Hyenas and Humans in
Ice Age Siberia
Christy G. Turner II
School of Human
Evolution and Social Change
Envision being on a Bering Sea island where hundreds of screeching sea birds
are soaring high above and diving out of the mist into the sea around you. You
stand on the edge of a high wet tundra-covered ashy cliff overlooking a coast
line where near shore, seals, sea lions, sea otters, and whales can
occasionally be seen feed in these remarkably rich northern waters. This scene is duplicated in
the multitude of bays, inter-island passes, and offshore wave-pounded sea
stacks throughout the north Pacific’s Aleutian Islands, the coast of Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula,
and the Kurile Islands—all part of the North Pacific Rim
of Fire. The scene is the backdrop for my story that begins in the summer of
1962 when I was the doctoral graduate student field supervisor for a University of Wisconsin-NSF
archaeological-ecological expedition to the Aleutian
islands. This wild treeless volcanic archipelago stretches 1,000
stormy miles from the Alaska mainland to a
cluster of small islands far from the eastern coast of Kamchatka.
The island chain divides the cold Bering Sea
from the warmer north Pacific Ocean—a situation that generates dense chilling
fog much of the year. In fact, the U.S. Coast Pilot warns that these are some
of the most dangerous waters in the world. The 1962 expedition was part of a
long-term scientific effort to understand the colonization of the New World, an
effort that extends back into the mid-1800s when the American naturalist
William Healy Dall carried out the first stratigraphic and explicitly
evolutionary archaeological excavations in the New World.
My trip that summer was the first of many that would take me to Alaska over the next 45
years. Why go there? Well, I was intrigued with the issue of how the New World
was colonized by humans, and since all human evolution took place in the Old
World, Native American beliefs notwithstanding, the initial route from the Old
to the New World had to have been from Siberia to Alaska as every line of evidence indicates.
Part of our 1962 excavation was
trenching a huge refuse mound that had been continuously settled upon by Aleuts
for 4,000 years. Aleuts are close relatives of the better known Eskimos. There
may have been 15,000 Aleuts when discovered by a Czar-ordered Russian
exploratory expedition in 1739, led by Commander Vitus Bering. At the time of
European contact, the Aleuts constituted
one the largest non-agricultural populations in the New
World. From the grassy summit of this 50 foot high accumulation of refuse one looks upon the
often stormy, icy cold, and fog-shrouded Bering Sea. Today, this sea has 300
feet of water atop the sea floor that
was a land bridge connecting Siberia and Alaska
at the end of the last Ice Age. It was across this Bering land bridge that the
ancestors of most Native Americans drifted into the New World 13,500 years
ago—some may have boated along the southern ice-fringed coast of the land
bridge, but only as far as the Alaska Peninsula because of massive glaciers
grinding their way into the Pacific Ocean from their mountainous origins in the
Alaska Range. These tiny pioneering
bands of hunters and their families reached Alaska
unknowingly because the animal and plant life of the Alaska
mainland was much the same in Siberia and on the land bridge—a vast cold dry grass and
sagebrush plain called Beringia or Arctic Steppe.
This northern Ice Age community
is also called “Mammoth Steppe” in reference to the largest species in the Ice
Age community. Many of the plant and animal species of this community were
distributed from the unglaciated regions of eastern Europe, across all of Russia, Mongolia,
and northeastern China to
the base of the mile-thick continental ice sheet that lay heavily across all of
Canada and southern Alaska. In addition to
the mammoth, there were large herds of horse, bison, various deer, sheep,
gazelle, and more solitary beasts like the wooly rhinoceros, cave lion, cave
bear, and south of the Arctic Circle, packs of
hyenas and other less cold-tolerant species.
That summer I dreamed of one day
conducting anthropological research in Siberia in order to further
understanding of how the New World was first
colonized. Despite the Cold War between the U.S.
and the Soviet Union, I eventually reached Siberia
in 1979. I was prepared to carry out bioarchaeological research on the basis of
two methodologies I had learned and had
advanced: (1) Due to the great expense involved in shipping
archaeological artifacts and non-cultural samples from the Aleutians to
Wisconsin and in later years to ASU, I had to reduce the volume of our
archaeological recovery. Rather than sending every single bone or marine shell
that we dug up, I decided to save only bone, stone, and shell refuse that had
some sign of Aleut modification or utilization plus all bird and mammal skulls.
