ANCIENT HISTORY OF CHUKOTKA
ANCIENT HISTORY OF CHUKOTKA
Tens of thousands years ago, in the Old Stone Age the first settlers came to Chukotka. They were primitive hunters from more southern areas of Central and Eastern Asia. At that time the tundra steppes of the northeast Asia and Alaska were connected by a land bridge and represented an entire natural region of Beringia covered by forests and inhabited by herds of mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, bisons and reindeers.
As opposed to mysterious and mythical Atlantis, Beringia, submerged about 10 thousand years ago, is a historical reality. It happened with time: as colossal ice masses of the Last Glacial Maximum melted, the world ocean level rose to 150 m and a wide flatland between Chukotka and Alaska went under water. Since then it lies under the waves of the Bering and the Chukchi Seas.
Today’s archaeological focus on underwater Beringia is, first of all, related to the problem of settlement of the American continent. The research of the bed silt might reveal the traces the pioneers of the Stone Age made on their way from Asia to America.
Meanwhile, the researchers accumulated sufficient evidence of the fact, that the settlement of sometime desolated American continent happened over the Beringia bridge across Chukotka and Alaska. The ancestors of the Indians, the Eskimos, the Aleuts and then the Chukchis left many artifacts of their history on the land of Chukotka.
About 10 thousand years ago the ice was gone from valleys and plains of Chukotka, North America and Beringia, which was slowly sinking. The ocean waves seized its huge spaces. The crustal movement united two oceans – the Arctic and the Pacific, and two continents – Eurasia and America – were separated.
Noticeable transformations were caused by warming. Mammoths and other large mammals of the Ice Age beside reindeers became extinct. The history of Chukotka experienced a critical moment: people shifted from mammoth hunting to reindeer hunting, fishing and then marine mammal harvest. This was a transition from the Old Stone Age, the Paleolith, to the New Stone Age.
Flintstonearrowheads, spearpoints, knifes and scrapers chipped and processed by flaking from both sides were preserved in the deposits of dozens of ancient sites discovered by archaeologists. The most ancient of these sites are Ananaiveem (dated 8400 years) on the cognominal river and Koolen IV (dated 6000 years) on Lake Koolen not far from the village of Uelen. Dozens of later sites were discovered on the banks of the mountain rivers of the Chukotka Peninsula, which are short but deep.
Judging by the archaeological findings, the primitive inhabitants of the continental Chukotka were half-settled due to lack of transportation and ability to arrange new housing in the cold tundra conditions. Sleds, sled reindeers and dogs are relatively new for Chukotka so sudden depletion of hunting or fishing grounds led to extinction of entire tribes as it happened to the Yukaghirs of Omolon River when the reindeers changed their usual migration routes.
Life by the sea ice edge
Marine mammal harvest in Chukotka originated roughly at the time when the Ice Age was over and mammoths were gone extinct. People who found themselves in extremely harsh conditions, had to adapt to the rigorous environment.
Excavations of the ancient settlements and burial sites revealed that a developed marine mammal harvest was the primary activity of the Bering Strait coastal inhabitants already in the mid- first millennium BC. The main feature of the Arctic hunting culture is their adaptation to the sea life: impervious and wisely tailored waterproof fur clothing, half-buried dwellings built from the whale bones, reindeer hide canopies heated by blubber burners, unsinkable swift-sailing kayaks, big lightweight walrus skin boats, rotating harpoons with slipping tips and many other artful stone and ivory tools.
Having become skillful hunters at walruses, seals, whales, reindeers, polar bears and other animals and birds, these people not only survived, but learned to be comfortable and happy at the place where life for the residents of middle latitudes is contingent on availability of powerful modern equipment and usage of the rich experience accumulated by the aborigines of the North.
