Mal'ta-Buret' culture


Mal'ta-Buret' culture

Coordinates: 52°54′N 103°30′E / 52.9°N 103.5°E / 52.9; 103.5

The Mal'ta-Buret' culture is an archaeological culture of the Upper Paleolithic (ca. 18,000 to 15,000 BP) on the upper Angara River in the area west of Lake Baikal in the Irkutsk Oblast, Siberia, Russian Federation. The type sites are named for the villages of Mal'ta (Мальта), Usolsky District and Buret' (Буреть), Bokhansky District.

Mal'ta consists of semi-subterranean houses that were built using large animal bones to assemble the walls, and reindeer antlers covered with animal skins to construct a roof that would protect the inhabitants from the harsh elements of the Siberian weather. Much of what is known about Mal'ta comes from Russian archaeologist Mikhail Gerasimov. Known in the anthropological community primarily for his contributions to a process called forensic sculpture (the recreation the face of an individual from skeletal remains), Gerasimov first achieved fame for his excavation of Mal’ta in 1927. At the time the discoveries he made were revolutionary for the field of anthropology. Until his findings scientists had not imagined that Upper Paleolithic societies of Northern and Central Asia were capable of the same level of culture as those of Europe. Over the course of his career Gerasimov would twice more visit Mal'ta for excavation and research, each time completing findings that were just as remarkable.

Evidence seems to indicate that Mal'ta is the most ancient site in eastern Siberia, however relative dating illustrates some irregularities. The use of flint flaking and the absence of pressure flaking used in the manufacture of tools, as well as the continued use of earlier forms of tools seem to confirm the fact that the site belongs to the early Upper Paleolithic. Yet, it lacks typical skreblos (large side scrapers,) that are common in other Siberian Paleolithic sites. Additionally, other common characteristics such as pebble cores, wedge-shaped cores, burins, and composite tools have never been found. The lack of these features, combined with an art style found in only one other nearby site, make Mal’ta culture unique in Siberia.

Art

There were two main types of art during the Upper Paleolithic: mural art, (which was concentrated in Western Europe), and portable art. Portable art, which is typically some type of carving in ivory tusk or antler, spans the distance across Western Europe into Northern and Central Asia. Artistic remains of expertly carved bone, ivory, and antler objects depicting figurines of birds and human females are the most commonly found; this is where the primary source of Mal'ta's acclaim originates.

Perhaps the best example of Paleolithic portable art is something referred to as “Venus figurines”. Until they were discovered in Mal’ta, “Venus figurines” were previously found only in Europe. Carved from the ivory tusk of a mammoth, these images were typically highly stylized, and often involved embellished and disproportionate characteristics (typically the breasts or buttocks). It is widely believed that the emphases of these features were meant to be symbols of fertility. Around thirty female statuettes of varying shapes have been found in Mal’ta. The wide variety of forms, combined with the realism of the sculptures, and the lack of repetitiveness in detail are definite signs of developed, albeit early, art.

At first glance what is obvious is that the Mal'ta Venus figurines are of two types: full figured women with exaggerated forms, and women with a thin, delicate form. Some of the figures are nude, while others have etchings that seem to indicate fur or clothing. Conversely, unlike those found in Europe, some of the Venus figurines from Mal’ta were sculpted with faces. Most of the figurines were tapered at the bottom, and it is believed that this was done so they could have been stuck into the ground or otherwise placed upright some other way. Placed upright they could have symbolized the spirits of the dead, akin to "spirit dolls" used nearly world-wide, including Siberia, among contemporary people.

The only widely known Upper Paleolithic art from Asia are these figurines from Mal'ta. Although other examples of Paleolithic Asian art do exist, few of it has gained much attention outside of Asia. The reason why these garner so much interest is that they seem to be nearly identical to European female figurines of roughly the same time period. The suggested similarity between Mal'ta and Upper Paleolithic civilizations of Western and Eastern Europe coincides with a long-held belief that the ancient people of Mal'ta were related to the Paleolithic societies of Europe. These similarities can be established by their tools, dwelling structures, and art. These commonalities draw into question the origin of Upper Paleolithic Siberian people, and whether the migrating peoples originated from Southeastern Asia or quite possibly from Europe.

On the other hand, one can argue that as a group the Mal'ta Venus figures are rather different from the female figurines of Western and Central Europe. For example, none of the Siberian specimens indicates abdominal enlargement as man European examples do. And few offer clear enough evidence of gender to define them as female as breasts are often lacking. More conclusively, nearly half of them show some facial details, something which is lacking on the so-called Venus figures of Europe. A definitive answer on the origins of these peoples and their culture may never be able to be reached.

In addition to these female statuettes there are a bird sculptures depicting swans, geese, and ducks. Through ethnographic analogy comparing the ivory objects and burials at Mal'ta with objects used by 19th and 20th century Siberian shamans, it has been suggested that they are evidence of a fully developed shamanism.

Also there are engraved representations on slabs of mammoth tusk. One is the figure of a mammoth, easily recognizable by the trunk, tusks and thick legs. Wool also seems to be etched, by the placement of straight lines along the body. Another drawing has three snakes appearing on it. The three snakes have their heads puffed up and turned to the side. It is believed that they were similar to cobras.  

References

  • Chard, Chester S., Northeast Asia in Prehistory. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1974.
  • Martynov, Anatoly I, The Ancient Art of Northern Asia, trans. Demitri B. Shimkin and Edith M. Shimkin. Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
  • Schlesier, Karl H. 2001. “More on the Venus Figurines”, Current Anthropology 42 (3) 410-412.
  • Sieveking, Ann. 1971. “Palaeolithic Decorated Bone Discs” The British Museum Quarterly 35 (1/4) 206-229.
  • Dolitsky, A. B. et al. 1985. “Siberian Paleolithic Archaeology: Approaches and Analytic Methods”, Current Anthropology 26 (3) 361-378.
  • Bednarik, Robert G. 1994. “The Pleistocene Art of Asia” Journal of World Prehistory 8 (4) 351-375.

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