, left on the animals' bones.

The Bunge-Toll/1885 findings contained the shoulder bone of a wolf with a hole made by a sharp object. The animal lived for another few months as the wound healed itself. In Sopochnaya Karga, mammoth bones show clear traces of an anthropogenic impact as a result of the hunting — the animal was killed with a few stabs. Its ribs have cutting marks typical of those seen on Yana findings, which are clearly connected to human activity. You can also see a cut in the cheekbone from the fatal attack on the animal (weapon shapes are reconstructed with the help of computer tomography, as with the wolf from Bunge-Toll/1885).

After killing a mammoth, the people used parts of its tusks (the tips were used to make long sharp blades). The wolf's wounded shoulder was dated to 45-47,000 years ago, and this figure can be accepted because the animal continued to live after the injury. It was not a postmortem but a perimortem injury, and its mechanics excludes any bites, stripping or other actions that would not be typical of a human. The creature that wounded the wolf from Bunge-Toll/1885 had stabbed it with a spear, and it happened 45,000 years ago.

The same approximate age has been estimated for the remains of a mammoth killed by a man (likely a man) from Sopochnaya Karga. The age of the remains can be identified by the age of the sediment accumulated on top of it (as seen in a cross-section of the steep river bank where the remains were found). In other words, the sediments above the remains are naturally younger than the remains themselves.

I talked extensively about these two discoveries in a recent article in Science (Pitulko V.V., Tikhonov A.N., Pavlova E.Y., Nikolskiy P.A., Kuper K.E., Polozov R.N. Early human presence in the Arctic: evidence from 45,000-year-old mammoth remains // Science. — 2016. — Vol. 351. — P. 260-263). In my opinion, these findings clearly indicate that people had colonized this Arctic area about 45,000 years ago. They had probably moved there even earlier because by that time they had already settled extensively around the Yenisei's mouth (72 degrees of north latitude) and on the Yana (69 degrees) and even more to the east and the north, on today's New Siberian Islands, which then were part of the continent after vast parts of the shelf had dried up due to the Polar basin's continued regression.

These territories were rich in food — mammoth, bison, horses and other animals of the Late Pleistocene "mammoth" fauna complex, and there were no obstacles to settling there. It is entirely possible that people also moved towards the north of west Siberia — at least, a 42,000-year-old Ust-Ishim human hip bone was found 2,000 km south of the killed Sopochnaya Karga mammoth, near Tobolsk. So people did live there; the only thing is that at that the earliest stage (the oldest known to us) they lived in small groups and it's difficult to find any evidence of them, especially because the sediment, the landscape and topography have been dramatically transformed in the last thousand years or so by natural processes.

The short answer to the question would be: for the moment, the oldest known human traces in the Arctic date back to 45,000 years ago, or perhaps, even a little bit more. I can say that, even at that point, people migrated quite extensively; at least the area between the Yenisei and the Yana rivers was certainly inhabited, and most likely many other territories were colonized by people (apart from the ice-covered sections or other places unsuitable for living). The population was small but grew rapidly. In all probability, they were anatomically identical to people today, at least, the Ust-Ishim hip bone has the genome of a modern human.

Exploration of Arctic territories was most likely linked to these people, at least no Neanderthal's remains have been found dating to this period (the last 50,000 years) to the north of 56 degrees north latitude. Hence, Arctic digs are an essential element in the research into human migration, which could also play a part in re-assessing the dates for the "exodus" from Africa, and for changing or modifying the paradigm… These are fundamental issues for global anthropological and archaeological science.

What was the status of the climate in the Arctic when humans first arrived, according to the excavation results?

It's difficult to say. We are talking about a huge area where the climate is not consistent even now, due to conditions such as proximity to the sea and other factors. So it would more accurate to talk about specific parts of this region, but not the region as a whole, because climate differed throughout in the past, just as it does now. For example, plus 2 Celsius in July is a good day on Zhokhov Island and plus 4 is almost hot, unlike the Yana RHS (a Paleolithic site on the Yana River) 800 kilometers south of Zhokhov Island, where such a temperature means very cold and a  normal summer day is plus 20. Everything is relative.

