Radiocarbon dating of prehistoric cemeteries reveals human response to early Holocene climate change

Site of the early Holocene cemetery of Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov, on the shore of Lake Onega, about 800 km north of Moscow. Credit: Pavel Tarasov

Radiocarbon dating of a prehistoric cemetery in northern Russia reveals human stress caused by a global cooling event 8,200 years ago. Early hunter-gatherers developed more complex social systems and, unusually, a large cemetery in the face of climate.

New insight into how our earliest ancestors handled major climate change is revealed in research published January 27, 2022 in Nature ecology and evolutionby an international team led by Professor Rick Schulting from Oxford University’s School of Archaeology.

It reveals new radiocarbon dates which show that the large early Holocene cemetery of Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov at Lake Onega, about 800 km north of Moscow, previously thought to have been in use for many centuries, was actually only used for one to two centuries. Moreover, it seems to be a response to a period of climatic stress.

The team believes that the creation of the cemetery reveals a social response to the stresses caused by diminishing regional resources. At a time of climate change, Lake Onega, as the second largest lake in Europe, had its own ecologically resilient microclimate. This would have attracted game, including elk, to its shores while the lake itself would have provided a productive fishery. Due to the drop in temperature, many of the region’s shallower lakes may have been susceptible to the well-known phenomenon of winter fish kills, caused by depleted oxygen levels under the ice.

The creation of the cemetery on the site would have helped define group membership for what would previously have been scattered bands of hunter-gatherers – mitigating potential conflicts over access to lake resources.

But when the weather improved, the team discovered that the cemetery was largely unused, as people presumably returned to a more mobile lifestyle and the lake became less central.

Behavioral changes—to what might be considered a more “complex” social system, with abundant grave offerings—depended on the situation. But they do suggest the presence of important decision makers and, according to the team, the findings also imply that early hunter-gatherer communities were very flexible and resilient.

The results have implications for understanding the context of the emergence and dissolution of socio-economic inequalities and territoriality under conditions of socio-ecological stress.

Radiocarbon dating of human remains and associated animal remains at the site reveals that the main use of the cemetery lasted between 100 and 300 years, centered on ca. 8250 to 8000 BP. This coincides remarkably closely with the dramatic 8.2 ka cooling event, so this site could provide evidence of how these humans responded to climate-induced environmental change.

The Holocene (the current geological epoch that began about 11,700 years before the present) has been relatively stable compared to current events. But there are a number of climatic fluctuations recorded in the Greenland ice cores. The best known of these is the cooling event of 8,200 years ago, the largest climatic downturn of the Holocene, which lasted one to two centuries. But there is little evidence that hunter-gatherers, who occupied most of Europe at this time, were much affected, and if they were, in what specific ways.

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Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov is one of the largest early Holocene cemeteries in northern Eurasia, with up to 400 possible graves, 177 of which were excavated in the 1930s by a team of Russian archaeologists. Based on their work, the cemetery site features prominently in European Mesolithic studies, in part because of the variation in grave offerings that accompany it. Some tombs lack it altogether, those with abundant and elaborate offerings.

Reference: “Radiocarbon dating of the Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov cemetery reveals complex human responses to socio-ecological stress during the 8.2 ka cooling event” by Rick J. Schulting, Kristiina Mannermaa, Pavel E. Tarasov, Thomas Higham, Christopher Bronk Ramsey, Valeri Khartanovich, Vyacheslav Moiseyev, Dmitriy Gerasimov, John O’Shea and Andrzej Weber, January 27, 2022, Nature ecology and evolution.
DOI: 10.1038/s41559-021-01628-4

This research was supported by the Natural Environment Research Council (UK) (NF/2016/1/5) and by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (grants nos. 412-2011-1001 and 895-2018-1004). The Kone Foundation also provided support.

Thanks to the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography/Kunstkamera Peter the Great, St. Petersburg, Russia, for allowing access to the collections in their care.

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