Overarching period: Upper Paleolithic, 50,000 - 10,000 BP
Specific period: Gravettian, 33,000 - 21,000 BP
Carbon dating: 22,570 - 22,140 years old
Location:Sunghir - 52.90° North, 103.50° East
Site location country: Russia
mtDNA haplogroups: U
Y haplogroups: R

Mal'ta Carving Diagram of an animal motif from the Mal’ta site [15]

The Paleolithic of Siberia:

Modern humans first entered Central Asia by around 50,000 year ago [1-2]. They entered a vast environment of frigid open plains called the Mammoth Steppe, incomparable in size and scale to any environment known today [3], stretching from the margins of Eastern Europe to as far away as North America and South into present-day China. This was a dry wide-open tundra environment roamed by mammoths and wooly rhinos, as well as reindeer and other ice age game. These early hunter-gatherer groups hunted and foraged over vast territories due to the scarcity of resources and may have shared the landscape with Denisovans [4], a recently discovered branch of humans who has left a genetic legacy in populations that later spread into Southeast Asia and Oceania.

The Mammoth Steppe was a remarkably stable environment in comparison with Europe, which heaved with glaciers that pushed early hunter-gatherer groups to the margins of the continent during the last glacial maximum around 26,000 years ago [5-7]. Due to the climate being quite dry, this steppe environment continued to be open grassland despite changes in global temperatures during the Paleolithic. Based on the changes in stone tool types found across this region, archaeologists have divided the Paleolithic up into three distinct time periods, the Early U pper Paleolithic stretching back to 50,000 years ago, Middle Upper Paleolithic beginning at 32,000 years ago, and Late Upper Paleolithic starting at 21,000 years ago [8-9].

The Individual from Mal’ta:

The individual in this sample came from the Mal’ta site near Lake Baikal in the Eastern Siberian part of present-day Russia [10]. They were carbon dated to between 22,570 and 22,140 years old, placing them in a transitional period between the Middle and Late Upper Paleolithic. The Mal’ta site had been occupied for thousands of years and contained multiple layers from different cultures. The layers from which this individual came included small stone blades, bone and antler tools, pendants, disc-shaped plaques, and figurines make in the shape of animals [11].

Genetic analysis of this individual has contributed to a long debate about the origins of Native North Americans. It was found that the individual had deep ancestry that connect them to Western Eurasians, while they were also related to Native North Americans. More surprisingly, they appeared to have no direct ancestry connecting them to present-day East Asians, which was unexpected [10]. It has long been thought that Native North Americans were of direct East Asians, but this recent genetic analysis suggests that immigration across the Bering Strait may have been more mixed than previously thought.

These results also show that some of the populations that moved into what is present-day Russia had moved further west than previously thought during the Paleolithic and this might account for some gene-flow that links West and East through Siberia. This has contributed to the debate about early Native American skeletal remains which some archaeologists have argued do not resemble East Asians as much as expected through analysis of shape [12-13].

Genetic analysis showed that this individual was male and belonged to the Y chromosome haplogroup R which is a very ancient lineage thought to have arisen in Southeast Asia during the Paleolithic. It is widespread throughout the world today. Their mitochondrial lineage was part of the U haplogroup which is common worldwide today and is thought to be of very ancient ancestry [14].


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  13. Owsley DW, Jantz RL. 2002. In Claiming the Stones-Naming the Bones: Cultural Property and the Negotiation of National and Ethnic Identity (Getty Research Institute, 2002).
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  15. Engraving of a mammoth on a slab of mammoth ivory, from the Upper Paleolithic Mal'ta deposits at Lake Baikal, Siberia,_from_the_Upper_Paleolithic_Mal%27ta_deposits_at_Lake_Baikal,_Siberia.gif.