In this way I became experienced in identifying cut marks and other form of
damage or modification. (2) I and my ASU students developed a protocol for
systematically observing human dental morphology in a highly standardized
manner. Using this protocol, I had studied thousands off prehistoric Native
American teeth, which made me familiar with their dental characteristics. To a
large degree, dental morphology is inherited. Between-group dental
comparisons provide a non-destructive
way to easily and inexpensively estimate their degree of relatedness. With this
data base I could search through Siberian archaeological collections looking
for a match that would help identify the more precise homeland of ancestral
I made six additional research
trips to the Aleutian islands, but also carried out summer-long
bioarchaeological studies in museums and archaeological sites in North and
South America, western Europe, Japan,
Australia, Oceania, and Southeast Asia from 1962 to the present day. Much of this
huge data base was eventually published with one of my ASU PhD graduate
students (Scott and Turner 1997).
It was during one of these museum studies that
I became very interested in human taphonomy. The term taphonomy was coined in
1940 by a Soviet paleontologist named I. A. Yefremov. He intended the term to
mean the study of depositional and post-depositional processes that affect the
condition and location of animal and plant matter after death. In one sense,
taphonomy is a kind of detective work on the remains of prehistoric life. I had
long been I had long been interested in what could be learned from studying
prehistoric human bones and teeth. The interest grew sharply when I came across
a human skeletal assemblage containing parts of at least 30 people that had
been severely cut and broken into many small pieces, some pieces of which were
also burned. My previous experience in 1958-1961 as a member of the Museum of
Northern Arizona’s Glen Canyon archaeological project on the Colorado and San
Juan rivers told me that the butchered, broken, and burned human skeletal
remains were strikingly like the processed remains of prehistoric game animals
that we recovered from caves and rock shelters in the canyons of what is now
Lake Powell. After a year of studying the remains, and conducting a year-long
taphonomy and forensic literature review of all the possible ways that human
remains could become damaged in this fashion, I and one of my ASU graduate
students, concluded that the humans might possibly have been cannibalized.
Since that original study, my late wife, Jacqueline, and I worked off-and-on
for 30 years on several other similar cases in the Southwest and Mexico. These
studies culminated in our 1999 book, Man Corn. Needless to say, the book
so strongly challenged the conventional wisdom about the prehistoric Anasazi
being so gentle peaceful, that we were cursed by Indians, archaeologists, other
scholars, New Age types, and the politically correct Santa Fe crowd. Since the publication of our
book, there have been further discoveries of butchered and cooked human
assemblages in the Four Corners region of the
Southwest, and we have been vindicate.
During that long but intermittent
study, we were aware that carnivores were also involved in damaging some of the
human bones, but we were never exactly certain about who or what caused each
and every damage mark. We needed prehistoric skeletal assemblages that were
produced solely by carnivores in order to develop a carnivore damage signature.
We could not identify any such collection in North or South
The opportunity to study
assemblages of carnivore food refuse came about as part of the Native American
origin studies I began in 1979 in the former USSR. During a 1984 mid-winter
research trip to Novosibirsk, Siberia,
my daughter, Korri Dee, and I met by chance a vertebrate paleontologist named
Nicolai D. Ovodov. He showed us some of the excavated bones and teeth of
ancient horses, mammoths, sheep, bison, rhinoceros, and various other species
that had lived 12,000 to 40,000 years ago in Siberia.
Most striking of these was the uniform and patterned way that large carnivores
Fig. 1. The uniformly damaged saiga antelope crania seen first in 1987 that
stimulated this taphonomic study in Siberia.
(All photos by the author).
Repeated and similar damage is
normally a criterion for identifying human activity. However, this bone damage
was caused by wolves, cave bears, cave lions, and cave hyenas. The latter were
especially interesting, one reason being that their remains were always found
broken , chewed upon, and covered with tooth marks indicating that cave hyenas
were cannibalistic. One hyena den located in the forested limestone Altai
Mountains near Mongolia
was especially rich in bones that hyenas had carried into the cave over a
period of some 40,000 years.
Called Razboinich’ya (which in Russian means
“refugee” cave in reference to three young men who hid in the cave for more
than a year in order to avoid being drafted into the Soviet army during World
War II) , this deep, dry, near-freezing
hyena den had been excavated over several summers by Ovodov and his associates.