Some 8,500 to 9,000 years ago, the climate in the east Siberian part of the Arctic (the New Siberian Islands and the northern part of the Yana-Indigirka Lowland) was much milder than it is now. We found fossil remains of birches as high up as the ocean shore, where birches don't grow now. The coastal areas are a tundra biome, with scattered broadleaf trees growing only along large rivers (deciduous forest belts). In short, modern climate is much more severe that it was in the geologically not too distant past. When humans first, as far as we know, arrived in the Arctic, this vast region in northeastern Siberia had a steppe climate and is now known as the mammoth steppe. That treeless steppe was overgrown with grass and brush, which was good for large herbivores and the people that hunted them. On the other hand, the people that lived there lacked trees for making various items, like pikes or javelins, and so made these weapons from the tusks of the mammoth they killed. The mammoth steppe thrived for a long time, until the Holocene, and then became extinct as a biome about 10,000 years ago.

Moreover, the paleographic situation was different then, as the volume of dry land was much larger, and this influenced the atmospheric circulation, temperature gradient and the gradient of continentality, which depends on temperature and precipitation: the further from the sea, the drier and hotter the summers and the colder the winters. You can see now that the reconstruction of paleoclimatic conditions is an extremely complicated process. We have a clear view of the sequence of events and the quasicyclic sequence of warm (interstadial) and cold (stadial) phases, which we have identified also by studying Greenland ice core samples. We can clearly distinguish between cold and warm phases, but there were shorter cold and warm periods during the long and relatively warm phases, like the interglacial period that lasted between 55,000 and 24,000 years ago.

The oldest human sites we have identified in the Arctic (B-T/1885 and the Sopkarga mammoth that was killed by humans) date to about 45,000 years ago, the end of the first warm MIS3 interstadial (Marine Isotope Stage 3, Kargin Interstadial, Siberian climatostratigraphic scale), which is known in east Siberia as the Khomus-Yuryakh interstadial. In the central Siberian part of the Arctic Taimyr Peninsula and the adjacent territories), this period marked the beginning of a long Malokhet warming (the climatic optimum of the Kargin interstadial) after a relatively long unnamed cold phase. Even the enumeration of these names and events is evidence of a very complex picture of paleoclimatic changes.

We have been working hard to collect the data we need and examine samples and the results of palynological and paleoenthomological studies in order to reconstruct the human environment in the Arctic at different periods, at least the most important of them, such as the Pleistocene-Holocene transition (circa 10,000 years ago), the conditions of the Last Glacial Maximum (22,000-19,000 years ago), and the warm (interstadial) and cold (stadial) phases between 55,000 and 24,000 years ago before the last Ice Age. The results of this work are available in several research papers, for example, Natural-climatic changes in the Yana-Indigirka Lowland during the terminal Kargino time and habitat of late Paleolithic man in northern part of East Siberia, by Pitulko V.V., Pavlova  E.Yu., Kuzmina S.A., Nikolskiy P.A., Basilyan A.E., Tumskoi V.E., Anisimov M.A. // DAN, 2007 No. 1, vol. 417, pp.103-108; Landscape and climate changes at the Yana Paleolithic site in the late Neopleistocene-Holocene in the western part of the Yana-Indigirka Lowland, by Pitulko V.V., Pavlova  E.Yu., Kuzmina S.A., Nikolskiy P.A., Basilyan A.E., Anisimov M.A. // Vestnik SVNC SO RAN No. 1, 2013, pp. 16-29).

However, I'll try to answer your question more simply. Climate in the  Arctic regions, where we found the earliest evidence of humans dated to about 45,000 years ago, can be only described provisionally, as climate in northwest Siberia, western Taimyr and the middle reaches of the Yana River, has not been studied thoroughly yet. However, based on geological lithological- stratigraphic, paleontological and palynological studies in the adjacent regions allows us to form a general view of Arctic nature and climate at a time when humans arrived there.

For example, about 45,000 years ago the region west of the Taimyr Peninsula, where the Yenissei estuary is now, was a grassy steppe-tundra, with a dry continental climate and few wet periods. Summers were quite warm, with an average temperature of 2 or 3 degrees Celsius above the current temperature, and with severe winters. The climate was even more continental in the regions east and southeast of the peninsula. Siberia was swept by the Palearctic anticyclone with strong northern and northeastern winds, dry summer periods and severe winter freezes.

