Tag Archives: Zhokhov Island

Ancient polar bear remains explained by sea ice and polynyas: my peer-reviewed paper

My open-access, peer-reviewed paper on the ecology of ancient polar bears in relation to sea ice has just been published in Open Quaternary. It’s called ‘Polar Bear Fossil and Archaeological Records from the Pleistocene and Holocene in Relation to Sea Ice Extent and Open Water Polynyas’.

A unique compilation of more than 104 polar bear skeletal records from the Holocene and late Pleistocene shows that most ancient remains are associated with existing or ancient open water polynyas or the expansion of sea ice during past cold periods. This big-picture analysis indicates that as they do today, polar bears were most commonly found near polynyas throughout their known historical past because of their need for ice-edge habitats.

Read my longer summary below and download the paper here. This is a much-updated and expanded analysis based on an informal study I did in 2012.

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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

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