The Mal'ta–Buret' culture is an archaeological culture of the Upper Paleolithic (c. 24,000 to 15,000 BP) on the upper Angara River in the area west of Lake Baikal in the Irkutsk Oblast, Siberia, Russian Federation. The type sites are named for the villages of Mal'ta (Мальта́), Usolsky District and Buret' (Буреть), Bokhansky District (both in Irkutsk Oblast).
Engraving of a mammoth on a slab of mammoth ivory, from the Upper Paleolithic Mal'ta deposits at Lake Baikal, Siberia
|Regions with significant populations|
|Irkutsk Oblast, Siberia, Russian Federation|
|Followed by||Afontova Gora|
|↑ Pliocene (before Homo)|
A boy whose remains were found near Mal'ta is usually known by the abbreviation MA-1 (or MA1). Discovered in the 1920s, the remains have been dated to 24,000 BP. According to research published since 2013, MA-1 belonged to a population related to the genetic ancestors of Siberians, American Indians, and Bronze Age Yamnaya people of the Eurasian steppe. In particular, modern-day Native Americans, Kets, Mansi, and Selkup have been found to harbour a lot of ancestry related to MA-1.
Much of what is known about Mal'ta comes from the Russian archaeologist Mikhail Gerasimov. Better known later for his contribution to the branch of anthropology known as forensic facial reconstruction, Gerasimov made revolutionary discoveries when he excavated Mal'ta in 1927. Until his findings, the Upper Paleolithic societies of Northern Asia were virtually unknown. Over the remainder of his career Gerasimov twice more visited Mal'ta to excavate and research the site.
Habitation and tools
Mal'ta consists of semi-subterranean houses that were built using large animal bones to assemble the walls, and reindeer antlers covered with animal skins to construct a roof that would protect the inhabitants from the harsh elements of the Siberian weather.
Evidence seems to indicate that Mal'ta is the most ancient known site in eastern Siberia; however, relative dating illustrates some irregularities. The use of flint flaking and the absence of pressure flaking used in the manufacture of tools, as well as the continued use of earlier forms of tools, seem to confirm the fact that the site belongs to the early Upper Paleolithic. Yet it lacks typical skreblos (large side scrapers) that are common in other Siberian Paleolithic sites. Additionally, other common characteristics such as pebble cores, wedge-shaped cores, burins, and composite tools have never been found. The lack of these features, combined with an art style found in only one other nearby site, make Mal'ta culture unique in Siberia.
There were two main types of art during the Upper Paleolithic: mural art, which was concentrated in Western Europe, and portable art. Portable art, typically some type of carving in ivory tusk or antler, spans the distance across Western Europe into Northern and Central Asia. Artistic remains of expertly carved bone, ivory, and antler objects depicting birds and human females are the most commonly found; these objects are, collectively, the primary source of Mal'ta's acclaim.
In addition to the female statuettes there are bird sculptures depicting swans, geese, and ducks. Through ethnographic analogy comparing the ivory objects and burials at Mal'ta with objects used by 19th and 20th century Siberian shamans, it has been suggested that they are evidence of a fully developed shamanism.
Also, there are engraved representations on slabs of mammoth tusk. One is the figure of a mammoth, easily recognizable by the trunk, tusks and thick legs. Wool also seems to be etched, by the placement of straight lines along the body. Another drawing depicts three snakes with their heads puffed up and turned to the side. It is believed that they were similar to cobras.
Perhaps the best example of Paleolithic portable art is something referred to as "Venus figurines". Until they were discovered in Mal'ta, "Venus figurines" were previously found only in Europe. Carved from the ivory tusk of a mammoth, these images were typically highly stylized, and often involved embellished and disproportionate characteristics (typically the breasts or buttocks). It is widely believed that these emphasized features were meant to be symbols of fertility. Around thirty female statuettes of varying shapes have been found in Mal'ta. The wide variety of forms, combined with the realism of the sculptures and the lack of repetitiveness in detail, are definite signs of developed, albeit early, art.
At first glance, what is obvious is that the Mal'ta Venus figurines are of two types: full figured women with exaggerated forms, and women with a thin, delicate form. Some of the figures are nude, while others have etchings that seem to indicate fur or clothing. Conversely, unlike those found in Europe, some of the Venus figurines from Mal'ta were sculpted with faces. Most of the figurines were tapered at the bottom, and it is believed that this was done to enable them to be stuck into the ground or otherwise placed upright. Placed upright, they could have symbolized the spirits of the dead, akin to "spirit dolls" used nearly worldwide, including in Siberia, among contemporary people.
- Context of the Venus figurines
The Mal'ta figurines garner interest in the western world because they seem to be of the same basic form as European female figurines of roughly the same time period. This similarity between Mal'ta and Upper Paleolithic Europe coincides with other suggested similarities between the two, such as in their tools and dwelling structures.
On the other hand, one can argue that, as a group, the Mal'ta Venus figurines are rather different from the female figurines of Western and Central Europe. For example, none of the Siberian specimens depict abdominal enlargement as many European examples do. Also, as breasts are often lacking in the Mal'ta figurines, few offer clear enough evidence of gender to define them as female. More conclusively, nearly half of them show some facial details, something which is lacking in the Venus figurines of Europe. It may not be possible to reach a definitive answer as to the origins of these peoples and their culture.
- We are clearly in a paleolithic province where the serpent, labyrinth, and rebirth themes already constitute a symbolic constellation, joined with the imagery of the sunbird and shaman flight, with the goddess in her classic role of protectress of the hearth, mother of man's second birth, and lady of wild things and of the food supply.
The skeletal remains of MA-1 have been described as phenotypically East Asian ("Mongoloid"). Alexeev (1998, p. 323) in his later publication stated that this area was "inhabited by a population of Mongoloid appearance". Genomic studies by Raghavan et al. (2014) and Fu et al. (2016) found Mal'ta Buret boy had brown eyes, dark hair and dark skin.
MA-1 is the only known example of Y-DNA R* (R-M207*) – that is, the only member of haplogroup R* that did not belong to haplogroups R1, R2 or secondary subclades of these. The mitochondrial DNA of MA-1 belonged to an unresolved subclade of haplogroup U.
The term Ancient North Eurasian (ANE) has been given in genetic literature to an ancestral component that represents descent from the people similar to the Mal'ta–Buret' culture or a population closely related to them. The genetic component ANE descends from Ancient South Eurasian.
A people similar to MA-1 were important genetic contributors to Native Americans, Europeans, Central and South Asians, and minor contribution to East Eurasians. Lazaridis et al. (2016) notes "a cline of ANE ancestry across the east-west extent of Eurasia." According to a 2016 study, it was found that the global maximum of ANE ancestry occurs in modern-day Kets, Mansi, Native Americans, and Selkups. Additionally it has been reported in ancient Bronze-age-steppe Yamnaya and Afanasevo cultures. Between 14 and 38 percent of Native American ancestry may originate from gene flow from the Mal'ta Buret people, while the other geneflow in Native Americans appears to have an Eastern Eurasian origin.
- "Ancient South Eurasian" (ASE) is also known as Eastern Non-Africans (ENA) in genetic literature. Lazaridis et al. (2016) describes ANE as "a population on the Onge→Han cline." (p.23; cf. Figure 3, A and Figure S11.3, Table S11.6)
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