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THE SIBERIAN PALAEOLITHIC SITE OF MAL’TA:
A UNIQUE SOURCE FOR THE STUDY OF CHILDHOOD ARCHAEOLOGY
1 Graduate School of International Relations
Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University, Russia
2 Novosibirsk State University
As a gendered perspective has emerged in wider society over the past fifty or so years, a
greater interest in gender and age-related research in science has similarly occurred, including
for the study of the past (archaeology) and the present (ethnology). Here, I focus on the Mal’ta
collection - a well-known Ice Age site located in Siberia. In particular, I focus on several
mammoth ivory anthropomorphic sculptures which appear to reflect stages of human childhood,
including infancy and the teenage years. These sculptures feature realistic elements, including
proportions of each phase of childhood consistent with anthropometric data, details of clothing
and accessories, and special benchmarks of puberty. Based on these figurines, I propose a
developmental framework of the Paleolithic child from this society. Additionally, I discuss the
burial of two children also found at Mal’ta which provides additional insights into childhood
within this Ice Age society. Particular attention is given to artefacts such as the “hanging birds”
and animal figurines with a flat base for standing. These artefacts could be interpreted as toys, as
amulets for a child's cradle, or as family heirlooms, with analogies of such objects preserved in
the cultures of the aboriginal. population of Siberia and the Far North.
Gender; age; society; anthropomorphic figurines; Upper Paleolithic; Prehistory Art.
Childhood archaeology is trending in archaeology, cultural anthropology, and
ethnography, unfortunately — and as elsewhere — investigating past childhoods has not
received due attention in Russia, except in bioarchaeology which has studied burials of children
in the contexts of large Bronze Age necropolises (for example, investigations by A. Buzhilova et
all). In the modern anthropology of childhood, researchers pay attention to the peculiarities of
behavior and relationships with other members of society, the processes of play and creativity, as
well as material culture. These aspects have not been extended to Russian archaeological
records, however, and in this regard, I would like to express special gratitude to the meeting at
Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia (2019) which helped to focus my attention on these
aspects in relations to the recovered materials from the Siberian Paleolithic assemblage of
Mal’ta is a multilayered archeological site in the Baikal region of Siberia (Fig.1:1-3)
with cultural deposits ranging from 43,000 – 41,000 to 12,000 uncal years BP (Lipnina, 2012).
The main collection of finds was recovered during the excavations led by M. Gerasimov in
1928–1958 (Gerasimov, 1958), before current excavations, directed by G. I. Medvedev and E.
A. Lipnina, focused on dating, micro-stratigraphy, and cultural differentiation of the
assemblages. According to the investigations of Gerasimov, the “classic” Mal’ta layer contained
a “Gravettian-like” lithic industry with stone and ivory objects recovered from some 15 dwelling
structures, all dating from 19,000 to 23,000 uncal years BP (Gerasimov, 1958; Lipnina, 2012;
Kuzmin et al., 2011; Lbova et al., 2017, etc.). These finds were found to correspond to layers 8
and 9 — an initial stage of the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) owing to recent sections cut
during current excavations by G. Medvedev (Lipnina, 2012). This collection contains more than
13,000 artefacts, of which more than 850 items are considered wholly unique evidence for the
culture and art of a Paleolithic population. In addition to anthropomorphic figurines, the Mal’ta
collection contains over eight-hundred ivory and bone artefacts including different figurines,
numerous pendants, objects with ornamental decoration, ivory and stone bracelets, perforated
disks, beads, and ivory plaques engraved with the representation of a mammoth, and nail-like
pins in the same archaeological context (Fig.1 - 4).
Fig 1. Mal 1 - general location, 2 - Baikal region location; 3 modern topographical situation; 4 plan of M.
excavation (Child figurines are circled in red (N3, 4, 13, 16, 19, 23, 24, 26); black mark in center of
the plan child burial place (the drawing by H. Kato, based on plan by Medvedev G. 2001).
