Siberian Archaeology Reveals How paleo-Eskimos Survived and Hunted Whales

Dr. Kirill Dneprovskiy has been excavating Chukotka in supreme near-isolation for around 30 years. On the Paleo-Eskimos’ extraordinary art and diet, and what to do when a bear walks into a bar

Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky
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Excavation at Paipelgak
Excavation at Paipelgak: You have to wait for the permafrost to meltCredit: Kirill Dneprovskiy
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky

The average temperature there is way below zero. The summer, when it finally arrives, is between 5 and 10 degrees Celsius and lasts for less than three months. About 70 cm below the ground surface the permafrost begins. But for the archaeologist Dr. Kirill Dneprovskiy of the State Museum for Oriental Art in Moscow, Chukotka is the Promised Land.

Dneprovskiy has been excavating in Chukotka since 1991, after a 10-year stint excavating Bronze Age sites in the North Caucasus. After discovering the charms of Chukotka and its early Eskimo sites, there he stayed, he tells Haaretz in a Zoom Interview from his home in Moscow, where he spends the long cold months when excavation at Chukotka is simply impossible.

“Firstly, I probably lean to this kind of life in the wild nature, and secondly, in the Caucasus the density of archeologists per square kilometer is unbelievable. I think it resembles Israel," he says. "At Chukotka I have been working almost alone for 30 years.”

The paleo-Eskimos were marine mammals hunters who are believed to have settled Chukotka around the first century C.E. and are believed to be the direct ancestors of modern Eskimo groups. Together with the Chukchi people, who arrived later, their descendants comprise the current population of the peninsula.

Based on the archaeological finds and their interpretation, their lifestyle hasn’t changed as much as one might think in the last 2,000 years – including the way they hunt whales.

Paleo-Eskimo figurine of polar bearCredit: The State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow
At the ancient Eskimo settlement Masik, 2020Credit: Kirill Dneprovskiy

Discovering America a thousand years before Columbus

Chukotka is a vast territory, roughly equal in size to Germany and Poland together. It is the most northeastern part of Siberia. The land is covered with tundra: grass, moss and swamps. No trees can grow there because it’s too cold and because of the permafrost.

Near Cape Dezhnev, at the narrowest point of the Bering Strait, only 80 kilometers divide between Russia and the U.S. Many centuries ago, the Eskimo people used to travel back and forth between Chukotka and Alaska.

“It was the same archeological culture, the same ethnos,” Dneprovskiy explains. “They could bring a wife from one side to the other. On both sides of the Bering Strait archeologists find exactly similar artifacts. The Eskimos discovered America at least a thousand years before Columbus, who discovered it only for the Europeans, not for the Asians.”

No one knows for sure though how the Eskimos got to this harsh land in the first place. There are lots of hypotheses that suggest their descent from various areas – from the Japanese islands to the depths of Siberia, Dneprovskiy says.

Excavation at Paipelgak: Carrying a tripod made of driftwood Credit: Kirill Dneprovskiy
Human figurineCredit: The State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow

The only definitely established fact is that the Chukotka Eskimos are paleo-Asians, Mongoloids who lived in almost total isolation until the late 17th century, when the Russians arrived in the process of conquering of Siberia.

During those long centuries of the Eskimos’ Stone Age, with almost no metal (except for very small objects like iron burins for bone engraving), no wood (the only wood available to the marine hunters was driftwood, washed ashore by the ocean), and even without salt, those people managed to develop a sophisticated culture. A glimpse on it is possible thanks to decades of excavations, which started after World War II and which have been led by Dneprovskiy, as the head of the Chukotka archaeological expedition of the State Museum of Oriental Art (Moscow), for the last three decades.

Mythical animals and fantastic bears

The collection of the State Museum of Oriental Art encompasses over 10,000 objects found by Dneptovskiy’s expeditions.

The most fine and exquisite are small artifacts found at the Ekven burial site in early 90s. Made of walrus ivory, most are the size of a matchbox, maybe two. Most are decorated with detailed, fine, even microscopic engraving. These are even more impressive when taking in to account that they were made using stone burins, after the walrus tusk was softened by “cooking” in hot water.

In the Bering Strait: Dr. Dneprovskiy with Dr. Sergey Shokarev (right) and Oleg Dobriev, a local hunterCredit: Kirill Dneprovskiy
Engraved Paleo-Eskimo harpoon headCredit: The State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow

The exact purpose of some of the objects is unknown, although Dr. Dneprovskiy suggests that most of them were used both for decoration and ritual purposes.

“The life of Eskimos marine hunters was so saturated with religion and ritual that you can hardly divide between the ritual and the regular life,” he says.

Among those valuable objects that the ancient Eskimos used to take with them to the grave are representations of fantastic animals, some emerging from the maw of other animals, but also realistic depictions of bears.

“They knew their animals so well that you can never mistake a figurine of a polar bear for one of a brown bear. The technique is very laconic, but there can be no mistake. This long neck obviously belongs to a white bear,” Dneprovskiy points to one of the objects.

