Thinking Small: Global Perspectives on
Archeological Papers of the
American Anthropological Association Number 12
Robert G. Elston and Steven L. Kuhn, Editors
Stanley H. Ambrose
P. Jeffrey Brantingham
Angela E. Close
Robert G. Elston
Steven L. Kuhn
Michael P. Neeley
Lawrence Guy Straus
David R. Yesner
The “Microblade Adaptation” and
Recolonization of Siberia during the
Late Upper Pleistocene
University of Nevada, Reno
In Siberia, a scarcity of sites 22,000 to 18,000 years in age suggests that human populations unable to cope
with extreme conditions of the last glacial maximum abandoned the region. After 18,000 years ago, as gla-
ciers retreated and the tree line gradually advanced northward, humans wielding microblade technology
recolonized the Asian north, ultimately spreading to the high arctic by 11,000 years ago. This chapter re-
counts the evidence for the timing of this colonization event and summarizes technological, subsistence, and
settlement data from over 20 sites to reconstruct hunter-gatherer adaptations during the Siberian late Upper
Paleolithic. Results suggest that late glacial microblade-producing populations were highly mobile hunters
who commonly exploited single prey species from short-term camps.
Siberia, defined loosely, is the vast territory of Asian
Russia that extends from the Ural Mountains in the
west to the Pacific Ocean in the east, and from the Altai
and Saian mountains in the south to the Arctic Ocean in
the north (Figure 9.1). Defined in this way, Siberia con-
tains more than 10 million km2 of northern landscapes
drained by five major river systems: Ob’, Yenisei,
Angara, Lena, and Amur. Early in the late glacial,
18,000–14,000 years ago (B.P.), Siberian landscapes were
dominated by “tundra-steppe” vegetation and a faunal
complex characterized by large herbivores like mam-
moth, bison, horse, red deer, and reindeer. Toward the
end of the late glacial, 14,000–11,000 B.P., though, this
tundra-steppe biome was gradually replaced by boreal
forest and forest-steppe with increasing numbers of for-
est-adapted mammals including moose and roe deer
(Guthrie 1990; Powers 1996; Ukraintseva 1993).
The Siberian archaeological period coincident with
climate and environmental change during the late gla-
cial is generally referred to as the late (or “final”) Upper
Paleolithic (Goebel 1999; Kuzmin and Orlova 1998;
Vasil’ev 1993). The late Upper Paleolithic is made up of
a series of regional traditions, including the Diuktai Cul-
ture in Yakutia (Mochanov 1977) and the Afontova-
Kokorevo cultures in the upper Yenisei basin (Abramova
1979b, 1979c). All of these, though, given similarities
in age and technology, can be grouped into a single
technocomplex. Generally, Siberian late Upper Pale-
olithic industries date to 18,000–11,000 B.P. and are based
on the production of microblades (typically less than 2
cm long and 1 cm wide) detached from either specially
prepared wedge-shaped cores made on bifaces or small
“end” (tortsovyi) cores made on relatively thin flakes
(Abramova 1979b, 1979c; Flenniken 1987; Mochanov
1977) (Figure 9.2). Large prismatic blade cores, bipolar
cores, and other simply prepared flake cores are also
common in late Upper Paleolithic assemblages. Second-
ary reduction is characterized chiefly by unifacial and
burin technologies. Bifacial technologies are rare across
most of western Siberia, but more prevalent in Yakutia,
Transbaikal, and Russian Far East (Derev’anko 1998;
Mochanov 1977). Burins occur in a variety of forms, but
most commonly have transverse burin edges. Other lithic
tool forms include large side scrapers (skreblos) often
made on cortical flakes, small end scrapers on bladelets
or round flakes, gravers, and retouched flakes. Osseous
118 Ted Goebel
technologies during the late Upper Paleolithic were di-
rected at the production of bone, antler, and ivory slot-
ted points and knives. Burins were probably used to carve
the slotted points (Guthrie 1990), and microblades were
inset in the slots. Many preserved examples of this com-
posite projectile technology are now known (Abramova
et al. 1991; Drozdov et al. 1990; Petrin 1986).
In this chapter, I consider three fundamental ques-
tions about the Siberian late Upper Paleolithic: (1) When
did microblade technologies emerge in Siberia? (2) What
are the origins of Siberian microblade technologies? (3)
How can we generally characterize human adaptations
during the late glacial in Siberia?
When Did Microblade Technologies
Emerge in Siberia?