We have clearer view of the climate when humans arrived at the Paleolithic site on the Yana River (Yana RHS) in the western part of the Yana-Indigirka Lowland 28,500-27,000 years ago, where we conducted special studies to collect data for an extensive reconstruction of past climate conditions. I can tell you that 28,500-27,000 years ago the climate there was sharply continental, with summer temperatures about 2 to 4.7°С above current ones with an average annual temperature 1-3°С above the current average and 60-70 mm less rainfall. Similar climatic conditions are now observed 1,000 kilometers south of the Yana RHS, at the latitude of Yakutsk.

The Zhokhov Island site is considered the northernmost of the known primeval settlements. The New Siberian Islands environment can be fairly harsh. What was the climate at that time? Were the islands part of the continent?

You are not quite right about the Zhokhov site. It is the oldest human settlement on the high-latitude Arctic islands. It's about 8,000 years old by uncalibrated radiocarbon dating, with a calendar age of approximately 9,000 ybp. The continental Eurasian Arctic, in contrast, boasts sites whose age approaches 30,000 years and even 45,000, some north of 70° north latitude and some south of it, but all to the north of the Arctic Circle. The Zhokhov Island site is at 76° north latitude.

There are no more archaeological sites this old in the high latitudes anywhere in the world, though younger sites can be found in Greenland's extreme north, up to 82° north. Many sites in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland are north of the Zhokhov site, but none of them are older than 5,500 years

There were no people there for a long time; these areas were covered by the Laurentide Ice Sheet and the Greenland Ice Shield, and eventually the ice receded. The Greenland glaciers survived though they shrunk while what was left of the Laurentide has been thawing for centuries. Similar processes were taking place to the south — in Scandinavia and elsewhere in the European north. There are no traces of Stone Age man in Svalbard  (Spitzbergen), Franz Josef Land or Severnaya Zemlya, though some might be found yet on the Severnaya Zemlya islands, judging by mammoth remains dated to approximately 13,000-15,000 years ago.

As late as 8,000 years ago, the New Siberian Islands were part of the continent, with a landmass comparable to Taimyr. It eroded as the sea washed away the permafrost and was partly flooded as the sea level began a steady rise following the last glacial maximum about 15,000 years ago, sometimes even exceeding the current level.

We studied this during expeditions to Zhokhov Island and other islands in the archipelago. Particularly, in cooperation with Mikhail Anisimov of the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AANII), we drilled into bed deposits in the Zhokhov Island lagoon, which is too deep to freeze to the bottom (Anisimov M.A, Ivanova V.V., Pushina Z.V., Pitulko V.V. Zhokhov Island Lagoon Deposits, Their Age, Formation and Significance to Paleo-geographic Reconstruction  of the New Siberian Islands Region (East Siberian sector of the Eurasian Arctic shelf) // Proceedings of the Russian Academy of Science, Geography series, No. 5, 2009, pp. 107-119, Russ. ed.). The data provided evidence that Zhokhov Island was part of the continent as late as 8,000 years ago, and was abandoned by people after it became difficult to access.

Humans appeared on the island regularly for a year or several years because it offered sufficient food — female polar bears wintering in their lairs with cubs. They were hunted when necessary, just as we visit the butcher's. Reindeer were hunted in spring, summer and autumn. We reconstructed the entire household cycle on the basis of archaeological findings and animal remains. The animal's ground-down teeth indicate the season the animal died. Bears were usually killed in November through February, mostly in December and January (Pitulko V.V., Ivanova V.V., Kasparov A.K., Pavlova E.Y. Reconstructing Prey Selection, Hunting Strategy and Seasonality of the Early Holocene Frozen Site in the Siberian High Arctic: a Case Study on the Zhokhov Site Faunal Remains, De Long Islands // Environmental Archaeology. — 2015. — Vol. 20. — P.120-157.).

