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The Siberian Palaeolithic Site of Mal'ta: A Unique Source for The Study of Childhood Archaeology


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As a gendered perspective has emerged in wider society over the past 50 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 to such objects preserved in the cultures of the aboriginal population of Siberia and the Far North.
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DOI: 10.1017/ehs.2021.5
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1 Graduate School of International Relations
Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University, Russia
2 Novosibirsk State University
ORCID 0000-0003-4103-7785
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
Archaeological context
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
19281958 (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 Malta.
Anthropomorphic figurines
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 Ma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  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 Mala 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 Malta'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 Maltese 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 Malta 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 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 .
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.
Financial Support
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 contributions
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 made by author and Laboratory of
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Figure captions
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 Malta (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 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 dolly’s summer clothes in recent times.
Fig. 4. Image of an adult woman: 1- figurine from the Malta 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 -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).
... While we have not systematically investigated adults' use of miniatures in ritual or quotidian contexts, the prominence of miniatures in our dataset lends credence to the interpretation of objects at the lower end of a given size distribution as play-objects, such as the scaled-down spear-thrower handles from the Oregon Coast (100-800 CE) discussed by Losey and Hull (2019) and the small organic spear-tips of the European Late Upper Palaeolithic (18-15 ka BP) presented by Langley (2018) and Pfeifer (2015) respectively (see Milks et al., 2021 for further examples). In addition, the cross-cultural prevalence of human and animal figurines aligns well with interpretations of many Palaeolithic (Farbstein et al., 2012;Lbova, 2021) and post-Palaeolithic (see Langley & Litster, 2018;Sommer & Sommer, 2015) figurines as potential play objects, alongside the more common interpretation of prehistoric figurines as religious/ritual objects. Close attention to specific contexts will help us distinguish toy and religious figurines from each other, as well as the potentially salient interplay between play and religion (Renfrew et al., 2017) in the future. ...
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Studies of cultural transmission—whether approached by archaeological or ethnographic means—have made great strides in identifying formal teaching and learning arrangements, which in turn can be closely aligned with models of social learning. While novices and apprentices are often in focus in such studies, younger children and their engagement with material culture have received less attention. Against the backdrop of a cross-cultural database of ethnographically documented object use and play in 54 globally distributed foraging communities, we here discuss the ways in which children make and use tools and toys. We provide a cross-cultural inventory of objects made for and by hunter–gatherer children and adolescents. We find that child and adolescent objects are linked to adult material culture, albeit not exclusively so. Toys and tools were primarily handled outside of explicit pedagogical contexts, and there is little evidence for formalised apprenticeships. Our data suggests that children’s self-directed interactions with objects, especially during play, has a critical role in early-age enskillment. Placed within a niche construction framework, we combine ethnographic perspectives on object play with archaeological evidence for play objects to offer an improved cross-cultural frame of reference for how social learning varies across early human life history and what role material culture may play in this process. While our analysis improves the systematic understanding of the role and relevance of play objects among hunter–gatherer societies, we also make the case for more detailed studies of play objects in the context of ethnographic, archival and archaeological cultural transmission research.
... Kenyon and Arnold (1985) place children's playthings into two categories: pastimes and imitation. Figurines and dolls, which are sometimes interpreted as relating to adult material culture, are known from North American and Eurasian contexts (Kenyon and Arnold 1985;Langley 2018;Park 1998;Riede et al. 2018;Lbova 2021). Games are also evidenced (Kenyon and Arnold 1985). ...
Theoretical engagement and methodological innovations geared towards identifying the presence and activities of children in archaeological contexts has increased in pace over the last decade. This paper presents a systematic review of the literature pertaining to the archaeology of hunter-gatherer children (H. sapiens). The review summarises methods and results from 86 archaeological publications, and finds a number of research areas that show material culture relating to hunter-gatherer childhood, including children’s playthings and tools, learning to flintknap, and their involvement in the making of marks, art and footprints. The results demonstrate a diversity of evidence from all inhabited continents covering an extensive time frame. Following a thematic synthesis, we further explore the implications of these data for our understanding of the cultural variability and patterning of hunter-gatherer children in the deep past. We discuss possible interpretative pathways that can shed light on children’s learning processes, agency, minds and bodies, use of space, and how they were embedded in social worlds. The paper closes by proposing potential improvements to archaeological and anthropological research that will further progress our understanding of children as active and engaged members of their societies.
