Climate Shock 8,200 Years Ago May Have Brought Out the Best in Russian Hunter-gatherers

An anomalously large prehistoric cemetery in Russia precisely overlaps a 160-year cold spell in the Early Holocene epoch

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Lake Onega in northwestern Russia.
Lake Onega in northwestern Russia. Credit: Svetography997 / Shutterstock
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

There’s a theory that prehistoric hunter-gatherers were a peaceable lot and, if conflict over resources ever reared its hairy head, they’d simply go somewhere else. But what if there was nowhere else to go? What if conditions elsewhere were even worse?

In northern Russia during the Early Holocene epoch – which started around 11,500 years ago – it’s possible that an acute climatic stressor may have actually provided the impetus for social cohesion, according to a new study of an unusually large cemetery for its time.

Around 8,200 years ago, Earth experienced an abrupt reversal in its post-Ice Age warming trend. By that time, the Ice Age had been ebbing for thousands of years. By about 11,500 years ago, the climate had warmed roughly to levels familiar to us today, though the great ice sheets that rendered the Northern Hemisphere inhospitable were still melting and retreating (which they’re still doing to this day).

And then, suddenly, the temperature plunged. The post-glacial cooling event around 8,200 years ago was discovered by taking ice cores from Greenland, where the average temperature dropped as much as 3 to 6 degrees Celsius, which is enormous. In Europe, the average temperature fell about 1 degree Celsius. (Not impressed? Average global warming so far is “just” 1.2 degrees C on average.) This chill would last for about 160 years, scientists estimate.

One question is how this happened. Another is how the humans of northern Europe responded.

Now Prof. Rick Schulting of Oxford and colleagues have done work at a cemetery built on a tiny island in a huge lake in northwest Russia. The cemetery dates to the Early Holocene. It was uncoverd in the 1930s, but modern technology enabled the team to make some new discoveries.

Instead of having been used over around 800 years as originally thought, it turns out that, though large for the time, the burial ground was used rather briefly, exactly overlapping the cold spell.

A prehistoric rock carving on the granite shore of the lake.Credit: Svetography997 / Shutterstock

The researchers believe that the establishment of the cemetery and the heavy if transient use of it may reflect a change in the cultural complexity of the Holocene hunter-gatherers who lived in this relatively resilient lake environment, the researchers report in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Originally, the tiny island, Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov, may have contained more than 400 graves. Many may have been lost due to quarrying, the scientists say. Still, archaeologists have been able to recover 177 burials.

Yes, there were other cemeteries from this period of the Early Holocene. But they tend to be small and in use for much longer periods, Schulting notes.

Catastrophic ice dam failure

Why actually did this sudden Early Holocene freeze happen? It was because of a massive influx of freshwater into the northern Atlantic from the Laurentide Ice Sheet covering almost all of Canada and much of the northern United States. At its peak the ice was up to a couple of miles thick.

As the ice sheet melted, a vast lake of meltwater dammed by persisting ice formed south of Hudson Bay in northeastern Canada, according to the latest thinking. Then the ice dam catastrophically failed and the water poured out and reached the Labrador Sea.

Actually, during the last Ice Age (starting around 2.5 million years ago), the ice sheets underwent cycles of development and retreat. Each time, the freezing-melting cycle profoundly affected the global climate, because influxes of freshwater into the seas would change their salinity and hence affect the ocean currents – and the jet stream.

The tiny island of Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov in the lake. Credit: Rick Schulting

Thus about 8,200 years ago, this formerly dammed meltwater suddenly poured into the northern Atlantic, and the current bringing warm water northward from the Gulf of Mexico collapsed. And it got very cold in Europe.

By this time, farming had arisen in some parts of the world, spreading out of Anatolia and the Levant in the Middle East. Indeed, this climatic reversal likely caused early farmers much misery in southeastern Europe.

Further north, most of Europe was still the fief of hunter-gatherers who in the early Holocene are believed to have lived in small dispersed groups. (Though monumental discoveries such as Gobekli Tepe and other Neolithic sites in Turkey have changed the condescending view of human abilities in the early Holocene.)

The edible environment

How the Holocene cold event impacted various regions is still debated; in any case, each region would have experienced it differently.