There are areas with a great concentration of bear lairs. For instance, about 40 lairs have been recorded on Wrangel Island's Dream Head Mountains in an area comparable to Zhokhov Island. Some lairs are extremely close to others. An adequate supply of food stock attracted people to the island even before it completely separated from the mainland. There were other prizes on the island: drift wood for fire and building, as wood was extremely rare in the tundra, which stretched a thousand kilometers from there to the south, just as today; fossilized mammoth tusks, which were a valuable material for crafts and weapons; stone occasionally; plus wild reindeer coming in summer to foal as their route to littoral areas began in spring with the pendulum migration.

Life wasn't bad in the Arctic 8,000 years ago. Their tools and household technology were rather close to what we know from ethnographic studies today. They bred sled dogs and made sophisticated sleds. Alexei Kasparov and I have studied the dogs' osseal remains, which lead us to assume that these were actually draught dogs close to present-day Siberian Huskies in looks and weight, which is the principal factor in determining thermoregulation, hardiness and working ability. Their weight stays in the 23-27 kg bracket and doesn't usually exceed 27 kg. The Zhokhov people possessed just such dogs along with large hounds — probably for bear hunting (Pitulko V.V., Kasparov A.K. Osseal Remains of Early Holocene Domestic Dogs from the Zhokhov Site (Eastern Siberian Arctic) and the Authenticity of Identifying the Ancient Canis familiaris in Archeological Excavations // Stratum plus. — 2016. — N 1. — P.171-207.).

What did the ancient people do according to the excavation findings? Hunting mostly?

I partly covered this question earlier. Of course, they were mostly involved in hunting if we talk about life support but, depending on findings' "age", we can see various objects of hunting. Hunting was the main activity in terms of survival. However, it's impossible without weapons and tools. So people spent a lot of time extracting and collecting various materials, including stone and biogenic materials like horns, bones, tusks, wood, skins and weaving materials.

Hunters often targeted non-food resources like, for example, fur. At the Yana RHS site, people hunted for hares but not because they wanted meat. They skinned the bodies and threw them away. We often find whole hare carcasses' accumulations. They were not hunting for Arctic foxes that much, but we find archaeologic evidence of frequent fox and/or Arctic fox hunting, in other regions (e.g. Pitulko V.V., Pavlova E.Yu., Nikolskiy P.A, and Ivanova V.V.. The Yana RHS site: material culture and symbols of the Upper Paleolithic Arctic Siberian humans// Russian Archaeology Almanac. — 2012. Vol. 2. — P. 33-102.).

Mammoths were hunted for their tusks. We can convincingly demonstrate this in a series of works discussing the findings from the Yana RHS site. The hunters preferred females over males as the females' tusks were relatively straight, which means time-consuming straightening was not required (e.g. Pitulko V.V., Pavlova E.Yu., Nikolskiy P.A. Mammoth tusk processing in the Upper Paleolithic Arctic Siberia (based on the Yana RHS site findings in the northern Yana-Indigirka Lowland) // Stratum plus. — 2015. — Vol. 1. — P. 223-284; Vol. 15. — P. 152-176; Basilyan A.E., Anisimov M.A., Nikolskiy P.A., Pitulko V.V. Wooly mammoth mass accumulation next to the Paleolithic Yana RHS site, Arctic Siberia: its geology, age, and relation to past human activity // Journal of Archaeological Science. — 2011. — Vol. 38. P.2461-2474; Nikolskiy P.A., Pitulko V.V. Evidence from the Yana Palaeolithic site, Arctic Siberia, yields clues to the riddle of mammoth hunting // Journal of Archaeological Science. — 2013. — Vol. 40. — P. 4189-4197).

At the Yana RHS site, humans spent a significant amount of time making jewelry. They loved decorating themselves and knew how to do it by making pendants of animal teeth, beads from mammoth tusks and small hare bones, tiaras and headbands from mammoth tusks, pendants, bracelets and other items (Pitulko V.V., Pavlova  E.Yu., Nikolskiy P.A, and Ivanova V.V.. The Yana RHS site: material culture and symbols of the Upper Paleolithic Arctic Siberian humans// Russian Archaeology Almanac. — 2012. — Vol. 2. — P. 33-102, and other works). It should be noted that those were not just jewelry per se as we understand it now but items that communicated information like tribal membership, family, etc. In other words, these artifacts are evidence of complex symbolic and social behavior.

