Stone tools, animal bones and an incised mammoth tusk found in Russia's frigid far north have provided what archaeologists say is the first evidence that modern humans or Neanderthals lived in the Arctic more than 30,000 years ago, at least 15,000 years earlier than previously thought.
A team of Russian and Norwegian archaeologists, describing the discovery in today's issue of the journal Nature, said the camp site, at Mamontovaya Kurya, on the Usa River at the Arctic Circle, was the "oldest documented evidence for human presence at this high latitude."
Digging in the bed of an old river channel close to the Ural Mountains, Dr. Pavel Pavlov of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Dr. John Inge Svendsen of the University of Bergen, Norway, uncovered 123 mammal bones, including horse, reindeer and wolf.
"The most important find," they said, was a four-foot mammoth tusk with grooves made by chopping with a sharp stone edge, "unequivocally the work of humans."
The tusk was carbon-dated at about 36,600 years old. Plant remains found among the artifacts were dated at 30,000 to 31,000 years.
Other archaeologists said the analysis appeared to be sound. But they cautioned that it was difficult, when dealing with riverbed deposits, to be sure that artifacts had not become jumbled out of their true place, and thus time, in the geologic layers. They questioned whether the discoverers could reliably conclude that the stone tools were in fact contemporary with the bones.
Citing these concerns, Dr. Erik Trinkaus, a paleoanthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, said: "The authors may be right, or they may not be. I just can't judge it."
But in a commentary accompanying the article, Dr. John A. J. Gowlett of the University of Liverpool in England wrote, "Although there are questions to be answered, the artifacts illustrate both the capacity of early humans to do the unexpected, and the value of archaeologists' researching in unlikely areas."
The discoverers said they could not determine from the few stone artifacts whether the site was occupied by Neanderthals, hominids who by then had a long history as hunters in Europe and western Asia, or some of the first anatomically modern humans to reach Europe.
In any case, other archaeologists said, the findings could be significant.
If these toolmakers were Neanderthals, the findings suggested that these human relatives, who became extinct after 30,000 years ago, were more capable and adaptable than they are generally given credit for. Living in the Arctic climate presumably required higher levels of technology and social organization.
"We've already been learning that Neanderthals were very adaptable people," said Dr. Fred H. Smith, a paleoanthropologist at Northern Illinois University who specializes in Neanderthal studies. "I think that we have underestimated what the Paleolithic people were capable of."
If they were modern humans, then the surprise is that they had penetrated so far north in such a short time. There has been no firm evidence for modern humans in Europe before about 35,000 years ago. It had generally been thought that the northernmost part of Eurasia was not occupied by humans until the final stage of the last ice age, some 13,000 to 14,000 years ago, when the world's climate began to moderate.
Dr. Gowlett said the new findings indicated that the Arctic region of European Russia was extremely cold but relatively dry and ice-free more than 30,000 years ago.
"The results should also rekindle debate about the effects of the climate on the movements of early human populations," Dr. Gowlett wrote.
File Date: 09.12.01