There is confusion about the age of the earliest late
Upper Paleolithic microblade industries in Siberia. The
issue lies in whether the earliest clear microblade tech-
nologies date to before or after the last glacial maximum
(LGM). Some have proposed that microblade technolo-
gies emerged as early as 30,000–25,000 B.P. (Derev’an-
ko 1998; Mochanov 1977, 1978; Morlan 1987; West
1996); however, others, including me, argue that the
earliest unequivocally radiocarbon-dated microblade in-
dustries are much later in age, perhaps as late as 18,000–
17,000 B.P. (Abramova 1989; Goebel 1999; Medvedev
1998; Vasil’ev 1993). Debate stems from a series of early
archaeological sites that have problematic geologic con-
texts, inconsistent radiocarbon ages, or single, unconfirmed
radiocarbon ages. These sites include Mogochino-1,
Afontova Gora-2, Krasnyi-Iar-1, Ust’-Kova, Kurla-3,
Sokhatino-4, the “Proto-Diuktai” sites of Yakutia, and
Mogochino-1 is located along the Ob’ River in west-
ern Siberia. Excavations in the 1970s led to the recovery
of a rich inventory of wedge-shaped cores and micro-
Figure 9.1. Locations of late Upper Paleolithic sites in Siberia and Russian Far East and the approximate ages of sites. 1,
Studenoe-2; 2, Ust’-Menza-2; 3, Maininskaia East; 4, Khaergas Cave; 5, Listvenka; 6, Novoselovo-7; 7, Kokorevo-4b; 8,
Oznachennoe-1; 9, Maininskaia Main; 10, Ust’-Kova; 11, Chernoozer’e-2; 12, Volch’ia Griva; 13, Tashtyk-4; 14, Kurtak-3;
15, Kurla-6; 16, Avdeikha; 17, Kokorevo-2; 18, Kokorevo-1; 19, Kurla-3; 20, Diuktai Cave; 21, Golubaia-1; 22, Kokorevo-3;
23, Verkholenskaia Gora; 24, Sokhatino-4; 25, Novoselovo-6; 26, Ust’-Belaia; 27, Makarovo-2; 28, Bol’shoi-Iakor-1; 29,
Oshurkovo; 30, Ust’-Kiakhta-17; 31, Ust’-Menza-1; 32, Ust’-Mil’-2; 33, Ushki-1; 34, Ust’-Ulma-1; 35, Ikhine-2; 36, Ezhantsy;
37, Verkhne Troitskaia; 38, Krasnyi-Iar-1; 39, Afontova Gora-2; 40, Mogochino-1; 41, Suvorovo-4; 42, Gorbatka-3.
“Microblade Adaptation” and Recolonization of Siberia 119
Figure 9.2. Lithic artifacts typical of late Upper Paleolithic sites in Siberia. a, c, End microblade cores; b, f, wedge-shaped
microblade cores; d, side scraper; e, g, end scrapers; h, burin; i, j, bifaces (Sosnovyi Bor: a, b, g, h, i, j; Kokorevo-3: c, e;
Novoselovo-6: d, f).
120 Ted Goebel
blades, associated with bones of woolly mammoth, horse,
reindeer, woolly rhinoceros, bison, and fox (Petrin 1986).
A sample of bone, subjected to conventional radiocar-
bon dating, yielded an age of 20,150 ± 240 B.P. (SOAN-
1513), but the excavator of the site, V. Petrin, concludes
that this determination is “somewhat too ancient” and
that the associated microblade industry more likely dates
around 17,000–16,000 B.P. (Petrin 1986:102, 117). The
microblade-bearing horizon lies unconformably on a bed
of late Middle Pleistocene sand, is heavily soliflucted
and cryoturbated, and is covered by a redeposited
“sapropel” (peat-like) deposit that has been convention-
ally radiocarbon dated to 27,300 ± 400 (GIN-1701) and
34,200 ± 1,300 B.P. (GIN-1702) (Petrin 1986:80). I agree
with Petrin that we should not be too quick to accept the
single bone determination on the late Upper Paleolithic
cultural component, not only because of the vagaries of
conventionally dating bone, but also because of the site’s
problematic geologic context. The presence of woolly
rhinoceros remains (which became extinct in Siberia
early in the late glacial), however, does suggest that the
Mogochino-1 cultural component likely dates to early in
the late glacial.
In the Yenisei basin, in south-central Siberia, the
earliest radiocarbon-dated wedge-shaped core industry
is at Afontova Gora-2, located on the outskirts of
Krasnoiarsk along the Yenisei River. V. Gromov discov-
ered Afontova Gora-2 in 1912; he, N. Auerbakh, and G.
Sosnovskii conducted large-scale excavations there in
1923–1925, exposing two Upper Paleolithic cultural
components with microblades and extinct fauna
(Abramova et al. 1991:97). During a geologists’ field
trip in 1962, a sample of charcoal was collected from an
exposed profile at the site and conventionally radiocar-
bon dated to 20,900 ± 300 B.P. (GIN-117), leading Tseitlin
(1979) to conclude that the lower cultural component
dates to just before the LGM. Abramova et al. (1991;
see also Abramova 1979b), however, argue that the ra-
diocarbon-dated sample cannot be reliably associated
with either of the cultural components and, on the basis
of comparisons with other sites in the Yenisei basin, that
the lower microblade component probably was depos-
ited after the LGM, about 16,000 B.P.
