Mal'ta - Upper Paleolithic Site in Siberia

Siberia, Genetics and the Colonization of the Americas

Mal'ta Assemblage: Burial, Plaque, Swan, Venus Figurine
Burial of Mal'ta child redrawn from Gerasimov (1935), surrounded by photos of the plaque and swan from the burial and a representative Venus figurine from the excavation. Kelly E. Graf

Mal'ta (sometimes spelled Malta and not to be confused with the Mediterranean island) is an Upper Paleolithic site in Siberia that has been found to include genetic evidence concerning the colonization of the Americas.

Site Context

Mal'ta is located on the left bank of the Belaya River in southeastern Siberia, near the modern town of Mal'ta which itself is near Irkutsk. Mal'ta's technological assemblage and date is similar to the nearby site of Buret', and together they make up the "Mal'ta Buret'" or Maltinsko-Buretskaya (in Russian) culture.

The site, discovered and excavated before and after World War II, has had several radiocarbon assays taken, and reported dates for its assemblage range between 15,000 and 24,000 calendar years ago (cal BP). Mal'ta includes a double burial of two human children, but until the recent DNA studies it was perhaps best known for containing a rich assemblage of Upper Paleolithic art, including 30 human figurines carved from ivory.

While the original interpretation of Mal'ta was that of a single cultural layer at 1.5 meters below the surface, further investigations have identified 10 cultural layers, dated between the middle and late Upper Paleolithic periods.

Burials

A double burial of two children was identified at Mal'ta, covered by a stone slab. The oldest individual was a single Homo sapiens boy of about 3-4 years old, wearing a necklace of beads, several pendants and an ivory diadem. Partial remains include parts of the cranium, mandible and maxilla, and several post-cranial bones.

The second child is only represented by teeth. Both have slightly shovel-shaped incisors, a characteristic of North American and modern Siberian people, but according to the Nature paper (Raghavan et al. 2013), bioarchaeologist Christy Turner investigated and concluded that the bones are morphologically most closely related to Upper Paleolithic Europeans.

Other grave goods interred with the children include a decorated plaque, a bird-shaped pendant, an ivory bracelet, stone tools and an ivory baton.

The older child at Mal'ta has been direct-dated to 19,880 +/- 160 RCYBP, from well-preserved bone collagen. Isotopic analysis of the child's collagen indicate that his diet included about 25% freshwater aquatic foods, probably fish or waterfowl, and probably obtained from the nearby river. (See Richards and colleagues).

DNA and Native Americans

Recent DNA analysis (see Raghavan et al.) of the older child's genome showed that his genes include markers for Haplogroup U. Haplogroup U has been found in modern populations within a large area of the world, including North Africa, the Middle East, south and central Asia, western Siberia and Europe, but rarely if ever east of the Altai mountains where Mal'ta is located. This haplogroup is in high frequency in hunter-gatherer groups from Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic Europe, however, suggesting a connection between pre-agricultural Europe and Upper Paleolithic Siberia.

Further, the study found that the Mal'ta child's genome indicates that the Malta-Buret population forms a genetic connection between modern Native Americans and western Eurasians, implicating a migration of people related to those of the Mal'ta Buret culture into the New World.

These DNA studies pose additional questions, but shed light on remaining questions as to the complexity of the original American colonization. Specifically, the results may add to what we understand about the number of migrating waves of colonists and where they came from on their way to peopling of the American continent: including the appearance of Kennewick man and other early Paleoindian skeletal material.

Site Settlement

Investigations at the site have identified 39 clusters of slabs, tusks and bones of mammoth, rhinoceros, reindeer and other faunal remains, including a large number of bone and ivory decorative objects listed below. At least 14 of these clusters are believed to represent the remains of dwellings. Scholars believe that the site seasonally occupied, coinciding with a twice-yearly reindeer migration over a period of 10-15 years.

Tens of thousands of artifacts have been recovered from Mal'ta.

Mal'ta's stone artifacts are characterized by typical prismatic, pyramidal and cubic cores, but no wedge-shaped cores. The tool kit consists of endscrapers made on blades and elongated flakes, circular steep-edged scrapers from flakes, notched blades, pebble tools, burins, engravers, perforators and retouched blages. A large and varied bone industry includes points, awls and needles. (See Larichev, Khol'ushkin and Laricheva 2001).

Ivory and Bone Artifacts

The ivory figurines from Mal'ta are traditionally described as female figurines, although they are not typical of so-called Venus figurines. Only one has a vulvar cleft and most have no evidence of gender at all. Many of them appear to be clothed, and some facial features are included. Most of the representations include large-sized heads, with a head-to-body ratio of near 1/4, leading some scholars to wonder if the figurines represent children or the souls of children (see Schmidt for a discussion, and Bednarik for additional information).

Apart from the figurines, Mal'ta's collection of over 500 ivory and bone artifacts includes flying bird pendants, ornamental objects, ivory bracelets, perforated disc beads, an ivory plaque carved with a representation of a mammoth, and nail-like pins.

Ivory Plate

Among the Upper Paleolithic art recovered in 1929 by excavator M. M. Gerasimov is a decorated ivory plate. This plate measures 13.8x8.1 centimeters (5.4x3.2 inches), and it has a small perforated hole in its center. One side is carved with small indentations forming a large, clockwise spiral, surrounded by eight spirals going different directions. The perforation is at the center of the largest spiral. On the other side is carved what appears to be three snakes or snakelike figures, engraved as lines.

Proposals for the meaning of the plate include genealogical information, a cosmological shamanistic object, a calendar-astronomical device, a map of the Mal'ta settlement and a schematic representation of the technique for leather working, particularly producing thongs or straps from hides.

(see Preito and Cardenas).

Archaeology

Mal'ta was first excavated between 1928 and 1958 by Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gerasimov, and again in the 1980s by Vitaly I. Medvedev and colleagues.

Sources

This article is a part of the About.com guide to the Upper Paleolithic, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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Prieto A, and Cárdenas RA. 2010. The Mal’ta Ivory Plate: A Paleolithic Mnemonic of Leather Technology? Current Research in the Pleistocene 27:52-55.

Raghavan M, Skoglund P, Graf KE, Metspalu M, Albrechtsen A, Moltke I, Rasmussen S, Reedik M, Campos PF, Balanovska E et al. 2014. Upper Palaeolithic Siberian genome reveals dual ancestry of Native Americans. Nature 505(7481):87-91.

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Richards MP, Pettitt PB, Stiner MC, and Trinkaus E. 2001. Stable Isotope Evidence for Increasing Dietary Breadth in the European Mid-Upper Paleolithic. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 98(11):6528-6532.

Schmidt IV. 2010. The “malta realism”: on interpreting Siberian anthropomorphic figurines from the Upper Paleolithic. Archaeology, Ethnology and Anthropology of Eurasia 38(3):50-57. doi:j.aeae.2010.10.005

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