After an unsuccessful attempt to reach the cave in 1987 because of stormy
mountain weather, we were successful twelve years later. When far back in the
pitch black cave I experienced a strange sensation. I thought I heard the throaty
coughing of some large animal. We had been studying hyena bone damage since the
beginning of the summer, so these terrifying creatures were much on my mind. As
it turned out, the sound came from heavy-smoker Ovodov coughing in a side
branch of the main cave.
The large amount of very well
preserved faunal remains that Ovodov recovered from Razboinich’ya gave us the
baseline we needed for developing a carnivore bone damage signature. Ours
turned out to be similar to others developed earlier, especially in southern
Africa by C. K. Brain (1981).Ever since reaching Razboinich’ya, In addition to
my dental anthropological studies on the colonization of the New World, in the
back of my mind swirl vivid images of
Ice Age Siberian people and their relationship to large carnivores,
especially the huge and powerful socially-organized night-hunting hyenas whose
massive jaws and teeth had easily cracked open even heavy and dense rhinoceros leg bones.
During the dozen or so research
trips I made to the
later named the
I came to realize that there was a taphonomic problem of immense proportion
lurking in the Pleistocene prehistory of Siberia and the
World. Simply put, It is this: Despite the archaeological
excavation of many Ice Age open and cave sites both in ancient forest and
steppe environments, and despite the excellent preservation of game animal bone
refuse in many of these sites, almost no Ice Age human remains have been
found—at most a quart or two of teeth and small bone fragments (Broken up, a
complete adult human skeleton probably would fill 10-15 quart-sized
containers.). Why? Explanations that come to mind include: First, the
Pleistocene dead were buried, abandoned, or cremated away from all the
habitation sites that the Russian archaeologists had excavated. The few bits of
human bone and teeth found in the habitation sites suggest extra-mural burial
was not always practiced, if it was practiced at all. Second, there might have
been widespread human cannibalism. This was the conclusion reluctantly reached
in the late 1990s by one of
best known anthropologists, the late Academician Valery Pavlovich Alexeev.
Thanks to the experience gained in the Man Corn research, I have
recognized a few scraps of human bone that could be tentatively suggested as
having been cannibalized (Turner, Ovodov, and Pavlova 2003).
Fig. 2. Siberian human skeletal
remains whose perimortem damage that might have been caused by cannibalism.
I am doubtful about this
possibility as having been a major cause of the missing bone. Third,
carnivorous scavengers might have dug up and consumed the humans buried in the habitation sites. There
is more direct and circumstantial evidence for this possibility than any other
explanation. So, as the reader may suspect, two very different problems are
beginning to converge: The colonization
New World, and the bone damage
signatures of large Siberian carnivores.
Since 1998 vertebrate
paleontologist Ovodov, translator Olga Pavlova, others, and I (bioarchaeologist)
have been studying the animal bones excavated from 30 Ice Age archaeological
and paleontological sites in Siberia. We have
gone through at least one million pieces of late Pleistocene bone curated in
various Siberian institutions. We have visited archaeological and
paleontological sites near or within the river basins of the Ob, Yenisei, and Angara . Our studies have also taken us to Ice Age sites
and collections excavated east of Lake
Baikal and post-Pleistocene
collections excavated near the Sea of Japan.
Much of our study and visitations have been in the Altai
Mountains, near the Russian-Mongolian border. We have been
supported for this taphonomic research by the National Geographic Society, the
Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, my Regents’ Professor
account, and the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy
of Sciences. We are indebted to a number of researchers for their help, most
notably Academician Anatoly P. Derevianko, Director of the Institute of Archaeology
and Ethnology, Novosibirsk.
What have we learned and what are our plans for this information?
As for plan, we are in the final
stages of analysis and writing a book-length monograph tentatively titled “Animal Teeth and Human
Tools: A Taphonomic Odyssey in Ice Age Siberia.”
A generous grant from the Emeritus
College will enable the
book to be copiously illustrated with photographs and line drawings of our
findings and travel. Our major findings and working hypotheses are these:
1. The bone damage signatures of
Siberian humans and carnivores can each be readily distinguished by a suite of
taphonomic features (Turner et al. 2001a, 2001b). For example, in a bone
assemblage, human damage characteristically includes stone tool cut marks,
breakage of limb bones in the mid-shaft portion, smashing striations, and wide
hammer-stone notches on fractures, among other features including rare pieces
of accidentally burned bone. Carnivores, on the other hand leave tooth
striations and puncture marks.