The Angara region has several microblade industries
that have been proposed to predate 18,000 B.P. The most
compelling of these is Krasnyi-Iar-1, located along the
southern Angara River. This multicomponent site occurs
in well-stratified alluvial deposits and has two sets of
cultural occupations with microblades. The upper set
(cultural components I–IV) is associated with a paleosol
stratigraphically assigned to the Kokorevo interstade,
independently dated to about 14,000–13,000 B.P. The
lower set (cultural components V–VII) is associated with
periglacial alluvium assigned to the LGM, 19,000–18,000
B.P. (Tseitlin 1979). This early age assignment is sup-
ported by the occurrence of woolly rhinoceros remains,
as well as a single radiocarbon determination of 19,000
± 100 B.P. (GIN-5530) from component VI (Medvedev
1998). Medvedev (1998:131) calls the artifact assem-
blage from layer VI “unique” for central Siberia because
it contains large quartzite cores and scrapers, as well as
ostrich eggshell ornaments, and because wedge-shaped
microblade core technology occurs here at such an early
date, much earlier than anywhere else in the Angara re-
gion. He cautiously concludes that the early assemblages
from Krasnyi-Iar-1 are “poor” and “morphologically in-
definite” (Medvedev 1998:137). Other purported early
microblade sites in the Angara region include Ust’-Kova
(upper complex) and Kurla-3 (component 2). Kuzmin and
Orlova (1998) report a new radiocarbon age on charcoal
of 19,540 ± 90 B.P. (SOAN-1900) for the microblade in-
dustry at Ust’-Kova, but this obviously does not con-
form with a prior determination on charcoal of 14,220 ±
100 B.P. (LE-1372) for the same assemblage (Vasil’evskii
et al. 1988). The Kurla-3 (layer 2) microblade industry
has a single radiocarbon age (from a small sample of
charcoal) of 24,060 ± 5,700 B.P. (SOAN-1397), but the
large standard error makes this determination unreli-
able (Kuzmin and Orlova 1998). The microblades at both
Ust’-Kova and Kurla-3 are probably much younger than
implied by their early radiocarbon ages, but the early
components at Krasnyi-Iar-1 may very well date to
19,000 B.P., suggesting an appearance of microblade tech-
nology in the southern Angara region at the height of the
last glacial. More radiocarbon determinations, however,
are necessary to confirm this.
Sokhatino-4, located near the city of Chita in the
eastern Transbaikal region, was excavated in the 1970s
by I. Kirillov (Okladnikov and Kirillov 1980). His exca-
vations revealed a rich inventory of wedge-shaped cores,
microblades, and bifaces, in association with a diverse
faunal assemblage including woolly mammoth, roe deer,
red deer, and moose (Okladnikov and Kirillov 1980:51).
Two conventional radiocarbon determinations have been
reported for the site; one is a determination of 11,900 ±
130 B.P. (SOAN-841) on bone and the other is a determi-
nation of 26,110 ± 200 B.P. (SOAN-1138) on charcoal.
Although Okladnikov and Kirillov (1980:51) prefer the
older of the two determinations, I agree with Abramova
(1989:220) that the rich bifacial character of the indus-
try and the presence of moose and roe deer, commonly
associated with forest habitats, suggest that the industry
“Microblade Adaptation” and Recolonization of Siberia 121
more likely dates to the end of the late glacial, after
Mochanov (1977, 1978) has suggested that micro-
blade technology emerged in eastern Yakutia long be-
fore the LGM, based on evidence from three key sites:
Ikhine-2, Ust’-Mil’-2, and Ezhantsy. Evidence from these
“Proto-Diuktai” sites, however, has seen repeated criti-
cism in both the Russian and American archaeological
literature (Abramova 1979a, 1989; Hopkins et al. 1982;
Kuzmin and Orlova 1998; Kuzmin and Tankersley 1996;
Yi and Clark 1985). Briefly, these sites appear to be in
secondary contexts, so that radiocarbon ages associ-
ated with lithic industries cannot be reliably con-
nected, and in the case of Ust’-Mil’-2 and Ikhine-2, the
excavated assemblages are exceedingly small and do
not contain unequivocal artifacts one would consider
representative of a microblade industry. Verkhne
Troitskaia, which yielded a small yet unequivocal
microblade assemblage with radiocarbon determinations
of about 18,000 B.P. (Mochanov 1977), may indicate an
early late glacial appearance of microblade technology
in Yakutia, yet even this site likely occurs in a second-
ary context so that associated radiocarbon ages should
be treated with caution.
The most ancient microblade industry in the Rus-
sian Far East comes from Ust’-Ulma-1, located along the
Selemdzha River, a major northern tributary of the Amur
River. This site has yielded a conventional radiocarbon
age of 19,360 ± 65 B.P. (SOAN-2619) on charcoal
(Derev’anko 1998). This is the only determination from
the site, however, and microblades come from a fairly
shallow (<1 m) context. More information on the dated
sample and its association with cultural remains is
needed, as are additional radiocarbon determinations, in
order to fully evaluate the site’s age.
Thus, the evidence for wedge-shaped core and
microblade technologies predating the LGM is meager.
Age assignments for these putative early sites are not
well founded because of inconsistent radiocarbon deter-
minations, problematic geologic contexts, or single ra-
diocarbon ages that obviously need to be replicated. As
a result, I argue that we need to consider a more con-
servative chronology that is based on
sites with multiple and consistent ra-
diocarbon determinations that come
from cultural features and are un-
equivocally associated with clear
wedge-shaped core and microblade
industries. When constructed under
these constraints, the chronology of
microblade technology in Siberia be-
comes much shorter. No wedge-shaped
core and microblade industries can be
shown convincingly to date to before
18,000 B.P. (Figure 9.3).