The technocomplexes of the Upper Paleolithic are based on advanced blade technologies
with rich, diversified lithic, bone, and antler tools predominate. The classic Mal'ta assemblage
includes many ‘archaic' components such as side scrapers, pebble tools, and Levallois and
discoid cores. As such, the Mal'ta Culture is now regarded as having local roots (Medvedev et
al., 1996, Medvedev, 2001; Derevyanko et al., 1998).
During the Upper Paleolithic, specifically during the Ice Age, like in other parts of the Old
World we see evidence for a flourishing culture of reindeer and mammoth hunters as evidenced
by diverse sets of stone blade industries, a rich series of artefacts of bone and antler implements,
personal. ornaments, and mobile art objects. To summaries, Mal’ta is a typica site of Siberian’s
Ice Age, especially for the middle of the Upper Paleolithic Period.
The Mal’ta collection contains more than 850 items of considerably unique evidence for
the culture and art of a Paleolithic population (Table 1). The mammoth ivory anthropomorphic
sculptures provide an opportunity to identify several stages of human childhood – from infancy
through to teenage-hood. The realistic style of the Mal’ta sculptures characterizes the figurines
and appears to correlate with anthropometric population data, provide details of clothing and
accessories, and indicate special benchmarks of puberty within the society. A framework for
how a child of this Paleolithic society progressed into adulthood is here proposed based on these
Materials and Results
Through combining microscopic analysis (Lbova & Volkov, 2016; Lbova et al., 2017)
with modern ethnographic data, it can be proposed that the analysis of these mobile art objects
are not only a source of information for the particular material culture of this Paleolithic
population of Siberia, but also enlighten the semantic context of mobile art in Mal’ta.
Thirty-two items in varying degrees of readiness and disposal represent anthropomorphic
figurines. The collection contains blanks, objects at the processing stage, objects with some
engraved parts, and objects ornamented in part or in full. The figurines which are engraved can
be broken into the following:
1. Three-dimensional figures, with shaped body parts — both with and without ornamental
elaboration (clothing, accessories);
2. Flat figures — with and without ornamentation; and
3. Heads — with ornamentation.
Engraved or carved ornamentation is found on the head (n=16), the trunk (n=7), the feet
(n=2, though not including pieces that are engraved entirely), or the entire body (n=6) (Lbova,
Among the figurines of children, all of these sub-categories are present, except for isolated
heads. The selection of figures that we identified as images of children (infants, adolescents,
teenagers) is based on a number of indicators: the overall morphology and proportions of the
body, ornamentation and engraving of particular parts of the body, or a special kind of clothing.
Analysis of these aspects supports Gerasimov’s description of some of the figurines as “kinder-
garden” (toddlers, kinder garden-aged children). It should be noted that all the sculptures
assigned to the "child" group are ornamented, or otherwise engraved to display the main parts of
the body (particularly for teenagers) — they are never left blank. In this group, we can
confidently identify eight figurines that are definitely young children and adolescents (artefacts
are in size 2-5 cm) and two can be assigned as ‘probable teenage images’ (one from Mal’ta and
one from Buret’). Young children are determined by the proportions of the body and head,
whereas elongated limbs (legs) are seen as typical for identifying adolescents. A characteristic
feature for this group is the lack of breasts, which is always present on the adult female figures.
Microscopic analysis allows for identifying the different types of hats, hairstyles, shoes, and
accessories. These are depicted with thin lines made by a stone burin or other special type of
stone knife. The ancient artists used different techniques to highlight the different materials
depicted -- fur, leather, and special. symbols or decorations. In the realistic elements of clothing
and hats, we are apparently seeing details of traditional outerwear of these Ice Age peoples. The
most common outerwear depicted on the figurines are fur coveralls — "kerkery" which are worn
by children and women in the extreme North of Siberia in recent times (Fig.2 - 1, 2). For the
Mal’ta figurines, these overalls are more typical on smaller sculptures (2-5 cm in height).