By and large, this area of Russia wasn’t characterized by massive snowfall; quite the contrary. In an eerie parallel to what we’re now experiencing with climate change, summers were apparently (slightly) warmer than usual, and winters and springs a lot colder – not to mention dry and windy, the researchers say.

Do not sniff at differences of a degree or two, let alone five or six: This can significantly change the vegetation and hence the ecosystem. For instance, the so-called Little Ice Age from the 15th to 19th centuries led roe deer to disappear from Finland (which is very near Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov). And the Holocene chill was much more severe.

A map of the area in Russia, with a close-up at upper right.Credit: Pavel Tarasov

So, the cold spell changed the edible environment to different degrees in different areas. Lake Onega – which lies about 500 kilometers (310 miles) north of Moscow – was likely quite resilient.

Small lakes would have frozen over and their fish would have suffocated as atmospheric oxygen couldn’t mix with the water. But being huge, the second-largest freshwater lake in Europe, Lake Onega had its own ecologically resilient microclimate, the researchers posit. Its fish would have shivered but swum on, and it would have attracted game such as the vastly appreciated elk, which separate work has shown to be quite the prehistoric obsession in that part of the world.

The dead at Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov were sprinkled with ocher, and among the grave goods – in graves that had any – were stone and bone tools and weapons, figurines and elk teeth – grooved and perforated to be hung as pendants or attached to clothing. More than 4,300 elk incisors were found.

Suddenly, behavioral complexity

So they liked elk and wore their teeth as necklaces and proto-tassels. They also wore teeth of other animals, just not to the same extent.

But why might environmental stress coupled with the security of the Lake Onega microclimate lead the local people to create a new cemetery?

Burying their dead on the island may show that the previously widely dispersed bands of hunter-gatherers in the locality metaphorically joined hands. They mitigated potential conflict over access to the lake’s still-rich resources, the scientists suggest.

A drawing of a grave at Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov.Credit: Dmitriy Gerasimov

In other words, they speculate that the stress led to a new level of behavioral complexity and bonhomie among the hunter-gatherers sharing the resources in and around this still-bountiful lake.

Asked for elaboration on this upbeat interpretation and whether it’s fundamentally based on observation of latter-day hunter-gatherers, Schulting explains: “A lot of our baseline understanding of hunter-gatherers comes from those societies recorded historically. Not an unproblematic data set certainly, but we do need a starting point, and there is a rich and varied literature. Some of the characteristics that we see in recent hunter-gatherers can then be found in the archaeological record – e.g., high residential mobility, though that depends to a certain extent on environment.”

Of course, this doesn’t suggest that contemporary hunter-gatherers are somehow holdovers from prehistory, he clarifies. Rather, this way of life may evoke certain broadly shared responses. 

Does this suggest that this climate-induced stress event brought out the best in people? One could make a case for this, Schulting says, but what it chiefly reflects is the human capacity for flexibility and adaptability.

“This could have gone differently, with temporary abandonment by many of the region, or increased levels of violence – which we do not see convincing evidence for at Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov, though we do in other cases were different choices were made.”

Indeed. For one example, there’s evidence of a brutal war between two groups of people 13,000 years ago in Sudan, postulated to be over scarce resources. Back at the island in Lake Onega, apropos the elk teeth and other grave goods, some people were buried with rich offerings and some were buried with no grave goods, which led to an argument among archaeologists.

Did the difference reflect a relatively egalitarian society where certain people could achieve high status? Or did it reflect hierarchy and social inequality?

Another drawing of a grave.Credit: Dmitriy Gerasimov

Crucial to the argument was the initial assumption that the cemetery had been in use for hundreds of years, which led to another assumption: The local hunter-gatherers were a resilient bunch who didn’t vary their lifestyle or mortuary practices. Now with the new information, the jury remains undecided.

So are we seeing here status based on achievements during one’s lifetime, or people born to the throne who were covered in elk dentition for eternity?

“It could be argued that there are at least some elements of the latter in play at Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov, as in some other Holocene hunter-gatherer communities,” Schulting says. “What is different at Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov is how this seems to have come into play with the 8,200-year-old event, and they dissipated afterwards, at least based on the data now available.” 

Indeed. When the cold spell ended, the hunter-gatherers apparently scattered about again, and the cemetery went out of use. The end.

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