According to the short chronology
proposed here, the earliest unequivo-
cally dated wedge-shaped core and
microblade industries in Siberia occur
in the southern Baikal region. The evi-
dence comes from two sites located
along the Chikoi River, a major tribu-
tary of the Selenga River (which flows
into Lake Baikal): Ust’-Menza-2 and
Studenoe-2. Ust’-Menza-2 was exca-
vated by M. Konstantinov during the late
1980s to early 1990s and has yielded a
series of late Upper Paleolithic cultural
components in a well-stratified set of
overbank flood deposits. The upper
cultural components have radiocarbon
determinations ranging from 16,900 to
Figure 9.3. Frequency of late Upper Paleolithic archaeological sites by 1,000-
year intervals. Note lack of sites between 19,000 and 18,000 B.P., low frequencies
of sites between 18,000 and 16,000 B.P., and high frequencies between 16,000
and 11,000 B.P.
122 Ted Goebel
14,800 B.P., while the two lowermost components have
been radiocarbon dated to 17,600 ± 250 and 16,980 ±
150 B.P., respectively (Konstantinov 1994). These are
conventional determinations run on wood charcoal from
hearths, and they are clearly associated with wedge-
shaped cores and microblades. More recently, Konstan-
tinov’s team has been excavating at Studenoe-2, another
site with a series of stratigraphically distinct cultural
components spanning the late glacial. Michael Waters,
Ian Buvit, and I participated in these excavations in 1996
and have since been involved in geoarchaeological and
dating studies of the site. Accelerator radiocarbon dat-
ing has led to the following determinations for the early
microblade industries at the site: 17,165 ± 115 B.P. (AA-
23657) for cultural component 5 and 17,775 ± 115 (AA-
23655) and 17,885 ± 120 B.P. (AA-23653) for cultural
component 4/5. These determinations are on wood char-
coal from hearths in dwelling features (Buvit 2000;
Goebel et al. 2000; Konstantinov 1994). Thus, in the
southern Baikal region bordering central Mongolia,
wedge-shaped core and microblade technology has been
clearly documented to have emerged by 17,500 B.P., im-
mediately following the LGM.
As one moves away from the southern Baikal area,
the earliest unequivocal microblade technologies appear
to get progressively younger (Figure 9.1). The earliest
clearly dated microblade site in the Yenisei basin is
Maininskaia east locus (layer 5), radiocarbon dated to
16,500 B.P. (Drozdov et al. 1990). Other early sites (i.e.,
Maininskaia main locus, Novoselovo-7, Kokorevo-4b,
Kurtak-3, Oznachennoe-1) fall between 15,500 and
15,000 B.P. (Abramova et al. 1991; Drozdov et al. 1990).
In the Ob’ basin, farther to the west, the earliest micro-
blades are even younger, dating to after 14,500 B.P. at
Chernoozer’e-2 (although this site may be closer to
12,000 B.P. in age) (Petrin 1986). Similarly, to the east
in the Amur/Primor’e region of the Russian Far East,
the earliest sites with clear microblade industries may
include Suvorovo-4 (15,000 B.P.) and Gorbatka-3 (less
than 13,500 B.P.) (Kuzmin et al. 1994). The same pattern
holds true in the north in Yakutia and Beringia. In
Yakutia, if Verkhne Troitskaia and the “Proto-Diuktai”
sites are discounted, then the earliest reliably dated
microblade industries are as young as 16,000 B.P. or
younger. These sites include Khaergas Cave (16,000 B.P.)
(Kostiukevich and Dneprovskaia 1990:182), Diuktai
Cave (14,000–13,000 B.P.) (Mochanov 1977), and
Avdeikha (13,000 B.P.) (Mochanov 1978:64) (Figure 9.1).
In Beringia, finally, microblades appear at the end of the
late glacial, about 10,700 B.P., in Kamchatka (at Ushki)
and central Alaska (at Dry Creek) (Dikov 1977; Goebel
and Slobodin 1999; Hamilton and Goebel 1999; Powers
and Hoffecker 1989).
The short chronology presented here suggests that
in northern Asia, microblades appeared first in the south-
ern Baikal region, at or just following the LGM, between
18,000 and 17,000 B.P. Shortly after this time, between
16,000 and 14,000 B.P., microblades appeared in the
Yenisei region to the west, the Amur region to the east,
and Yakutia to the north. This technology finally ap-
peared in Beringia around 11,000–10,000 B.P., spread-
ing across Alaska and northwest Canada in the early
Holocene (Hoffecker et al. 1993). This spread of micro-
blade technology between 18,000 and 11,000 B.P. may
represent the recolonization of Siberia by modern hu-
mans following the LGM.