Additionally, all of the figures dressed in overalls have a disproportionately large head, such
proportions typical for children under five years of age. In other words, these sculptures show
small children in clothes which may have been typical for them — overalls with high hoods. On
other sculptures, it is possible to see overalls made of guts, probably from fish or seals, which
people are known in recent times to have worn in the summer of this region (Fig.3 – 1, 2).
Fig. 2. Ivory figurine of a child in fur overall and ethnographic interpretations. 1 - Image of child figurines
from the collection of Mata (State Hermitage No370/752); 2 - ethnographic photo of the beginning XX century as
an evidence for similar types of clothing; 3 images of modern dolly in recent times.
Fig. 3. Ivory figurine of a child in overall and ethnographic interpretations. 1- Images of child figurines from
the collection of Malta (State Hermitage No370/753); 2- ethnographic evidence for similar types of clothing worn
by peoples of this same region in recent times (to: Bogoraz, 1904, fig.180); 3 images of modern Chukchee
summer clothes in recent times.
On two figurines, we can also see bags, and in one case, a traditional backpack with two
straps (one over each shoulder). The first figure is probably depicting a teenager, though has not
much detail so it is not clear if this figure is male or female, yet the proportions of the body
suggest that this figure is definitely a teenager. There is no indication of breasts on these pieces,
as found on the “kinder garden group”.
One of the more interesting details is a figurine which depicts a woman showing one nude
breast (Fig.4). This feature was noted in earlier studies where it was read as a symbol of death, or
representing an underground realm. On the one hand, this idea is owing to the fact that some
researchers believe the Mal’ta figurines are symbol of dead people. However, on the other hand,
we can find ethnographic analogy in the life of the modern Chukchi. As a rule, in summer,
nursing women do not cover one breast for constant readiness for feeding their baby (Bogoraz,
1904) (Fig.4 - 2). As such, we might reinterpret this figurine as a breastfeeding woman.
Fig. 4. 1- Image of an adult woman from the Mala Collection (Hermitage, No370/748); 2 - a photograph of
North native people Chukchi woman in summer (to: Bogoraz, 1904, plate XXVII, fig.3)
The use of red paint can be considered a specific technique that marks on the sculpture the
transition of children to adulthood, especially girls. One of the artefacts, the figurine of a
‘teenage girl’ appears to be dressed in a one-piece garment with hood, which covers the entire
body and head. This piece is an elongated thin figure. The surface of the statuette is covered with
thin horizontal lines and in the front and back exhibits triangles that imitate the pubis in front and
the tail in the back (this last significantly lower than the pubis). On the face, we see some traces
of working with a burin, while other areas are covered with polish. Decoration has been made
with a stone blade (Abramova, 1962; Lbova et al., 2017). The presence of scarlet pigment has
been detected using microscopy in the area under the tail, on the right thigh and on the right arm
(Fig.5 – 1 a, b).
Similarly, Buret’s image of a young girl with elongated body proportions (characteristic of
adolescents), was made from a small pebble of talc. Head, shoulders, body, and legs are all
depicted. Traces of a chisel are observed, used in forming the contour of the head; a burin was
used to engrave the details of the face (left eye) and the contour of the head, as well as to shape
the contour of the arms and legs, and the area of the bosom. Diagonal traces of a scraper are
found on the back of the head and on the legs in the buttocks area. The maker paid special
attention to the bosom zone, which has been carved with great care. Additional emphasis is also
found in the form of red coloring applied to the area (Fig.5 – 2 a, b).
Fig.5. Images of teenage girls: 1a Mal collection (N 1822/629 State Hermitage Museum). 2a -
collection 379, Irkutsk Regional Art Museum); 1b, 2b - macro photos (with a magnification of 10x, 20x) of the
painting area with ochre.