Humans on Zhokhov Island were largely involved in manufacturing wooden goods, including dog sleds and exceptionally well made woven goods. Obviously, during any period in history humans also spent time making clothes and shoes, and roofs for their shelters. That is to say, they had many activities but of course hunting was a major part of life in the north and the Arctic before fishing, which people started doing in the Holocene era ca. 6,000 years ago, and reindeer breeding in some areas. On the Taymyr Peninsula, where there is a large population of wild reindeer, there was no need for this activity and it never developed. Humans started reindeer breeding no earlier than 2,000 years ago or much later. This is, however, another major research issue that I will not go into now. So, yes, there was a lot of hunting.

What animals were hunted? What can be deduced about hunting methods from the remains of animals killed by ancient people?  

So far, we can look at human existence in the Arctic as far back as 50,000 years ago. Since then, there have been major changes in the environment and climate, including the Last Glacial Maximum. That said, even without the Last Glacial Maximum, there is a recurring cycle of warmer and colder periods. Climate change, by which I mean the change in temperature and precipitation, leads to changes in vegetation, which in turn results in the compositions of organisms present in the environment. Relative species abundance changes, and some species become extinct in certain locations and are no longer present in a given environment. Sometimes species find the environment hostile, but we are talking here only about local extinction, since the extinct species may later return in what is called natural reintroduction. Mechanisms of fluctuation in the abundance of species have been studied, including on our territory. This effort was headed by Pavel Nikolskiy (Institute of Geology of the Russian Academy of Sciences) as part of a project under my leadership. The results were recently published (Nikolskiy P.A., Putulko V.V. Study of the relation between the mammoth population and the climate in terms of extinction using radiocarbon dating solutions on mammoths from Arctic Siberia) — Stratum Plus. — 2013. — No. 1. — P. 133-165 and other works).

The environment and consequently the prey have changed a number of times over these 50,000 years. For thousands of years the reindeer was central to Arctic hunters no matter the time or the place. At the beginning of the Holocene, some 10,000 years ago, humans started to catch sea species, although in just a few regions with the earliest evidence on this coming from Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula. During the first half of the Holocene, evidence of offshore hunting can be found along the Aleutian Islands. Some 6,000-5,000 years ago the Canadian Arctic was inhabited by humans who hunted along the coast and in doing so reached Greenland, stayed there and relied on both land and sea resources for food. In northeast Asia similar processes took place some 4,000 years ago and fully developed within the Eskimo culture over the last 2,000 years.

Hunters from Zhokhov Island have nothing to do with hunting at sea. It is true that they hunted the Polar bear, but they did it onshore. By the way, the polar bear is the biggest semiaquatic land-based predator, but not a sea creature in any way. Any biologist will tell you that. However, polar bears are sometimes regarded as sea animals. These hunters were unique since this is the only place on earth where hunters systematically hunted down polar bears for meat without firearms. They just had to do it. It seems that the Arctic tundra in the Holocene did not offer much in terms of animals to hunt. Bears were killed while in their lair: the hunters first frightened the bear, forcing it to go outside through the snow layer, and hit it on the head or the neck with a spear. The skulls that were found during excavation show fractures on the back of the head.

Before the Holocene there were many more animals to hunt, including mammoths, bison, horses and of course reindeer. The latter were always popular, including on  the Jana River where people also hunted mammoths, while relying on reindeer, bison and horses as food sources. These hunters used heavy and light (for throwing) spears with sharp blades made of mammoth tusks, and sometimes sharpened stone. Hooks and nets were probably popular when it came to hunting hares. Throwing spears were used to hunt bison, horses, and reindeer. The same goes for the mammoth. The latter were mostly killed for tusks as a valuable material for making weapons and jewelry, but mostly hunting gear such as full-length spears that were made of tusks alone. In fact, these hunters lived in what is called the tundra steppe (mammoth steppe) where wood is rare, but people still needed to make spear shafts. The tusks was the solution. The strategy for hunting mammoth focused on females with long strait tusk, which indicates that making spears was the main goal. Hunters threw spears at the mammoth, and we have seen shoulder bones and ribs with injuries like that (Nikolskiy P.A., Pitulko V.V. Evidence from the Yana Paleolithic site, Arctic Siberia, yields clues to the riddle of mammoth hunting // Journal of Archaeological Science. — 2013. — Vol. 40. — P.4189-4197; Pitulko V.V., Tikhonov A.N., Pavlova E.Y., Nikolskiy P.A., Kuper K.E., Polozov R.N. Early human presence in the Arctic: evidence from 45 000-year-old mammoth remains // Science. — 2016. — Vol. 351. — P.260-263)