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In the Copper Age, slate engraved plaques were produced massively in the southwestern corner of the Iberian Peninsula. Researchers have speculated about the function of these palm-sized stone objects for more than a century, although most have favored the idea that they represented goddesses, and served ritual purposes. The plaques are engraved with different designs of varying complexity. In some of them, the ones sporting two large frontal eyes, we clearly see owls modelled after two species present in the area: the little owl ( Athene noctua ), and the long-eared owl ( Asio otus ). These two species, living in semi-open habitats, were possibly the most abundant owls around the human settlements and surrounding cultivated fields of the Chalcolithic period. People must have been aware of the owl presence and possibly interacted with them. Why owls but no other animals have been the models may relate to the fact they are the most anthropomorphic of all animals, with large frontally-placed eyes in their enormous heads. In the iconography, owls are systematically represented, even today, with their two eyes staring at the observer, as opposed to the lateral view used for any other animal. Additionally, slate is one of the commonest surface rocks in southwestern Iberia, and it provides a blank canvas for engraving lines using pointed tools made of flint, quartz or copper. The way slates exfoliate makes easy to craft owl-looking plaques. To silhouette animals other than owls in a recognizable way would request extra carving abilities and specific tools. Plaque manufacture and design were simple and did not demand high skills nor intensive labor as demonstrated in replication experiments. Owl engravings could have been executed by youngsters, as they resemble owls painted today by elementary school students. This also suggests that schematic drawings are universal and timeless. We propose that the owl-like slate plaques are the remains of a set of objects used in both playful activities and in ritual ceremonies. The actual engraving of the plaques may have been part of the game. Owlish slate plaques were often perforated twice at the top. We interpret this as insertion points for actual bird feathers added to the plaques, right at the place where tufts emerge in live owls. The frontier among play and ritual is diffuse in liminal societies and there is no contradiction in playing with animal-like toys and, at some point, using them as offerings as part of community rituals related, for instance, to the colossal megalithic tombs so characteristic of the Copper Age.
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Adolescence is a stage of development unique to the human life course, during which key social, physical, and cognitive milestones are reached. Nonetheless, both the experience of adolescence and the role(s) of adolescents in the past have received little scholarly attention. Here we combine a broad interpretative framework for adolescence among prehistoric hunter-gatherers with direct bioarchaeological (burial) data to examine the lives of teenagers in the European Mid-Upper Paleolithic or Gravettian (∼35–25,000 years ago). Comparisons of the burial practices of individuals of different age classes (infant, child, adolescent, adult), as well as between adolescents who died at different ages, reveal some patterns related to adolescence in these communities, including 1) fewer distinctions based on sex among adolescents compared to adults; 2) differences between the sexes in age-at-death within our ‘adolescent’ age class—with females disproportionally dying later—potentially indicating high risks associated with first pregnancy; 3) distinctions in grave goods and diet among adolescents of different ages-at-death which we tentatively interpret as providing an emic perspective on the beginning of adolescence as defined by Pleistocene hunter-gatherers. Nonetheless, our analysis supports long-standing models of a distinct, continent-wide European Mid-Upper Paleolithic funerary tradition, with the burial data expressing social cohesion, rather than social distinctions, between age classes.
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Children and subadults were obviously part of ancient human communities, and almost certainly, in important ways their activities were distinctive; they did not routinely act like scaled down adults. Yet their presence was quite cryptic, but not entirely hidden. Their lives and acts did leave traces, although these tend to be be fragile, ambiguous and fast-fading. In addition to pursuing the methodological issues posed by the detection of subadult lives, this special issue raises important questions about the role of children, and their willingness to experiment and play, on innovation. It is true that ethnographically known forager children are almost certainly more autonomous, experimental and adventurous than WEIRD children, and this was probably true of the young foragers of the early Holocene and late Pleistocene too. Their greater willingness to experiment probably fuelled a supply of variation, and perhaps occasionally adaptation as well, especially finding new uses for existing materials. Much more certainly, innovations tend to be noted, taken up and spread by adolescents. They were vectors of change, even if perhaps only rarely initiators of change.
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In this contribution, we address a major puzzle in the evolution of human material culture: If maturing individuals just learn their parental generation’s material culture, then what is the origin of key innovations as documented in the archaeological record? We approach this question by coupling a life-history model of the costs and benefits of experimentation with a niche-construction perspective. Niche-construction theory suggests that the behavior of organisms and their modification of the world around them have important evolutionary ramifications by altering developmental settings and selection pressures. Part of Homo sapiens’ niche is the active provisioning of children with play objects — sometimes functional miniatures of adult tools — and the encouragement of object play, such as playful knapping with stones. Our model suggests that salient material culture innovation may occur or be primed in a late childhood or adolescence sweet spot when cognitive and physical abilities are sufficiently mature but before the full onset of the concerns and costs associated with reproduction. We evaluate the model against a series of archaeological cases and make suggestions for future research.