As published previously (Lbova et al. 2017; Lbova & Volkov 2017), different paints have
been identified on the surfaces of the Mal’ta's figurines (light rose, pink, red, green, blue, dark
blue). Spot of different colors were fixed during excavation, within the structures that retain
dwellings, and as well as on the surface of the cultural level. Coloristic picture of Mal'ta site
presents of using wide spread different natural mineral pigment and artificial paints in different
spheres of the live Mal'ta inhabitants, include attention to figurines of pubertal age girls.
The Child burial.
The children's burial at Mal.’ta is of particular interest when considering evidence for
childhood in Siberia’s Paleolithic record. The children's skeletons were buried within a slab
structure resembling a dug and lined grave (Fig.1). The bottom of the burial was covered with
red ocher. Various ornaments and utilitarian objects were found amongst the bones: fragments of
a tiara made of mammoth ivory, a rich necklace of 120 bone beads, a large oval-shaped pendant,
a round bone plaque with a zigzag pattern, and a sculpture of a flying bird. In addition to
jewelers, a number of stone tools, as well as a roughly processed flint knife, lay next to the child
(Fig.6). Gerasimov M. was firmly convinced that this inventory of artefacts could not belong to
the child themselves because of his age, 3-4 years-old (Gerasimov, 1931). Due to his young age,
the boy could hardly create or use them fully. However, there is an additional point of view that
such a funerary inventory may well speak of ideas about the afterlife initiation, and the rite of
passage into adulthood.
Fig. 6. Mal child burial; 1 Material of Gerasimov excavation (from Gerasimov, 1931); 2 8 - funerary
equipment (2- ornamented disk; 3 8-image pendant; 4 beads, 5 bracelet; 6 ivory point; 7 central. pendant;
8 bird-image pendant).
Objects of special meaning, which we consider as “prestigious technologies”, accompany
the remains of this child. It is worth noting that the necklace of the child testifies to various
technological and probably culturally bound, techniques for raw material processing. The
combination of objects within a single complex (burial) suggests a special cultural status of both
the deceased himself and the votive artefacts. However, such conclusions were made at a time
when children were not considered as an important object of study. Childhood researchers
suggest that such things could be considered as toys that children used in life, or objects of
special cultural. status (Sofaer Derevenski, 2000).
Thanks to paleogenetic studies (Raghavan et al., 2014), it is now known from mtDNA
isolated from the child’s genetic material, that its relationship with Europeans and American
Paleo-Indians is at an intermediate position. It is known that in the Mal’tese collection there are
other anthropological remains, including the teeth of another child in the burial, which can give
new data on the paleogenetic of this ancient population. The idea that the child can act as a
symbol connecting different groups of the population is not excluded. There are some facts need
to be studied and understood. Such a case is known from children's burials in Sungir-site,
Russian Plant, DNA analysis materials show a principally different ethnic genesis of each child,
who were placed in one grave (Bader 1967; Trinkaus et al., 2015; Sikora et al., 2017; Alekseeva
& Bader, 2000).
The artistic realism of Ice Age art presented in the Siberian Mal’ta collection allows for
various interpretations of their meaning. The identification of apparently realistic scenes (as
compared to modern ethnographic data), the decorated Paleolithic anthropomorphic sculptures
from Mal’ta leads me to the opinion that the chosen style was a way to represent the natural
patterns of human life. The choice of attributes reflects specific cultural, environmental, and
historical conditions behind this particular tradition of material culture (Abramova, 1966, 1995;
Delporte, 1979; Lipnina, 2012; Soffer et al., 2000; Filippov, 2004; Lbova et al., 2017; etc.).
After more than 150 years studying Paleolithic portable art, and especial.ly the
anthropomorphic figurines, several interpretations can be offered (Marshak, 1991; Barton et al.,
1994; Soffer et al., 2000; Art as Behavior, 2014; etc.). While some investigators instead support
the idea that they represent “magic wishes” of the owner or promising of sexual actions, or as a
nostalgia for the departed (deceased) person (Abramova, 1966; Frolov, 1987; Soffer et al., 2000;
etc.), here, I have supported the idea that the Mal’ta figurines may depict specific living people
(live-models). All figurines being copies or a portrait of a particular individual with
characteristic elements of their constitution, clothing, accessories, and individual physical type.