They finished off their prey with a blow to the upper part of the trunk, just as in the case of the Sopkarga mammoth (Pitulko V.V., Tikhonov A.N., Pavlova E.Yu., Nikolskiy P.A., Kuper K.E., Polozov R.N. Early human presence in the Arctic: evidence from 45 000-year-old mammoth remains // Science. — 2016. — Vol. 351. — P.260-263). Interestingly, the same method was used by African hunters to hunt elephants (as described, for example by prominent Soviet journalist Sergei Kulik in his book (Kulik S.F.. Safari. M.: Mysl, 1974).  It is certain that tongues and young mammoth were eaten, while it is hard to say whether the remaining parts of an adult animal were also consumed, but probably not, since the meat is not really good and is very tough. When you have a lot of bison, horses and reindeer running around, eating tough mammoth meat is less palatable. However, it could be used for food in hard times.

The extinction of the mammoth led to major cultural shifts for the ancient inhabitants of northern Eurasia, including the end of tusks. In any case, there appears to be a correlation between the spread of microblade technology and the timing of the extinction of mammoths in Northeastern Asia (Pitulko V.V., Nikolskiy P.A. Extinction of wooly mammoth in Northeastern Asia and the archaeological record // World Archaeology. — 2012. — Vol. 44. — N1. — P.21-42).

How thoroughly have archaeologists studied the Arctic? Which part is the least explored?

The archaeological studies of the Arctic present a paradoxical picture. Arctic archaeology began in eastern Siberia, where Gavriil Sarychyov, a lieutenant in the Russian navy, oversaw the first archaeological excavations on Cape Bolshoi Baranov, east of the Kolyma River estuary, in August 1787. These excavations over 200 years ago were probably the first, or one of the first digs in Russia. They found the remains of semi-underground dwellings, which were thoroughly studied by Academician Alexei Okladnikov in 1946. This monument to history on Cape Bolshoi Baranov is extremely interesting as the westernmost trail of Eskimo proliferation in the east Siberian Arctic during a warm (interstadial) period in the early Middle Ages (in the 9th-12th centuries AD or about 1,000 years ago, the time of the Viking discovery of America and Greenland and other events related to the freedom of navigation in the northern seas). The subsequent cold period eliminated the Viking colony on Greenland and rapidly reduced the Eskimo habitat to its previous size, that is, the territories along the Bering Strait. You can take this as an answer to your question about climate and living conditions. You can see how fast everything happens: the population and the area of the habitat grow in favorable conditions and decline in the absence thereof.

It would seem that Arctic archaeology should have surged far ahead over the past 200 years. It is true that there were considerable successes, yet archaeological work in the Arctic, and the north in general, only became relatively sustainable in Soviet times, or more precisely in the latter half of the 20th century. The bulk of achievements were brought about by the persistence, professionalism and personal interest of- Nina Gurina, Nikolai Dikov, Leonid Khlobystin, Valery Chernetsov and a few other leading Russian researchers. I was personally acquainted with many of them, and I am proud to have Leonid Khlobystin, Nikolai Dikov and Yakov Sher as my teachers. (Yakov Sher did not work in the Arctic, but this is of no consequence in his case.) These researchers collected the first data on all the large Arctic regions — the Kola, Yamal and Taimyr peninsulas and Chukotka.

The east Siberian part of the Arctic was the least well studied even in the last quarter of the 20th century, due to its huge size, long distances [from central Russia], inadequate logistics, and high costs without any promise of worthwhile success. The breakthrough in the past 15 years has only been achieved after a systematic analysis of ancient sites within my projects. We have discovered and studied, with a different degree of thoroughness, 16 archaeological sites dating from the Stone Age (Pleistocene). This helped us trace cultural and historical changes in that territory, including the period of initial settlement. Before that, the only significant site was Berelekh, one of the youngest Paleolithic landmarks in the region, as we now know.