The ancient Eskimos also carved tiny human “masks” and full-length human or quasi-human sculptures, whose knees and elbows go in different directions, as if the figure was engaged in an odd ritual dance.

Whale hunting continues in much the same wayCredit: Kirill Dneprovskiy

Many of the artifacts have small holes, indicating that they were sewn on leather clothes and hats.

‘It’s a bloody sight’

But probably the most interesting findings are the so called “winged objects” – artifacts that were used not only for ritual, but also for hunting.

“These objects were tied to the back of the shafts of harpoons, using as stabilizers, quite like arrow or airplane tails,” Dneprovskiy explains. They enabled the ancient hunters to harpoon a whale from a relatively big distance, because thanks to their aerodynamic qualities, the harpoons flew further.

“An ancient harpoon used to be a very complicated weapon, a complex construction, made out of walrus ivory,” Dneprovskiy says. “The harpoon heads differ in size and shape, depending on the animal it was used to hunt. There is a special toggling harpoon heads that is designed to fix a float on whale’s body. After penetrating the animal’s skin, it turns by 90 degrees and attaches itself to the skin like a button. It’s tied to a leather string which is tied to a giant float. Those floats would not allow the whale to dive. Once the giant floats were made of a whole animal hide, for example of seal’s skin – a float of up to 60 centimeters in diameter.”

Paleo-Eskimo figurineCredit: The State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow
End of 2010 season. The expedition is leaving PaipelgakCredit: Kirill Dneprovskiy

Dneprovskiy witnessed and took part in a modern Eskimo whale hunt, which, he says, is not very different from the ancient one. The indigenous people of Chukotka, he says, “have very strict quotas on whales and walruses, which are regulated by the International Whaling Commission. A settlement is allowed to hunt about ten whales during the summer, for internal use only – i.e. for traditional nature use only. To sell them is a crime.”

Instead of floats made of animal skin and boats made of the same material, the modern marine hunters use giant plastic floats. “They hang a ‘chaplet’ of those floats on the whale so he cannot dive, cannot go deep under the water and thus cannot swim for a long time and run away,” he tells. “They chase him and finish him off. Now they use large-caliber firearms instead of spears with a bone head. A whale hunt is a long process – about 4 or 5 hours of chasing. The animal gets tired, it cannot dive deep and needs to come up anyway, because it needs to breathe. At this moment they finish him off. It’s a bloody sight, but when it’s not done for fun but for food – it’s justified. It’s different. It’s not sport. That’s how people used to live for two thousand years.”

According to Dneprovskiy, the skill of the modern arctic marine hunters has even attracted “students”: a few years ago a delegation from a Californian indigenous tribe visited Chukotka in order to learn whale hunting – a traditional proficiency which has been forgotten by the tribe and which they wanted to revive.

“The harpoon is still in use,” Dneprovskiy explains, “although now the harpoon head is metal. And it has lost the ‘winged object’, since there’s no need in it anymore because now they use strong motored boats to chase the whale and they get much closer to him than they used to.”

Dneprovskiy didn’t join the whale hunts out of pure curiosity. “I needed to see it all: how they actually use the marine hunting weapons that I find. It was important to me. We even asked the indigenous bone cutter artisans to make a bone copy of an ancient harpoon, and let the modern hunters use it for the sake of the experiment.”

Human faceCredit: Kirill Dneprovskiy

Deal with a seal, take care with a bear

Work in the Arctic region involves close interaction with wild fauna. “There is a real zoo there: the walruses, the seals, the whales. Everything is moving. The sea there is totally alive… You constantly see whale fountains, they swim ten meters from the shore, it’s not like you happen to see them on special occasions. Polar bears come there in summer. A few times they came to the excavation site. But it’s rare. It’s mostly brown bears. The white ones, the appropriate ones, they hunt at the ice edge, they don’t need land. In summer they come there accidentally, when the floating ice is washed ashore.”

The brown bears though are real trouble makers, Dneprovskiy complains with laughter. “When we come back in summer, the windows in the wooden houses that are located near the site are always broken, because the bears can’t bear a glazed window.”

Asked if the bears don't attack when there are people around, he explains - they do. 

“Of course they try to enter the house, quite a lot, but not every day. There’s a smell of food, we fish, salt the fish and hang it to dry. They break the doors. Sometimes at night they break in with awful noise and stand there.”

Symmetrical animals figurineCredit: The State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow

Haaretz inquired: What do you do? 

“I don’t have a gun as a matter of principle. Because the local hunters told me a long time ago, and I know it: you better not try to shoot. When the bear is hurt, it will kill all that moves around him. He won’t let you make the second shot. It’s a serious animal. So I have adjusted to use a chainsaw. Don’t worry, I don’t saw them. But I turn the chainsaw on and it sounds as if I’m roaring very loudly. They think that if I roar so loudly, I’m big and scary, so it’s better not to deal with me," he says. "But they are the bosses there. So they think before they go away and do it lazily. They are not afraid of anybody. A shot in the air does not scare them because the rumble of falling ice in the sea, which they are used to, is much stronger.”