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We present the results of a microscopic analysis of anthropomorphic fi gurines from Malta, southeastern Siberia. The bulk of the collection comprises "classical" specimens unearthed by M.M. Gerasimov in 1928-1958. Recent studies by G.I. Medvedev and others in Irkutsk focused on the chronology, microstratigraphy, and cultural subdivision of the deposits. The an alysis of the fi gurines excavated by Gerasimov has revealed the manufacturing sequence, as well as modeling and decoration techniques. The process included the primary processing of mammoth ivory, preparation of a blank with key elements being marked, fi nal modeling, and decoration. At each stage, specifi c tools were used. Especial attention is paid to decorative elements: patterns, engraving, rendition of clothing and accessories, and painting. Tools included planing-knives, scrapers, cutters, burins, and reamers. The decoration process was subject to a certain canon, which concerned key elements of design, their combination, and choice of the decorated area. One of the most intriguing facts about the decoration of Malta fi gurines is that in certain instances, traces of several pigments such as scarlet, green, and blue were revealed.
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Present-day hunter-gatherers (HGs) live in multilevel social groups essential to sustain a population structure characterized by limited levels of within-band relatedness and inbreeding. When these wider social networks evolved among HGs is unknown. Here, we investigate whether the contemporary HG strategy was already present in the Upper Paleolithic (UP), using complete genome sequences from Sunghir, a site dated to ~34 thousand years BP (kya) containing multiple anatomically modern human (AMH) individuals. We demonstrate that individuals at Sunghir derive from a population of small effective size, with limited kinship and levels of inbreeding similar to HG populations. Our findings suggest that UP social organization was similar to that of living HGs, with limited relatedness within residential groups embedded in a larger mating network.
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Investigation of the technological aspects of the processing of the Siberian collection of animal materials opens up new possibilities for the historical and cultural reconstructions of archaeological materials. The complete collection of processed ivory reflecting technological cycles is shown in single sites of the Classical stage of the Upper Paleolithic in Siberia (Malta, Ust-Cova, Afontova Gora, Listvenka, and Jansky). Materials of animal origin from the collection of Malta (especially ivory) are suitable for their preservation for microscopic analysis. The Malta-site is the main archaeological site of the Upper Paleolithic in Siberia (dated near 19,000–23,000 years BP). The collection is represented by the more than 650 decorated objects of ivory, antler, and bone. A detailed study of the most part of the collection stored in the State Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg) has established the general steps of processing the ivory, antler, and bone articles at the time of Siberian's Upper Paleolithic. Mobile art of Malta is well known in the scientific and popular press, but our study differs from other studies. The work is based on a set of morphological data, technical, use wear analyzes and experiment. The collection includes the sculptures of people, birds, fish, and animals as well as ornamented plates, rods, and personal ornaments. The microscopic analysis allows one to systematize the process of shape formation, the processing, and the ornamentation of Paleolithic sculptures and personal ornamentations of Malta. In addition, we propose certain stable sets of tools and techniques used to work with each of the selected morphological types of Paleolithic sculpture. We have identified all steps of manufacturing the mobile art pieces including flaking, drilling, carving, grinding, and polishing. A number of tools were employed for the manufacture of artifacts: hammer stones, retouches, bow-shaped drills, perforators, boring, different kinds of burins and knives, reamers, engravers, grinding tablets, and scrapers. The basic tools that were involved in forming shape were planer knives and some variants of scrapers. Burins and knives were employed to make decorative elements. According our opinion, In Malta's tool kit were: the bow-shaped drills, perforators, and burins, as well as different kind of burins were used for drilling the holes and forming of the ornamental elements. The different types of abrasives were also used.