What Are the Origins of Siberian
There are basically two possible answers to the ques-
tion of Siberian microblade origins. Siberian microblade
technologies have their source either in some local Sibe-
rian antecedent or in some neighboring region of East or
Central Asia (i.e., Mongolia, China, or the East Asian
maritime region). The most likely local antecedent is the
Siberian middle Upper Paleolithic complex, represented
at sites like Mal’ta, Igeteiskii Log, Ui-1, and Kashatanka,
all dating to between about 25,000 and 20,000 B.P. These
sites show a tendency toward microlithization that is
characterized by narrow bladelets detached from small
prismatic cores (Goebel 1999; Vasil’ev 1993). Some of
the bladelets found in these sites fit the proportions typi-
cal of later microblades; however, in the middle Upper
Paleolithic the small cores and blades appear to be the
result of intensive core reduction related to raw material
economization, not the result of a distinct technological
system as in the late Upper Paleolithic. Although it is
possible that late Upper Paleolithic wedge-shaped core
and microblade technologies ultimately evolved from
such a prismatic blade reduction system, other evidence
suggests that instead they developed outside Siberia and
spread into the region sometime after the LGM.
When we consider the frequency of radiocarbon-
dated Upper Paleolithic sites in Siberia through time,
from about 35,000 to 11,000 B.P., it becomes obvious
that there is a hiatus coincident with the LGM, 19,000–
18,000 B.P. (Figure 9.3) (Goebel 1999). This hiatus is
critical because it is around this time that full-fledged
microblade technologies emerged. Currently there are
only three sites, Tomsk, Shlenka, and Tarachikha, with
radiocarbon ages within this 19,000–18,000 B.P. inter-
“Microblade Adaptation” and Recolonization of Siberia 123
val, and none of these are firm. Tomsk was excavated
over a century ago, and the single conventional determi-
nation of 18,000 ± 1,000 B.P. was obtained on an archived
charcoal sample collected in 1896 (Tseitlin 1979). The
association of this charcoal to the mammoth that pre-
sumably was killed at Tomsk cannot be clearly demon-
strated. Shlenka has a single cultural component with four
radiocarbon ages ranging from 22,800 to 17,600 B.P.; only
one of these falls within the 19,000 to 18,000 B.P. inter-
val (Vasil’ev 1992). The real age of the site is probably
close to 20,000 B.P. Tarachikha has two determinations—
19,800 ± 180 and 18,900 ± 320 B.P.—that together sug-
gest an age a few centuries earlier than 19,000 B.P.
(Kuzmin and Orlova 1998). Thus, it seems that Siberia
became devoid of human populations during the LGM,
so that late Upper Paleolithic microblade industries post-
dating the LGM represent the recolonization of Siberia
by an exotic population of humans. The precise origin
of this population is unclear, but the proximal source
could have been central Mongolia, immediately south of
Lake Baikal, where it seems that the earliest microblades
in Siberia appeared (as discussed in the previous section
of this chapter). We know next to nothing about Pale-
olithic central Mongolia, however, so at this time this
scenario is not well supported.
How Can We Characterize the Siberian
About 20 late Upper Paleolithic sites in Siberia have
been extensively excavated, reported, and radiocarbon
dated. Examinations of spatial organization, technolo-
gies and tool forms, and faunal remains of these sites
suggest that Siberian late Upper Paleolithic populations
were highly mobile hunter-gatherers who focused largely
on large mammal resources.
Late Upper Paleolithic sites are typically small, and
preserved features and artifact distributions suggest short-
term occupations. Most sites have multiple components
(e.g., Listvenka, Maininskaia) or more than one locus
(e.g., Kokorevo, Ust’-Menza), however, suggesting re-
peated returns to key locations. In the upper Yenisei ba-
sin, most sites dating to the late glacial have only small
hearths with limited accumulations of cultural debris, and
storage pits are for the most part absent (Abramova et al.
1991; Vasil’ev 1996). Dwelling features are rare, too,
but do occur at Ui-2 and Listvenka as partial rings of
stones with central hearths (Abramova et al. 1991;
Drozdov et al. 1990; Vasil’ev 1996). These are inter-
preted to be remains of light surface tents (Vasil’ev 1996)
but could also be windbreaks. In the Transbaikal, sev-
eral late Upper Paleolithic sites (i.e., Ust’-Menza-2,
Studenoe-2) have yielded well-preserved dwelling fea-
tures (Goebel et al. 2000; Konstantinov 1994). These are
circular to oval stone rings typically 4 to 5 m in diameter
with central stone-lined hearths, thin archaeological
floors (less than 1 cm thick), and light accumulations of
cultural debris (Konstantinov 1994; Kuznetsov 1996).