The meat pit

The less glamorous part of the Museum of Oriental Art collection – which includes, for instance, shale knives and fragments of ceramic vessels – reables the scientists to learn more about the daily lives of the ancient Eskimos, which hasn’t changed much over centuries. These findings were excavated by Dneprovskiy’s expeditions to the paleo-Eskimo settlements during the last 25 years.

Instead of wood, which was not available in amounts sufficient for heating and lighting, they used oil lamps to heat and lighten up their homes. Marine mammal fat would be poured into a stone vessel and a wick would be immersed.

Those lamps still exist in some modern dwellings of reindeer herders. For almost 2,000 years the paleo-Eskimos ate mostly meat and fish – a heavy protein diet. The almost only carbohydrates historically available to the indigenous peoples of Chukotka was the contents of dead deer stomach.

In addition, in summer Eskimos women would (and still do) gather different kinds of herbs in the tundra, which they would later ferment and serve with specific kinds of meat.

Bears in RussiaCredit: AP
This is a polar bear, not any other kind of bearCredit: The State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow

Without salt, there used to be one main way to preserve meat: in special meat pits (meat cache). They’re still in use, Dneprovskiy notes, but mostly for dog food.

The fact that ancient Eskimos’s diet was based mainly on marine animal meat complicates the dating of the findings.

“In the sea, the radiocarbon, that is used in order to establish when had the people who ate the sea animals lived, accumulates in a totally different way than on land,” Dneprovskiy explains. “The seals and the walruses dive so deep that the reservoir effect is achieved and we need to make corrections to the dating. The physicists have not yet reached an agreement about those corrections.”

Despite that snag, the scientists can estimate that the Eskimos culture reached its’ peak around the 5th and the 6th centuries C.E..

The number of people that used to live in the marine hunter settlements by the seashore in this period is still unknown: in order to find it out, says Dneprovskiy, one would need to uncover a whole settlement or a whole burial site – “neither my lifetime, not the life of my children would be enough for it.”

Bear's head figurineCredit: The State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow

On a sunny day in Siberia

There is good reason why Dneprovskiy doesn’t have much archeological competition in Chukotka.

Digging inside the permafrost confers its obvious advantages – for instance, the excellent preservation of all organic materials, including human and animal bones and even fragments of animal skin (in the rare cases it wasn’t eaten by bears, dogs and other local animals before it entered the permafrost layer). But it has a drawback too: the permafrost is impossible to dig in.

“It’s hard as a rock,” Dneprovskiy says. “You can probably break it with a jackhammer, but then I would also break all the artifacts. So you cannot hammer it and you cannot dig it. You can only wait till it melts. That’s it. So I uncover a pretty big territory and wait for it to melt down. Meanwhile, I dig next to it. Every sunny day allows us to melt about 5 cm of the permafrost.”

The water is either drained to the sea, when it’s possible, or just scooped up with buckets or using a pump with a petrol engine.

Every summer season, which as we mentioned lasts less than three months a year, only a thin layer of the earth can be exposed. So digging in Chukotka is a lifetime mission.

So far Dneprovskiy has excavated three important sites: he started with the Ekven burial site and then moved on to settlement archeology. During the last 25 years he uncovered parts of the settlements Ekven and Paipelgak, both located in the vicinity of Cape Dezhnev.

“One dwelling in Ekven, I excavated for six seasons,” he tells. “The house itself was about 30 square meters and the excavation site – about 150 square meters. In winter the site was covered with snow, but the ground is open, and the next year I come and pick up where I left. All my signs are left intact. Sometimes a bear might dig a den there, but he’s the landlord, so there’s nothing to do about it.”

In fact climate change doesn’t make the work of the arctic archeologists easier, Dneprovskiy says. Actually, quite the opposite.

“I have been observing the condition of the archeological sites and the cultural layers for 30 years. It melts now more during the summer. Whereas before the permafrost used to start at 60 cm under the surface, now it’s 70 and maybe even 80 cm. The coastal cliffs, where people used to settle and where the cultural layer is located, had never collapsed as is happening now. It collapses because of the melting of permafrost that used to firm it up. The cultural layer has started to actively collapse, together with the cultural structures, artifacts etc. It’s washed away to the ocean irrevocably. This happened before too. But now it was activated and happens faster.”

The fact that the permafrost starts now slightly deeper underground does not make a big difference. “During the last 20 years I excavated a settlement, where the depth of the cultural layer reaches three meters – the whole occupation layer is inside the permafrost. It doesn’t matter whether we dig from 60 or 70 cm under the ground. The tundra doesn’t give anything away. You need to mine everything with labor.”

Winged object used to balance the harpoonCredit: The State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow
Item of decoration for clothingCredit: The State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow
Siberian squirrelCredit: Kirill Dneprovskiy

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