The ancient polar bear hunters of Zhokhov Island, Siberia

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).

Figure 1. Map of the New Siberian Islands off Siberia, with tiny Zhokhov Island circled. Map from Wikipedia

Figure 1. Map of the New Siberian Islands off Siberia, with tiny Zhokhov Island circled. Map from Wikipedia

Figure 2. On the left, the location of Zhokhov Island is marked (circle) on an NSIDC sea ice extent map for Jun 27, 2012 – by the end of July that year (not shown), the ice was largely gone. The ice map on the right shows that the ice had reformed by the end of October, which means that Zhokhov Island was ice-free for a little over 2 months in 2012. However, in the past, due to natural variation , this ice-free period would have been either much longer in some years or much shorter, or even nonexistent (by which I mean, some years there was no ice-free period at all).

Figure 2. On the left, the location of Zhokhov Island is marked (circle) on an NSIDC sea ice extent map for Jun 27, 2012 – by the end of July that year (not shown), the ice was largely gone. The ice map on the right shows that the ice had reformed by the end of October, which means that Zhokhov Island was ice-free for a little over 2 months in 2012. However, in the past, due to natural variation , this ice-free period would have been either much longer in some years or much shorter – or even nonexistent (by which I mean, some years there was no ice-free period at all).

A total of 397 polar bear bones, many of them skulls and lower jaws, were found at this site. The majority of the bones came from adult females, representing at least 21 individuals. Many of the skulls were deliberately broken open, probably to get at the brain (see Fig. 3 below)(Pitul’ko and Kasparov 1996).

Figure 3. Deliberately broken polar bear skulls from the Zhokhov Island site (Pitul’ko and Kaparov 1996:21, fig. 15).

Figure 3. Deliberately broken polar bear skulls from the Zhokhov Island site (Pitul’ko and Kaparov 1996:21, fig. 15).

It is not possible to tell for sure, based on the evidence at hand, whether the Zhokhov Island polar bears were taken by hunters from maternity dens during the fall/winter or from the shore during an ice-free period of late summer/early fall. However, hunting the bears in dens would have been by far the easier – and safer – option. Certainly, hunting polar bears in dens (whether females with new cubs, lone females, or lone males) was routinely practiced by Canadian Inuit before the practice was banned. I expect any hunter would say that taking a sleepy bear by surprise in a confined space beats trying to subdue an active bear with plenty of room to fight back – especially if all you have is a spear. Pitul’ko and Kasparov have reasonably interpreted the presence of predominantly female remains as probable evidence of den hunting.

Bones of fetal or newborn polar bears found with these adult females would tell us for sure if the hunted bears were taken from maternity dens. However, since the reports do not specifically mention remains of young cubs, it is impossible to tell if they were never present, or simply did not survive 8,000 years in the ground. Fetal and newborn animal bones are very fragile and they may not have been preserved.

It does seem likely that the hills on Zhokhov Island would have provided attractive denning sites for female polar bears 8,500 years ago, as the hills of St. Matthew Island did a few hundred years ago and higher elevations on Wrangell Island do today (Uspenski and Kistchinski 1972).

The remains of other animals found in the same deposits – predominantly reindeer, a wolf, some fox and geese – attest to the fact that the people living there were primarily terrestrial hunters, not classic Arctic marine hunters (see Table 2 below). Although one piece of bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus) and four pieces of walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) were found – almost certainly the oldest remains of the Pacific subspecies of walrus, Odobenus rosmarus divergens, known in the western Arctic – it is likely these animals were taken from a local beach, as both bearded seals and walrus are known to haul out during the summer ice-free period. Ringed seal (Phoca hispida), the primary prey of virtually all ancient coastal Arctic people, is conspicuous by its absence on Zhokov.

Ancient hunters lived at this site between 8,200 and 8,500 years ago, when sea levels were lower than today (Pitul’ko and Kasparov 1996) but not nearly as low as they had been at the peak of the Last Glacial period (the “Last Glacial Maxium”). This period has been called the “Younger-Younger Dryas” (see Table 1 below) because it briefly interrupted the otherwise warmer-than-today climate with a return to relatively cold conditions. The so-called “8.2k” event occurred during this period, when the ice dam on glacial Lake Agassiz broke, spilling a tremendous amount of fresh water into Davis Strait and North Atlantic (see previous post here).