Again clear storage pits are absent. Kuznetsov (1996)
suggests these features are remains of surface huts that
were occupied for short episodes, perhaps single sea-
sons. Seasonality studies, however, have not yet been
conducted on faunal assemblages from these sites, so
we cannot readily determine the time of year that people
inhabited these residential camps or the duration of the
occupations. The redundant occurrence of small camp-
sites, near absence of storage technology, and light char-
acter of preserved dwelling features, however, suggest
that late Upper Paleolithic Siberians were highly mo-
bile—much more mobile than earlier populations (i.e.,
the Mal’ta complex), who often built large semised-
entary dwellings, dug deep storage pits, and occupied
large residential camps for relatively lengthy periods
Studies of lithic artifacts can lend important infor-
mation about lithic resource procurement and settlement
mobility (Bamforth 1986; Kuhn 1995; Odell 1996; Parry
and Kelly 1987; Shott 1986), but late Upper Paleolithic
assemblages in Siberia have not been subjected to such
analyses. We know very little about raw material pro-
curement, transport of tools, and functions of various
artifact forms, and in most cases we do not even know
ratios of retouched tools to unretouched flakes and blades
(because debitage has not always been systematically
collected in Siberian excavations). Frequencies of tool
types, however, have been reported for most sites, so we
can calculate the relative amount of formal and informal
tools, a variable that may indicate relative degree of
mobility or occupation duration (Andrefsky 1998; Parry
and Kelly 1987; Torrence 1983). Formal tools are those
lithic artifacts that display intentional, invasive retouch
suggesting that they were produced in advance of use
(e.g., bifacial points and knives, scrapers, gravers), while
informal tools are expedient, marginally retouched tools
that were produced as needs arose (e.g., retouched flakes
and blades). High frequencies of formal tools are thought
to represent, at least in some cases, shorter occupations
and higher degrees of residential mobility. I have calcu-
lated frequencies of formal and informal tools from a
series of Siberian late Upper Paleolithic sites (Table 9.1)
and compared them with those of several earlier Upper
Paleolithic sites. It is obvious that late Upper Paleolithic
124 Ted Goebel
sites have higher frequencies of formal tools than early
Upper Paleolithic sites; this very well could be a reflec-
tion of higher mobility in the late Upper Paleolithic.
Some researchers also consider that mobile hunter-
gatherers typically produced high frequencies of formal
tools that served multiple functions. In North American
Paleoindian assemblages, bifaces fit this category; they
are thought to represent both cores and knives (Kelly
1988). Perhaps wedge-shaped microblade cores played
a similar role in Siberian late Upper Paleolithic toolkits.
Wedge-shaped cores were often manufactured on split
or fragmented bifaces, and bifacial margins often show
traces of retouching and wear probably the result of their
use as knives (Dikov and Kononenko 1990). Fastening
of the core in a vise while detaching microblades
(Flenniken 1987), however, could cause wear on the
bottoms of many wedge-shaped cores, but there is no
evidence that late Upper Paleolithic flintknappers used
vises in this way. Similarly, many “end” (or tortsovyi)
cores (i.e., microblade cores made on flakes) have
counter-fronts with clear unifacial scraper retouch (Fig-
ure 9.2, c). It would seem, therefore, that microblade
cores often served as multipurpose tools, perhaps a fur-
ther sign of late Upper Paleolithic mobility.
Another interesting feature of the Siberian late Up-
per Paleolithic is an overall lack of portable art. There
are several cases of slotted points and awls with incised
designs (Abramova et al. 1991; Okladnikov and Kirillov
1980), a few ivory discs with scratches or incisions that
are probably pendant preforms (Medvedev 1998), and
a clay human statuette from the Maininskaia site
(Vasil’ev 1996). These artworks of the late Upper Pale-
olithic, however, pale in comparison with those from sites
of the preceding Mal’ta culture (Goebel 1999; Medvedev
1998). Perhaps this also suggests higher mobility in the
late Upper Paleolithic, or at least shorter stays at resi-
Most of what we know about late Upper Paleolithic
subsistence comes from the Yenisei region of south-
central Siberia and is based primarily on the work of
N.M. Ermolova (1978). In the Minusinsk depression,
along the Yenisei River between the cities of Krasnoiarsk
and Abakan, reindeer dominate the faunal assemblages
from late Upper Paleolithic sites (Figure 9.4). At Ko-
korevo-2, in layers 2 and 3, reindeer bones make up about
63 percent of the faunal assemblages and about 30 per-
cent of the individuals represented (Ermolova 1978), and
at Novoselovo-6 and Novoselovo-7, reindeer bones make
up about 98 percent of the faunal assemblages. Farther
south along the upper Yenisei River, in the Saian Moun-
tains, reindeer are not as common. At Maininskaia, for
example, faunal assemblages from each cultural compo-
Table 9.1. Frequency of formal and informal tools in Siberian late Upper Paleolithic sites
*Excluding cobble tools and wedges, which may be cores.
