Popovo and Yuzhnyy Oleni Ostrov

Overarching period: Mesolithic, 15,000 - 5,500 BP
Carbon dating: 7,500 to 7,000 years old
Popovo - 61.26° North, 38.91° East
Yuzhnyy Oleni Ostrov - 62.05° North 35.36° East
Site location country: Russia
mtDNA haplogroups: U5
Y haplogroups: R1b

Skeleton Skeleton from Yuzhnyy Oleni Ostrov [24]

The Mesolithic in Karelia:

The boreal forests of present-day Southern Finland and Northwestern Russia were populated by thriving Mesolithic societies. While the peoples of Finland and Russia today are very different, during the Mesolithic there was a broadly uniform cultural pattern across the region. The bone tools and pendants found at archaeological sites on the Russian side of the border appear very similar to the Suomusjarvi culture of Finland [10]. These people employed a diverse set of hunting and gathering strategies, including fishing and sealing, which was also common throughout the Baltic [11-12]. There is evidence of hierarchy and status based on the differences in grave goods in burials found in Karelia [10], as well as some very large burial sites, suggesting these people lived in large communities.

The individuals from Popovo and Yuzhnyy Oleni Ostrov:

While the sites of Yuzhnyy Oleni Ostrov and Popovo are both found in Northwest Russia, but lie some 700 kilometres (435 miles) apart, they both are considered to represent Mesolithic peoples from the same general culture [13]. These individuals were all carbon-dated to between 7,500 and 7,000 years old. The site of Yuzhnyy Oleni Ostrov is around 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the city of Petrozavodsk on Lake Onega, while the site of Popovo is located near the city of Archangelsk in present-day Russia.

The site at Yuzhnyy Oleni Ostrov, where three of the four individuals in this sample came from, was first excavated in the 1950s and represented a large Mesolithic burial on an island with at least 177 individuals. Many of these people were buried with pendants, perforated teeth, and effigies of animals such as snakes [14]. The site at Popovo, where one of our individuals was from, represented a burial along the banks of the Kinema River and was used for at least 1,000 years starting as early as 9,000 years ago [15].

Genetic analysis has shown that these Mesolithic people all belonged to European Eastern Hunter-Gatherers, who differed from the Western Hunter-Gatherers that spanned across Central and Western Europe down into the Balkans during the Mesolithic [13,16]. These people are different from the populations that live there today who are primarily descended from Anatolian farmers and Steppe peoples that moved into the region during the Neolithic.

Analysis of mitochondrial and Y chromosome haplogroups is consistent with this analysis. Two individuals belonged to the mitochondrial U haplogroup, which was the most common haplogroup among European hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic and still exists in Europe today although at lower frequencies due to the genetic contribution of incoming European farmers [17]. One individual belong to the mitochondrial R haplgroup, which is a common haplogroup worldwide today and is of very ancient ancestry. It is believed to be a split from the N haplogroup [18]. Another individual belonged to the mitochondrial C halogroup, which is an ancient lineage that is common among Native Siberians and is of Paleolithic origin, likely older than 20,000 years [19-20].

The Y chromosome ancestry of two males in this sample came from the R1a haplogroup and the J haplogroup. The R1a haplogroup has recently origins of around 5,800 years and is associated with the spread of Indo-European languages and Steppe peoples. It is common in Eastern and Central Europe today [12-22]. The J haplogroup is common in Europe today and was probably brought by Neolithic agriculturalists [23]. Its origins lie in the West Asia during the Paleolithic, and the connection to Eastern population may explain its presence in Eastern Hunter-Gatherers.