Table 1. A summary of Holocene dates broken down into cold and warm periods (shaded periods are cold, unshaded ones are warm).

Table 1. A summary of Holocene dates broken down into cold and warm periods (shaded periods are cold, unshaded ones are warm).

By about 8,000 BP, sea level had risen enough to create the islands almost as they are today, but at the time the polar bear hunters lived on Zhokhov Island, it was still connected to the Siberian mainland. The New Siberian Islands would have been part of an expanse of low ground jutting into the Arctic Ocean (a rather broad peninsula), with the hills of Zhokhov Island on its northern end.

Today, the site sits at the foot of a small hill about 1 km from the beach. It is near a freshwater spring and would have been surrounded by grassy plains when people lived there. The ancient beach was close enough for the inhabitants to collect driftwood for the roofs of their houses, household implements, sledge runners and tools such as arrow shafts (see figs 4 and 5 below). Ancient mammoth ivory from Pleistocene-age skeletons preserved for thousands of years in the permafrost was used to make some of the tools, while others were made from reindeer bone and antler.

These houses may have been occupied for only part of the year, probably the fall/early winter (when most animals have lots of fat and bears have entered maternity or shelter dens), although it is possible people lived there year-round.

Table 2. List of animal bones recovered from the two houses on Zhokhov Island (Pitul’ko and Kaparov 1996:15, their Table 2 as well). Note that is has not been firmly established that the so-called “dog” remains listed here are in fact fully domestic dogs – these bones are much larger than most ancient dogs but somewhat smaller than modern wolves and are likely to be examined as part of research associated with an on-going dispute about what features clearly define an early dog, see Crockford and Kuzmin 2012).

Table 2. List of animal bones recovered from the two houses on Zhokhov Island (from Pitul’ko and Kaparov 1996:15, Table 2). Note that is has not been firmly established that the so-called “dog” remains listed here are in fact fully domestic dogs – these bones are much larger than most ancient dogs but somewhat smaller than modern wolves. They are likely to be examined as part of research that aims to determine  what features clearly define an early dog, see Crockford and Kuzmin (2012).

Figure 5. Drawings of some of the bone and mammoth ivory tools from the Zhokov site (from Pitul’ko and Kaparov 1996:9, fig. 6).

Figure 4. Drawings of some of the bone and mammoth ivory tools from the Zhokov site (from Pitul’ko and Kaparov 1996:9, fig. 6).

Figure 6. Drawings of some of the wooden implements, including scoops and sledge runners, from the Zhokov site (from Pitul’ko and Kaparov 1996:12, fig. 10). Wooden objects like these don’t normally survive 8,000 years in open sites like these – we have the permafrost to thank for their preservation.

Figure 5. Drawings of some of the wooden implements, including scoops and sledge runners, from the Zhokov site (from Pitul’ko and Kaparov 1996:12, fig. 10). Wooden objects like these don’t normally survive 8,000 years in open sites like these – we have the permafrost to thank for their preservation.

References
Crockford, S.J. and Kuzmin, Y.V. 2012. Comments on Germonpré et al., Journal of Archaeological Science 36, 2009 “Fossil dogs and wolves from Palaeolithic sites in Belgium, the Ukraine and Russia: osteometry, ancient DNA and stable isotopes”, and Germonpré, Lázkičková-Galetová, and Sablin, Journal of Archaeological Science 39, 2012 “Palaeolithic dog skulls at the Gravettian Předmostí site, the Czech Republic.” Journal of Archaeological Science 39:2797-2801.

Pitul’ko, V.V., and Kasparov, A.V. 1996. Ancient arctic hunters: material cultural and survival strategy. Arctic Anthropology 33:1-36.

Uspenski, S.M. and Kistchinski, A.A. 1972. New data on the winter ecology of the polar bear (Ursus maritimus, Phipps) on Wrangel Island. Bears: Their Biology and Management, Vol. 2, pp. 181-197.

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