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The earlier Upper Paleolithic site of Sunghir, northern Russia yielded elaborate burials of an adult and of two immature individuals, dug into the sediments below a rich archeological horizon. The faunal remains and the human burials have yielded a series of radiocarbon dates, raising questions as to the age of the site and whether the burials postdated the archeological remains. Current radiocarbon dates on the human remains place them between 25,000 and 27,500 14 C BP; this age is among the majority of the faunal dates, supporting the stratigraphic and artifactual evidence for contemporaneitys of the burials and the archeological levels. Multiple lines of evidence from the site indicate that the occupation and the burials were during a moderately warm phase of the Interpleniglacial (Marine Isotope Stage 3). Paleoclimatic correlation indicates that they must therefore date to one of the Greenland Interstadials, most likely GI-5 ~28,000 14 C BP. These dates place the Sunghir site and the human burials among the earliest of the Mid Upper Paleolithic elaborate burials currently known.
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The origins of the First Americans remain contentious. Although Native Americans seem to be genetically most closely related to east Asians, there is no consensus with regard to which specific Old World populations they are closest to. Here we sequence the draft genome of an approximately 24,000-year-old individual (MA-1), from Mal'ta in south-central Siberia, to an average depth of 1×. To our knowledge this is the oldest anatomically modern human genome reported to date. The MA-1 mitochondrial genome belongs to haplogroup U, which has also been found at high frequency among Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic European hunter-gatherers, and the Y chromosome of MA-1 is basal to modern-day western Eurasians and near the root of most Native American lineages. Similarly, we find autosomal evidence that MA-1 is basal to modern-day western Eurasians and genetically closely related to modern-day Native Americans, with no close affinity to east Asians. This suggests that populations related to contemporary western Eurasians had a more north-easterly distribution 24,000 years ago than commonly thought. Furthermore, we estimate that 14 to 38% of Native American ancestry may originate through gene flow from this ancient population. This is likely to have occurred after the divergence of Native American ancestors from east Asian ancestors, but before the diversification of Native American populations in the New World. Gene flow from the MA-1 lineage into Native American ancestors could explain why several crania from the First Americans have been reported as bearing morphological characteristics that do not resemble those of east Asians. Sequencing of another south-central Siberian, Afontova Gora-2 dating to approximately 17,000 years ago, revealed similar autosomal genetic signatures as MA-1, suggesting that the region was continuously occupied by humans throughout the Last Glacial Maximum. Our findings reveal that western Eurasian genetic signatures in modern-day Native Americans derive not only from post-Columbian admixture, as commonly thought, but also from a mixed ancestry of the First Americans.
Mal’ta is one of the most important archeological complexes of the Siberian Upper Paleolithic. M. M. Gerasimov discovered the site in 1928 and excavated there until 1958 collections widely considered "classic" for the middle Upper Paleolithic with cultural layers dating to the Last Glacial Maximum (19 to 23 kyr). New data, based on the modern methods of the archaeological expertize, found the problem to identification of "classical" collection as the compound of the micro stratigraphy levels and propose the opportunity coexisting of different chronological or cultural complexes. The article aims to prove the coexistence in Malta's collection of various techniques of manufacturing stable forms of ornament, as a consequence of different technological or cultural processes, and chronology. Microscopic examination of the site’s ivory artifact collection revealed several methods to produce variously functioning ornamental objects. These include portable sculptures, items of personal adornment, and a few other artifacts. Microscopic analysis revealed a variety of the manufacturing techniques and functions of the mobile art. From technological position, we categorized artifacts based on the fragments of the artifacts, blanks, and finished products with and without decoration. In general, there were distinct technological approaches to produce anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures with specific sets of tools and technological standards. In addition, we identified four categories of ivory ornaments and six different technology-processing methods. We argue that there are temporal or cultural differences in artifact’s style and manufacturing techniques based on technological analysis, that may be useful in general reconstruction of the cultural process in the Upper Paleolithic (LGM-period) in the Nord-Eastern Eurasia.
The ‘art’ of the early Upper Palaeolithic refers to the images and symbols of the hunters of horse, bison and mammoth during the last European Ice Age that began more than 32,000 years ago. It is therefore interesting that it is not the image of the animal that develops in complexity and variability across Ice Age Europe for the next 20,000 or so years, but the image of the female. The image and the concept of the Ice Age female has perhaps been the subject of more intense emotional debate in the last century than the image of the animal (Ucko 1962; 1969; Clottes and Cerou 1970; LeroiGourhan 1965; Ucko and Rosenfeld 1972; Stoliar 1977–78). The debate continues, both with new finds and new ideas (Rosenfeld 1977; Delporte 1979; Rice 1981; Gamble 1982; Cerda 1983; Guthrie 1984; Praslov 1985; Sonneville-Bordes 1986; Lorblanchet and Welte 1987; Gvozdover 1989; Duhard 1989).