Site Frequency of Informal Tools Frequency of Formal Tools* Total Tools Reference
Late Upper Paleolithic
Sosnovyi Bor, comp. 5 21 30.9 47 69.1 68 This study
Tashtyk-1, comp. 3 26 18.7 113 81.3 139 Abramova 1979b
Tashtyk-1, comp. 2 10 12.8 68 87.2 78 Abramova 1979b
Kokorevo-2 76 32.9 155 67.1 231 Abramova 1979b
Maininskaia, comp. 3 44 32.6 91 67.4 135 Vasil'ev 1996
Maininskaia, comp. 4 21 18.8 91 81.3 112 Vasil'ev 1996
Total 198 26.0 565 74.0 763
Early Upper Paleolithic
Sosnovyi Bor, comp. 6 20 57.1 15 42.9 35 Goebel 1993
Kara-Bom 113 48.9 118 51.1 231 Goebel 1993
Arembovskii 17 37.0 29 63.0 46 Goebel 1993
Makarovo-4 191 71.8 75 28.2 266 Goebel 1993
Varvarina Gora 52 37.4 87 62.6 139 Goebel 1993
Tolbaga 259 42.3 354 57.7 613 Goebel 1993
Total 652 49.0 678 51.0 1330
“Microblade Adaptation” and Recolonization of Siberia 125
Figure 9.4. Relative frequencies of faunal remains represented in Siberian late Upper Paleolithic sites (see Figure 9.1 for locations and approximate ages of
these sites). Data represent numbers of individual specimens present (NISP); data representing minimum number of individuals (MNI) are not available for all
of these sites, so are not presented here. References are provided in the text.
126 Ted Goebel
nent are dominated by a different large-mammal spe-
cies—Siberian mountain goat, red deer, or bison. In the
Transbaikal, preliminary reports on faunal assemblages
from the Ust’-Menza and Studenoe sites indicate that late
Upper Paleolithic populations concentrated on the hunt-
ing of red deer (Kuznetsov 1996). Thus, hunting of
cervids seems to have been an important facet of late
Upper Paleolithic subsistence, although bison and horse
also occur at most sites.
Woolly mammoth remains occur much less fre-
quently in late Upper Paleolithic sites. In fact, I know of
only six radiocarbon-dated late Upper Paleolithic sites
in southern Siberia that have yielded mammoth remains:
Volch’ia Griva, Shikaevka-2, Listvenka, Kokorevo-2,
Afontova Gora-2, and Sosnovyi Bor. At Volch’ia Griva,
located in the Barabin steppe of southwest Siberia, more
than 1,000 mammoth bones were excavated, but only two
flakes and four small bladelets were associated with them
(Petrin 1986). The Listvenka remains have yet to be de-
scribed in detail, but preliminary reports indicate that
only ivory occurs in most layers (Akimova et al. 1992);
the same is true at Sosnovyi Bor (Lezhnenko et al. 1982).
Perhaps the ivory present in these sites resulted from
scavenging of mammoth tusk. Only Kokorevo-2 and
Shikaevka-2 have an abundance of mammoth bones in
clear archaeological contexts. At Kokorevo-2, at least
seven individual mammoths are represented in the fau-
nal assemblage, making up about 30 percent of the bones
recovered from the site (Figure 9.4) (Ermolova 1978),
and at Shikaevka-2, two mammoths appear to have been
killed and partially butchered (Petrin 1986). The latter
site may be the only documented case of a mammoth kill
site for the late Upper Paleolithic of Siberia.
Another interesting pattern in the late Upper Pale-
olithic of Siberia is that hare (Lepus sp.) appears to have
been an economically important fauna. Nearly all of the
Yenisei sites have specimens of hare represented, and at
Kokorevo-4b there are more bones and individuals at-
tributable to hare than to most species of large mammals
present (only reindeer occurs in higher numbers) (Fig-
ure 9.4). Other smaller-sized mammals that recur at many
sites include red fox, wolf (or dog), wolverine, and polar
fox, and remains of birds have been found at Kokorevo-
1, Kokorevo-2, Kokorevo-4b, and Maininskaia
(Abramova et al. 1991; Ermolova 1978; Vasil’ev 1996).
Fish are absent from these sites and do not appear until
the very end of the Upper Paleolithic, in sites like
Oshurkovo, Ust’-Belaia, and Ust’-Kiakhta-17 after about
12,000 B.P. (Tashak 1996).
Overall, the internal organization of sites, artifact
inventories, technologies, and faunal remains of the late
Upper Paleolithic suggest a high-mobility adaptation.
Microblade cores may have frequently served as multi-
purpose tools, and the preponderance of formal tools in
late Upper Paleolithic assemblages may represent a high
degree of tool curation by mobile hunter-gatherers.
Nearly all sites are dominated by single mammal spe-
cies, and many saw repeated short-term occupations. The
absence of storage pits and dugout dwellings, as well as
the near absence of art objects, also suggests that these
were not long-term base camps. Instead they represent
short-term camps of mobile foraging groups who repeat-
edly used the same places to procure seasonal resources,
such as migrating reindeer.
Can we go further and characterize late Upper Pale-
olithic hunter-gatherer mobility as either logistical or
residential (sensu Binford 1980)? At this point the an-
swer is no. More detailed intersite comparisons are
necessary to clearly define variability in assemblages,
features, activities, and durations of occupations. With-
out these data, we cannot establish site types and cannot
characterize specifics of late Upper Paleolithic settlement
organization. Further, Siberian environments during the
late glacial were highly variable across space and con-
stantly changing through time, making it highly prob-
able that hunter-gatherer land use varied as well.