Personal physiological state (pregnancy), the age and sex category of the community (toddler,
children, teenager, girls, woman of reproductive age, old woman) supports this simple model.
These circumstances certainly point to the depiction of a real person, one who the ancient artist
personally knew and chose to portray.
Surprisingly, interpreting these figurines as reflecting a realistic and detailed image of a
once living person has been previously lacking in the consideration of these famous pieces. The
initial suggestion, that they were a magic or religious item, is more about ritual practice, giving
the image magical properties. This idea presents the generalized image of progenitor (ancestor's
legendary image) as a symbolic expression of blood-related family as suggested by A.
Okladnikov (1968); or as a Domestic patron, a spirit in the pantheon of the family (grandma,
hostess, mistress of animals), and a universal spirit helper, also for children or progeny (Tokarev,
1961, Frolov, 1987, Cohen, 2003; etc.).
In some cases, the figures appear to represent a tool of astrological operations (Larichev,
1999; Frolov, 1987). However, it is not entirely clear how this idea relates to figurines that are
not ornamented, but only have realistic parts of the body or face and elements of clothing.
Gerasimov, who excavated this rare Ice Age settlement, considered a clear connection
between anthropomorphic figurines and the habitat with the people who lived in it. All the
figurines were found in the living quarters of the settlement, some even in ritual places within
the dwelling, some were covered with a mammoth shovel or sprinkled with ocher (Gerasimov,
1931, 1958). The scientist talked a lot about the significance of these unique finds, leaning more
towards the idea of those who have gone to another world, creating the memory of their
ancestors through the sculptural row.
Some of the Mal’ta figurines are perforated with a circular hole at the base or an oval slit
between the lower legs so that they could be strung and worn upside down as pendants and seen
the right way around when held in the hand. However, our microscopic analysis also shows that
small holes on the figurines likely have another purpose. We suggest that they must have been
firmly attached to clothing, so they did not to move, as indicated by the use wear distribution and
intensity. The other idea is that they could be attached to a cradle with leather laces, in keeping
with a known tradition among modern Siberian Indigenous groups. Both these uses were for
defense, for guarding the person (or baby) through the use of a protective charm.
It is also worth noting that children could use these objects, alongside other items of which
the remains have not been preserved to this day (such as wood, leather, fur, etc.) as toys (Baxter,
2005). Along these lines, a special hypothesis surrounding child's play was formulated for the
“hanging birds” and images of animals with a flat base for standing. Similarly, such an
interpretation might explain the anthropomorphic figures — which would then be dolls
(Filippov, 2004), and that could wear made doll-clothing, be painted on the surface, or have just
the idea of clothing through additional ornaments. Thus, these pieces can be interpreted as toys,
or amulets for a child's cradle, and analogies for both of these uses are preserved in the cultures
of the Aboriginal. population of Siberia and the Far North.
Cultural symbols, along with symbols of the body (gestures and language), are all
constants of human communication. Study of Mal'ta's anthropomorphic collection in the
framework of symbolic interactionism, a concept proposed by Mead (1934), can explain the
realistic art style and the ancient artists attention to detail (including to the clothing and
accessories shown). The cumulative technological and iconographic analysis of these pieces to
date leads us to understand that sculptures such as those recovered from Mal'ta -- whatever their
interpretation — reflect a sustainable element of culture and social communication that
determined the artistic style.
