It’s hard to imagine ancient people successfully hunting polar bears in any numbers – armed as they were with the simplest of bone and stone weapons. Archaeological evidence supports the impression that ancient Arctic hunters rarely took polar bears – there are a few polar bear bones, but not many, in most archaeological sites across the Arctic that were occupied over the last 10,000 years (see my Annotated Map of Ancient Polar Bear Remains of the World).
There is but one exception to this pattern: Zhokhov Island in the East Siberian Sea, Russia (see Fig. 1 below). Almost four hundred polar bear bones were recovered from two of the 13 semi-subterranian houses discovered on the island, well-preserved by permafrost for over 8,200 years. It is by far the largest – and the oldest – collection of polar bear bones left by human hunters anywhere in the world and it is described in a fascinating paper published in 1996 by Vladimir Pitul’ko and Aleksey Kasparov [contact me if you’d like to see it].
Zhokhov Island is situated just above 760N latitude and so has about the same length “winter’s night” as the northern tip of Novaya Zemlya, where William Barents and his crew spent the winter of 1596/97 (see previous post here ) – about 2 months, from early November to early February. The average January temperature today in the archipelago of the New Siberian Islands is −280C to −310C.
The East Siberian Islands are included in the Laptev Sea subpopulation of polar bears, the only Russian region that contributes a count (800-1,200 bears) to the global population estimate, based on an aerial survey conducted in 1993 (see previous post here).