In 1975 the Soviet researchers completed the first archaeological expedition to the Wrangel Island, the remainder of the ancient Beringia. The evidence of the primitive culture related to sea hunting they discovered on the island had a lot of common features with the primordial Paleoeskimo cultures of the Arctic America. The coal from the fire site determined the age of the coastal culture discovered by the researchers as very ancient, dated 2nd millennium BC. This is the most ancient Paleoeskimo culture in Asia.
This is how one more page of the amazing history of the Arctic aborigines came to our knowledge. At the time when neither Rome nor Athens even existed, the people settled themselves on the harshest land of the world. And even the Wrangel Island was populated by skillful sea hunters who were not isolated but maintained cultural connections with the distant lands, possibly, reaching Greenland.
Life of the Chukotka hunters represented in petroglyphs
The Pegtymel cave drawings, otherwise, the petroglyphs (dated 1000 BC), are an amazing monument of the ancient culture of Chukotka of the late Neolithic Age. They were engraved on the rocks of the right bank of Pegtymel River on a quite lengthy, almost half-kilometer span of the Kaikuulsky cliff. The total of 104 groups of silhouette drawings was left on 12 rocks.
The following hunting subject is the most typical: a hunter sitting in a small boat strikes a huge wild reindeer with a spear or a harpoon. The artist reproduced a situation, which was quite real; the most sought-after harvest, the reindeer, looks big, corpulent and very natural, whereas the boat with the hunter is disproportionately small. The man in the boat is depicted only by one stroke.
Some petroglyphs make a picture of different methods of reindeer hunt: skiing on snow crust with dogs in the spring and boating in the fall. Many petroglyphs depict big boats carrying oarsmen whose main task was to hold reindeers, not letting them escape with the river course. The decisive role in the reindeer hunt belonged to kayaks, small quick boats equipped with two-bladed oars, which were completely waterproof and fully covered by skin with a special hatch for the oarman. The scenes of whaling, sea otter and other marine mammal hunt contain images of big boats with high and sharp bows carrying a lot of oarsmen. These rock images provide precise information on the first vessels used by the sea hunters of Chukotka.
Quite mysterious images standing out among the Pegtymel petroglyphs are the dancing anthropomorphic figures with huge mushrooms appended to their heads. The monstrous mushrooms, fly agarics by all appearances, evidently have an independent meaning. Fly agarics are quite common for the Arctic where they grow and reproduce. The usage of fly agaric in its intoxicating quality is proved by ethnographic data. (Curiously enough, such anthropomorphic hallucinogenic mushrooms are depicted in the Maya stone sculpture).
Usually a combination of man and mushroom in one image is referred to the general consistent pattern of animal or plant anthropomorphization at a certain stage of development experienced by very different peoples. However, the dancing figures of mushroom people can speak for the very ancient origin of shamanism in the Far North-East of Siberia. It is known that at the primitive times intoxicated people were perceived as diviners. A person consuming fly agarics turned irresponsive and started to hallucinate, entering the condition close to shamanic ecstasy, which was usually reached by frenetic ritual performance and exhaustive drumming.
The art of the ancient Chukotka painters, profoundly natural and keen, as well as developed stone treatment techniques are the evidence of a cultural level considerably high for the Stone Age. However, the Bronze Age never received a full development in Chukotka. Only some bronze tools were brought here from the south, then the connections with people who shifted to cattle-breeding and crop farming, have gradually depleted and Chukotka returned into the Stone Age while the entire Siberia proceeded to using iron.
Since then Chukotka is characterized by a considerable backwardness in terms of production power and production relations development.
The Stone Age Refuge
The iron was firstly brought to Chukotka with the common era but its usage was negligible. The late Stone Age returned to Chukotka and entered a lengthy developmental phase – up until arrival of the Russian pathfinders in XVII c.
This is where several ethnocultural communities remarkable by their very specific cultural monuments eventually originated at. The Chukotka sea coast was inhabited by the ancestors of Eskimos and coastal Chukchis. They were settled and provided for themselves by marine mammal hunt.