It is important that the work was done systematically and that it continued without interruption for approximately 20 years. It could be described as a transition from quantity to quality, where the quantity of funds and intellect invested in a project is ultimately transformed into quality. I would say that there is no other way to achieve quality. The most difficult part of the job is to find the funding. The many-year-long projects that we've completed with these good results were possible because of allocations from foreign philanthropic sponsors and Russian state institutions, specifically the Presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Russian Foundation for Basic Research, and the Russian Science Foundation. I am deeply grateful to these organizations, but primarily to the Russian Science Foundation whose help allows me to continue working on this.

As for other territories, the Kola Peninsula is the most well-studied  territory due to its relative accessibility, although there is still a great deal to do there. Other territories are studied provisionally, researchers have collected the initial information of their past. In the 1960s, Alaska was explored less than our territories. The modern status of exploration there differs greatly from our knowledge (however, our territories are larger, but still… There have not been explorations at Taimyr for almost 40 years; Chukotka was less explored after Nikolai Dikov died. A strong team led by Natalia Fyodorova is working on Yamal, but there are only about 10 researchers to explore this vast territory in northwestern Siberia).

The main blank spot on the map is the lack of actual knowledge about the ancient Arctic inhabitants: how they looked and what they did… Anthropological remains older than 5,000 years ago are extremely rare both in the Arctic and in Siberia (they are also rare in the country's other regions, especially with respect to the remains of the Upper Paleolithic tribes). There are few such findings in Siberia. Often they are small fragments of crane bones or postcranial skeleton bones, which provide little information on the people's appearance.

Modern molecular genetics techniques are powerful tools to get an idea of who the Arctic inhabitants were. However, to gain comprehensive results it is necessary to discover fossil samples. Population genetics techniques often provide controversial or incorrect data. So we have to search for fossil samples through archeological research, surveys and digs. If there is a real need for this information, hunting for it should be funded. However, searching for information is not like an object that's intrinsically valuable: it's impossible to plan to find anthropological remains from over 20,000 years ago, given that there are very few such remains in Siberia. Such lucky findings are a byproduct of  a methodical activity to study the ancient past of the Arctic region.

The Arctic has been insufficiently explored in archeological terms. In fact, it remains a blank spot on the map despite the achievements in exploring it. The available data provide for only a provisional evaluation of many processes. These data give us information that the Arctic culture of the Upper Paleolithic was rich and striking — it is as interesting as the ancient cultures of the European flat lands (Kostenki, Avdeyevo, Mezin, etc.) or the south of Siberia (Malta, Buret), or even those of central and western Europe. It is distinct and diverse. The culture of the late Paleolithic is studied less in these territories, we actually know that people lived in the Arctic in those times (at least, in eastern Siberian, but, apparently, other regions were also inhabited).

But who were these people? What culture did they have? Was Taimyr inhabited? Apparently, but there is no research data to verify this. The first half of the Holocene (from 10,000 years ago to about 5,000 years ago) is poorly studied in all territories but the Kola Peninsula. It is absolutely unexplored on Yamal, in western Siberia's north, Taimyr or the eastern Arctic, although there is the Zhokhov Island site, an outstanding landmark, which was first explored by me in 1989-1990 and then in 2000-2005. I'd like to continue this work and do more detailed research on the New Siberian Islands, other parts of eastern Arctic Siberia, and Taimyr. My knowledge and experience give me hope for a positive result. All these regions are interesting and have great potential for discoveries. I'm mainly interested in the New Siberian Islands and the adjacent continental areas, the eastern Siberian Arctic. I would also like to resume excavations on Zhokhov Island. The information I collected in 2000-2005 made many issues clearer to me (in particular, in terms of collecting paleoanthropological data). We'd planned that the Russian Geographical Society would support these initiatives this year, but they haven't yet. Probably, I should hope… So far, I'm leaving for the excavations of the Yana RHS site.