Fig. 3. Humans damage long bones
to get at marrow by smashing the mid-shaft portion and leaving the ends intact.
These bones are Ice Age reindeer
Fig. 4. Carnivore chewing marks that resemble poorly preserved stone tool
cut marks. We refer to these as pseudo-cuts. They can resemble stone tool cut
marks so closely, that by themselves, they would likely be misidentified.
Fig.5. Two small pits caused by
carnivore teeth. Pitting is not present in human damaged bone.
Fig. 6. End-hollowing. Damage to
long bones by carnivores occurs at the ends of the bones as the animals chew
away in their effort to get at the marrow. This, and several other damage
features define the carnivore bone damage signature.
They chew at bone ends, creating
rounded and polished hollowed ends, but rarely do they damage the
mid-shaft region. They leave small notches on fractures. Using carnivore
assemblages such as Razboinich’ya, we can be certain that hyenas ransacked
human cave refuse in search of bone fragments from which they not only could
extract marrow grease by cracking open bones, but also bone protein. They
obtained the latter by swallowing many bone fragments, which their digestive
system was capable of dissolving. Fragments that pass through the entire length
of their intestinal tract, are highly eroded and so highly polished that they
have a slippery feel. We refer to these partly
digested bone fragments as stomach bones. They are very common in
paleontological sites where hyenas had dens, and present in the Ice Age
archaeological sites, but not in post-glacial animal dens or human encampments
because at the end of the Ice Age, Siberian hyenas became extinct along with
mammoth, rhinoceros, and many other mega-fauna.
2. Ice Age cave hyenas were distributed
longitudinally all over Siberia and
latitudinally as far as 55° north (about the latitude of the U.S.-Canadian border).
Actual hyena skeletal remains and their damage signature occur in many Siberian
Ice Age archaeological and paleontological sites below 55°.
Siberian people and hyenas were patently aware of one another. Ice Age human
skeletal remains are rarely found despite the excellent preservation of
non-human animal remains.
3. At the end of the Ice Age,
about 12,000 years ago, hyenas went extinct along with northern mega-fauna such
as mammoth, rhinoceros, bison, and many other species. The Arctic Steppe is
replaced by forests in most of Siberia, and
treeless tundra in the far north. From this time on, buried human remains are
commonly discovered in Siberian habitation sites.
4. The inverse relationship
between hyenas and human remains leads us to hypothesis that the number of
Siberian humans may have been held down by hyena and other carnivore predation,
as well as by cold climate and patchy food resources in the steppe and
forest-steppe eco-systems. Just as there are hyena attacks on children and
elderly adults today in Africa and India, so must have been their
predatory behavior during the Ice Age. Toddlers wandering away from camp would
have made easy pickings for a packing of
prowling Siberian hyenas. Opportunistic predation would have been an added
measure of human population control that would have slowed down the natural
expansion northward of a growing population. There is very little evidence of
human presence north of the Arctic Circle
until the very end of the Ice Age.
5. Humans reached Alaska about 13,500
years ago, a time shortly after a domesticated dog skull was left in the
Razboinich’ya hyena cave. The stratum in which Ovodov found the dog skull dates
about 14,000 years ago. Northeast Asian wolves were seemingly the first wild
animals that humankind domesticated. The resulting dog may represent the
“invention” that enabled humans to expand into Alaska by guarding human encampments from
marauding packs of hyenas or wolves, or solitary bears and lions. The dogs
could have also served as aids in transporting the considerable camping gear
needed to live in the high Arctic (tents, tent
poles, bedding, emergency food, clothing, tools, weapons, etc. The multitude of
material culture items used and needed by Eskimos is well known.). Because of
the preponderance of hyena remains in Ice Age Siberian archaeological sites in
contrast with the lesser number of cave lion, cave bear, and wolf remains, we
feel that hyenas played a significant role in the delayed settlement of Alaska. There were
anatomically modern humans in Siberia at least
20,000 years ago, and more archaic forms even earlier. The hyenas may well have
helped limit human population size by attacking children who had wandered away
from camp, or by entering camps and dragging away the weak or those in deep in
sleep. They could also have scavenged the carcasses of large animals that human
hunters had killed, thus denying the humans the entirety of their hunt.