The ancient Yukaghir culture spread in the continental areas, in the valleys of the Anadyr and the Main Rivers and up to the Kolyma River; the ancient Koryak and the ancient Kerek cultures originated on the sea coast of southeastern Chukotka. The interior of the Chukotka Peninsula was inhabited by the reindeer hunters, the ancestors of the Chukchi reindeer herders. Their transition to the nomadic reindeer herding signified the beginning of the new era for the primitive communal society.
The ancient Eskimo culture developed in Chukotka is staged into Okvik, Old Beringian and Birnik cultures, which were named after the locations of the artifacts most typical for them. Each of these cultures is identified, first of all, by the shape of the ivory harpoon tips, the main hunting tool, and also by the ivory carving style.
Okvik, Old Beringian and Birnik cultures developed and transformed into Punuk culture. This process developed between VI and VIII cc. Pursuant to the latest paleogeographic studies, the climate in the Arctic Ocean seas between the VIII and the XII cc. experienced another considerable warming. The waters liberated from compact and fast ice were abundant with seals, whales and other marine mammals.
In the Punuk period the hunting trade on the Arctic coast of Chukotka reached its true and unprecedented development peak. It is confirmed by extensive use of the whale bones as construction and craft material. The whale skulls, ribs and lower jaws were used to build large mud huts; the long whale bones were used to elevate high driers to safekeep skin boats, meat and fish. The settlements were expanding and so did their population; the rich supply of meat kept people at one place for a considerably longer time than before.
The end of the Punuk period concurred with the gradual climate cooling, otherwise, the Little Ice Age. In 1000-1100 AD the Punuk culture naturally joined the Thule cultural historical community (the Greenlandic-Canadian-Neo-Inuit culture).
Development of reindeer herding and decomposition of the primitive communal society
Transition from terrestrial hunting and fishing to sea hunting was the first significant shift in the productive power development of the ancient coastal population. The second and even more significant shift happened in tundra when the reindeer hunters started to domesticate animals. This was the beginning of the nomadic reindeer herding, an activity more efficient than any type of hunt. The developed nomadic and extremely challenging reindeer herding lifestyle was the only instrument of development applicable at the huge reindeer lichen pastures of the North-East.
The origin of reindeer herding in Chukotka is not fully researched yet, sustaining a range of contradicting hypotheses. It is only known that reindeer herding originated later than marine mammal harvest, i.e. only several centuries ago.
Development of the nomadic reindeer herding undermined the primitive communal production method continuously practiced in Chukotka for over millennia. Matriarchal organization common for all the hunting peoples of Chukotka transformed into patriarchy. Development of private property attributes and rudiments of military democracy is represented in many archaeological monuments, such as fortified settlements built on unscalable rocks, battle sites where remains of ivory armors, arrow tips and other weaponry can still be found.
The period of tribal wars in Chukotka refers to the end of XVII-the beginning of XVIII cc. and is partly related to arrival of the Russian pathfinders. When Russian tradesmen-pathfinders discovered the Far North-East of Asia, they learned that the Chukotka people divide into two groups by their economic activity and household. One of them, the settled marine mammal hunters, was attached to the sea and included the Eskimos, the settled Chukchis, the Koryaks and the Kereks. Another was characterized by a relatively mobile lifestyle in the depth of tundra and forest tundra of the interior continental areas of Chukotka and included the reindeer Chukchis and the Yukaghirs.
Seizure of reindeer herds along with nomadic reindeer herding was one of the economic activities. It often happened that people from other tribes were taken into bondage. The most frequent and bloody battles happened between the Chukchis and the Koryaks. The Chukchis who were more numerous left the areas of Russian influence and exerted pressure over the Koryaks, the Kereks and the Yukaghirs who seeked protection with the Russians.
Arrival of the Russians to Chukotka put an end to the centenary isolation of these peoples of Stone Age but also brought new problems.