In Europe, another area where microlithic technolo-
gies were widespread during the late glacial, archaeolo-
gists repeatedly have demonstrated the complex nature
of late Upper Paleolithic subsistence, settlement, and
social organization. In southwest Germany, on the one
hand, Magdalenian hunter-gatherers were logistically
mobile, making short seasonal moves between spring-
summer and autumn-winter camps, perhaps in response
to relatively short reindeer migrations (Eriksen 1996;
Weniger 1987). In southwest France, on the other hand,
Magdalenian reindeer hunters appear to have been highly
mobile and “territorially extensive” (Straus 1996:95), so
much so that Bahn (1977) has argued that Magdalenian
settlement moves spanned hundreds of kilometers be-
tween the Périgord and Pyrenees regions. Likewise, the
extensive late Upper Paleolithic sites of Pincevent and
Verberie in the Paris basin are thought to represent mi-
gration camps of far-ranging Magdalenian hunters
(Audouze 1987). Obviously, if such variation existed in
the late Upper Paleolithic record of western and central
Europe, the same could be true for Siberia. The data pre-
sented here support the notion that late Upper Paleolithic
Siberians were more mobile than their pre-LGM coun-
terparts, but more detailed characterizations of this high-
mobility adaptation must await further analyses of lithic
technologies and site patterning.
“Microblade Adaptation” and Recolonization of Siberia 127
Through the above review of the Siberian late Up-
per Paleolithic, I offer the following conclusions, drawn
from patterns noted in the available data.
1. Microblade technology is a late glacial phenom-
enon in Siberia, with the earliest well-dated wedge-
shaped core and microblade industries occurring in the
southern Baikal region about 17,500 B.P. Sites with
microblades that are thought to predate 18,000 B.P. are
in poor contexts, have inconsistent radiocarbon deter-
minations, or only have single radiocarbon determina-
tions that need to be replicated.
2. The appearance of microblade technologies across
Siberia following the LGM represents human recolo-
nization of northern Asia during the late glacial. The
hiatus in the archaeological record between 19,000 and
18,000 B.P. suggests that humans left Siberia during the
LGM and that microblade technology originated in tem-
perate Asia, perhaps in central or eastern Mongolia.
3. The redundant occurrence of short-term residen-
tial camps and the absence of long-term villages or base
camps suggest that these late glacial colonizers of Si-
beria existed as small groups of highly mobile hunter-
gatherers who frequently moved their camps to where
important animal resources were available. Debris ac-
cumulations are small, dwellings are ephemeral, and key
locations were repeatedly utilized.
4. Lithic industries during the late Upper Paleolithic
were organized to facilitate mobility. Late Upper Pale-
olithic stone artifact assemblages are characterized by
high frequencies of formal tools, and microblade cores
appear to have functioned as multipurpose tools.
5. Faunal data suggest that late Upper Paleolithic
folk concentrated subsistence pursuits on a small set of
large- or medium-bodied prey. Although sites typically
have more than one species represented, faunal assem-
blages are typically dominated by single prey species,
for example, reindeer, red deer, or bison, suggesting a
degree of hunting specialization. After 12,000 B.P., fish-
ing appears, indicating a broadening of the resource base
as the late glacial came to a close.
These conclusions should be considered as working
hypotheses that, it is hoped, will incite discussion and
continued research. Obviously there is a need for more
detailed research into the Siberian late Upper Paleolithic.
Early microblade sites thought to date to before or dur-
ing the LGM need to be reexamined and redated. Search
for late Upper Paleolithic sites in central and eastern
Mongolia needs to be initiated, in order to examine the
potential for finding sites there that might span the LGM
and reveal important evidence concerning the origins of
microblade technology. Finally, new and detailed analy-
ses of lithic and faunal assemblages need to be accom-
plished, in order to address questions concerning human
ecology and adaptation during the late glacial. Were
Siberia’s late Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherers logisti-
cally or residentially mobile? An answer to this question
cannot be found without detailed intersite assemblage
comparisons. If we are ever to fully understand the evo-
lution of human adaptations and the process of the
recolonization of Siberia during the late glacial, we
need to know more about lithic raw material procure-
ment and organization of technology, as well as sea-
sonal subsistence and settlement behavior for the late
Upper Paleolithic. We need to look at all aspects of the
archaeological record, no matter how minute, and focus
on individual archaeological sites and their specific eco-
logical contexts, in order to fully understand the
“microblade adaptation.” In other words, we need to be
Special thanks to my colleagues in Russia who over
the years have invited me to participate in archaeologi-
cal excavations and to study lithic artifact assemblages.
In this case, they include E. Akimova, M. Aksenov, A.
Derevianko, N. Dikov, N. Drozdov, M. Konstantinov,
S. Markin, G. Medvedev, and R. Vasil’evskii. My re-
search in the Transbaikal has been supported by the Na-
tional Science Foundation and Wenner-Gren Foundation
for Anthropological Research. Thanks also to R. Elston
and S. Kuhn for inviting me to participate in the mi-
crolith symposium at the 1999 meetings of the Soci-
ety for American Archaeology and to R. Powers, D.
Yesner, and J. Hoffecker for their helpful comments on
early drafts of this paper. Most of all, I want to express
my gratitude to John P. Cook, who more than anyone
else has helped me to recognize the importance of
microblades in the archaeological record of the north,
no matter the age or context.
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