Cousins of the First Americans: Siberian Peoples from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic

April 22, 2000 @ 12:00 pm – 1:00 pm
Phoebe Hearst Museum
University of California Berkeley
101 Sproul Hall, Berkeley, CA 94704

A Lecture by Dr. Sergei Arutionov

Reviewed by Tom Perardi

In this lecture,  Dr. Arutionov used world climate change, archeological evidence, and information from Eskimo informants to support two scenarios for the populating of North America by migrations from northeast Asia, either before 25,000 BP or after 13,000 BP. He lamented that we are unlikely to find physical evidence of the first Americans, on either side of the Pacific, due to the “transgressing sea” which has covered and probably destroyed the evidence of their coast route travels. (The ocean level now is estimated to be about 150 feet higher than during the ice age.) But Arutionov believes that the ancestors of Amerinds came from the Kamchatka Peninsula (Eastern Siberia) and from the more northern lands fronting the Arctic Ocean, perhaps near the Lena and Indigirka Rivers. Volcanic strata on Kamchatka sites (Ushki) provide clean dating for cultures from 16,000 BP and 10,000 BP that could have been proto-Americans for the later migration theory. The Amerind use of stems on flint knives and spear points may derive from similar finds in Kamchatka. Stemmed points are not seen in other Asian cultures.

Similarities in pottery and tools indicate a widely dispersed common culture from Scandinavia across northern Asia. Elements of this culture include maritime orientation and skin boats, and bone implements with ornamentation ancestral to the Old Bering Sea people (approx 2700 BP). These designs then transition into simpler Punuk styles around 700 to 900 AD. Arutionov found that harpoon heads taken from a 3700 BP grave on Rungel Island were essentially equal to harpoon heads used by Eskimos in the 19th century. He found other decorative elements carried through as well, including representations of marine animals and transformation figures. The presence of Chinese objects provides additional evidence of travel and trade during early times. Chinese iron blades dating to about 500 BC have been found at three Eskaleut sites. There are also stone and bone copies of Japanese/Korean bronze weapons.

Excavated transformation figures offered intriguing evidence of animism and shamanic traditions. A small ivory figure of a woman, with prominent breasts and abdomen, changes surprisingly when viewed in profile, to a walrus mother with clinging pup. In the course of his digs (between 1957 and 1977) Arutionov learned from his Eskimo assistants that a legends still circulate of human-walrus transformations. One version tells of a human child thrown from a boat with her fingers chopped off, sinking to the depths to become Mother Walrus. She was thus able to produce progeny to feed her people on the surface.

A more complicated ivory figure, still small, showed five different creatures, including wolf, killer whale, walrus, and big-horn sheep. The appearance changes, depending on viewing angle. Transformations between land and sea animals are still contemplated in Eskimo lore.

Another fascinating find was “Whale Alley”– a large, developed site on the Arctic Sea. It is a kind of open-air temple suitable for gatherings and ceremonies. With wood absent, the improvements consist of huge whale skulls. Jaw bones and skulls from about 80 bull-head whales were placed carefully in lines and geometric patterns that covered a mile. There were 70 meat caches on the site. Facilities of this scale might host gatherings of many people–an unusual opportunity for atomized roaming-hunting groups.

Dr. Sergei Arutionov is the Chairman of the Department of Caucasian Studies, Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Moscow.