Numerous scenarios can be produced by analogy with hyena activity in the ir
modern range that includes Africa, India, and the Near and Middle
East. Such scenarios are allowed by the taphonomic demonstration of hyena
abundance in Ice Age Siberia. It is curious that hyenas have lived for millions
of years in the Old World, and still do in the
above mentioned regions. However, in northern Eurasia
they seem to have met their match with the coming of anatomically modern
humans, their dogs, and technological inventions unknown to the earlier archaic
humans. A very marked cold snap at about 15,000 years ago, called the Late
Glacial Maximum, may also have played a role in their extinction. As the exact
story unfolds about the cave hyena extinction, one inference seems solid:
Humans do not disperse into the New World
until these powerful social Siberian predators go extinct.
6. One curious finding that came
out of our taphonomic study is the very low frequency of burned bone. The few
fragments that are burned suggest that they fell into campfires accidently. No
pieces suggest the roasting of meat. Some other form of cooking and
grease-rendering must have been practiced such as light boiling in skin bags
filled with water heated by hot stones. Unfortunately, for this explanation,
very few stones have been found showing thermal damage. Perhaps most meat was
eaten raw, as was done by historic Eskimos.
Thus, the Emeritus College
grant will allow voluminous illustrations of how game animals were processed by
ancient Siberian humans and hyenas. These heretofore unsuspected stalking
hazards are hypothesized as having slowed down human population
expansion—expansion that in the northeasterly trek across Beringia brought the
ancestors of Natives Americans into a hunter’s paradise filled with game
animals totally naive about human behavior.
Once past the Siberian hyena barrier, the New World
was rapidly filled with humans who found an abundance of food, no enemies, no
contagious diseases, and very few social carnivores. We add to this scenario
the dog that along with the fine tailoring needle may have been two important
inventions that helped late Pleistocene Siberians to reach the New World.
This story began in the Aleutian
Islands of Alaska, so perhaps I should return there for my ending. There, as in
Siberia, thousands of animal bones were
recovered in our excavations. All were from sea mammals, marine fish, marine
birds, and marine shellfish. There were apparently no terrestrial animals in
the prehistoric Aleutian Islands. The Aleuts
were a maritime people, whose roots seem to go back to the late Pleistocene
Siberian Pacific coast and the lower reaches of the Amur River, which empties into the ocean
north of Japan.
These Amurians must also have encountered hyenas because their distinctive
bones and teeth have been found in a small late Pleistocene near-coastal cave
site north of Vladivostok
excavated by Ovodov in the mid-1960s. Ancestral Aleuts, like ancestral Indians
entered the New World late relative to other parts of the world (Australia, for
example, was reached 50,000 years ago). Yes, terrible cold was undoubtedly a
factor in the tardy settlement of the New World.
But it alone does not explain why even the food-rich marine Aleutian
Islands were seemingly settled so late also.
United States Coast Pilot. 9. Paacific and Arctic Coasts.
Spencer to Beaufort
Sea. Seventh edition. Washington
DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1964.
Brain, C. K.
or the Hunted? An Introduction to African
Cave Taphonomy. Chicago: University of Chicago
Turner, Christy G. II, and Jacqueline A. Turner
Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest. Salt Lake City: University of Utah
Turner, Christy G. II, Nicolai D. Ovodov, Nicolai V. Martynovich, Olga
V. Pavlova, Anatoli P. Derevianko, and Nicolai D. Drosdov
taphonomy of late-Pleistocene human and hyena refuse deposits in Siberia. Current Research in the Pleistocene
Turner, Christy G. II, Nicolai D. Ovodov, Nicolai V. Martynovich, and
Alexander N. Popov.
definitions for perimortem taphonomy of natural and anthropogenic bone damage
in late Pleistocene and Holocene Siberia and Primorye. Archaeology,
Ethnology, and Anthropology of Eurasia
Turner, Christy G. II, Nicolai D. Ovodov, and Olga V. Pavlova
taphonomy and dental affinity assessment of the human skeletal remains from Yelenev Cave,
Krasnoyarsk territory, Siberia.
Archaeology, Ethnology, and Anthropology of Eurasia
Turner, Christy G. II, Nicolai D. Ovodov, and Olga V. Pavlova.
and Human Tools: A Taphonomic Odyssey Through Ice Age Siberia.