The study of visual techniques used in early Siberian art reveals a number of artistic
features, which form a system of developed cultural codes transmitted through symbols and
images. One of the main theses of symbolic interactionism is the assertion that the individual.
personality is always social, i.e., a person cannot be formed outside society. The same idea
applies to children. The behavior of an individual. is determined, according to the symbolic
concept of communication by three variables: the structure of the personality, the role of the
reference group, and the "recognition" symbol. From our current understanding, the Mal'ta
figurines are an element of social. communication that determines the realism of the artistic
style. This realism allows us to talk about the allocation in their mind of the stages of child
development (breastfeeding age, children 3-7-years-old, adolescents, sexual maturation,
adulthood). Therefore, the Mal’ta collection can be considered as a full-fledged archaeological
resource for the study of the individual in Childhood Archeology. Most of the collection can be
seen on the NSU website http://mal.ta.artemiris.org/ .
Authors express their deep gratitude to Russian scientists as V.E. Larichev (Novosibirsk),
G. I. Medvedev and E. A. Lipnina (Irkutsk), and Michel Langley (Brisbane, Australia), and P.
V. Volkov (Novosibirsk) for friendly discussions. S. A. Demeschenko, G. A. Khlopachev
(Sankt-Petersburg), N. F. Khaikunova (Moscow), A. Gryzlova (Irkutsk), E. Sidorovnina, and T.
Rostyazhenko (Novosibirsk), and other persons for the opportunity to work with the collections.
Special thanks to anonymous reviewers for the fruitful suggestions. The author expresses
gratitude to the top-management of the Higher School of International Relations of the St.
Petersburg Polytechnic University after Peter the Great for the opportunity to work on the
material and prepare this publication.
Special gratitude to Russian Science Found, project N18-78-10079 for the opportunity
to create and develop an information system dedicated to the Art of the Mal’ta culture of the
Upper Paleolithic in Siberia.
Author completed all work in the production of this article.
Conflict of interest
The authors declare no conflicts of interest.
Research Transparency and Reproducibility
Morphology, technology and others characteristics of Mal’ta collection exemplars are
present on the website http://malta.artemiris.org/ made by author and Laboratory of
Multidisciplinary Researching on Prehistory Art of Eurasia’s team (Novosibirsk State
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Fig. 1. Mal’ta: 1 - general. location, 2 - Baikal. region location; 3 – modern topographical.
situation; 4 – plan of M. Gerasimov’s excavation (Child figurines are circled in red (N3, 4, 13,
16, 19, 23, 24, 26), black mark in center of the plan – child burial. place (the drawing by H.
Kato, based on plan by Medvedev G.: Stone Age in Southern Cis-Angara Region, 2001).
Fig. 2. Ivory figurine of a child in fur overall and ethnographic interpretations: 1 - child figurine
from the collection of Mal’ta (State Hermitage No370/752); 2 - ethnographic photo of the
beginning XX century as an evidence for similar types of clothing; 3 – images of modern
Chukchee’s dolly in recent times.
Fig. 3. Ivory figurine of a child in overall and ethnographic interpretations: 1- child figurine
from the collection of Mal’ta (State Hermitage No370/753); 2- ethnographic evidence for similar
types of clothing worn by peoples of this same region in recent times (to: Bogoraz, 1904,
fig.180); 3 – images of modern Chukchee dolly’s summer clothes in recent times.
Fig. 4. Image of an adult woman: 1- figurine from the Mal’ta Collection (Hermitage,
No370/748); 2 - a photograph of North native people Chukchi woman in summer (to: Bogoraz,
1904, plate XXVII, fig.3)
Fig. 5. Images of teenage girls: 1a – Mal’ta collection (N 1822/629 State Hermitage Museum).
2a - Buret’ collection (С-379, Irkutsk Regional Art Museum); 1b, 2b - macro photos (with a
magnification of 10x, 20x) of the painting area with ochre.
Fig. 6. Mal’ta child burial: 1 – Material of Gerasimov excavation (from Gerasimov, (1931); 2 – 8
- funerary equipment (2 – ornamented disk; 3 – 8-image pendant; 4 – beads, 5 – bracelet; 6 –
ivory point; 7 – central. pendant; 8 – bird-image pendant) (collection of State Hermitage).