Zhokhov Island in the Siberian High Arctic; long-distance (1,500km) exchange of obsidian during the Early Holocene

Provenancing obsidian facilitates the study of the procurement and exchange of this valuable raw material with a high degree of certainty. It can also be used indirectly to document prehistoric human migrations. Such studies have been conducted in eastern Russia since the early 1990s and, today, all the major obsidian sources in this vast region have been sampled and analysed according to international standards (Glascock et al. 1998).

This now permits the origins of the obsidian used for any individual artefact to be pinpointed with accuracy.

In mainland north-eastern Siberia, archaeological obsidian is common in the Chukotka and Kamchatka regions, due to the close proximity of primary sources, particularly in the latter territory.

Farther west and south-west, the frequency of obsidian artefacts decreases significantly in, for example, the basins of the Kolyma and the Indighirka Rivers, and along the Okhotsk Sea coast. The Indighirka River represents the westernmost limit of archaeological obsidian distribution in the continental Siberian Arctic.


Figure 1

The discovery in 1989 of an Early Holocene site on Zhokhov Island in the High Arctic radically changed our understanding of the presence of prehistoric humans north of the Arctic Circle. The results of several campaigns of excavation undertaken on the island have now been published. The present article focuses on obsidian artefacts recovered during excavations in 1989–1990 and in the 2000s. These artefacts provide an opportunity to establish the primary source location(s) for archaeological obsidian recovered from Zhokhov, in order to enhance our understanding of human mobility and the acquisition of raw material in the Siberian Arctic.


Figure 2

The Zhokhov site is located on Zhokhov Island, part of the De Long group of the New Siberian Islands (Figure 1). Systematic investigation of the site began in 1989–1990, and a large-scale study took place from 2000–2005. The total excavated area (571m²) is divided into zones 1–3 (northern, central and southern, respectively; see Figure 2). The Zhokhov archaeological assemblage comprises approximately 19,160 lithic artefacts; over 54,000 faunal elements (around 22,000 are identifiable to species); more than 300 objects made of antler, mammoth ivory and bone; approximately 1,000 items made of wood; and a few woven and birch bark artefacts. According to lithic typology and chronology, the Zhokhov site can be associated with the Mesolithic Sumnagin cultural complex, which was widely distributed across northern Siberia.

It is important to note that during the site’s occupation c. 8000–7800 BP, Zhokhov Island was still a part of a dryland zone that is now submerged and forms part of the shelf of the East Siberian Sea; the site was located near the Early Holocene coastline. The lithic assemblage includes 341 cores, 164 blades and blade fragments (greater than 5mm wide), 9187 microblades (less than 5mm wide) and 90 formal tools (points, arrowheads, chisels and their preforms, mallet-like tools, hammer stones and grindstones). It is important to note that neither cores nor chisels and adzes were initially made at the site, as there is no related debitage. Compared with the number of cores, the presence of only a few pieces of unworked raw material (n = 3) suggests that the cores were made away from the site and brought in as semi-finished products, and were then finished, used, rejuvenated/reworked and re-used.

Table 1. The raw material composition of the Zhokhov site:

Rock types / Number (%)
Flint 17,210 / (92.4)
Sandstone 1,084 / (5.9)
Quartzite 162 / (0.97)
Obsidian 79 / (0.54)
Chalcedony 56 / (0.3)
Tuffa-basalt 7 / (0.04)
Quartz 1 / (0.01)
Undetermined 19 / (0.1)
Total 18,618 / (100.0)

Rare (‘exotic’) rock types are chalcedony and obsidian. The dominant type is flint/chert of brown, light brown and yellowish-brown colours. It is of local origin and can be found in Zhokhov Island’s Quaternary deposits as pebbles and small boulders. Flint similar in colour, nodule size and general quality (by visual examination) is common in the Quaternary sediments at Mys Kamennyy (Stony Cape), which is located on the north-eastern extremity of Novaya Sibir’ Island, approximately 180km south of Zhokhov, and on the northern shore of Faddeyevskiy Island, around 250km to the south-west (Figure 1).

Analysis of the faunal remains allows for reconstruction of the subsistence strategies practised by the inhabitants of the Zhokhov site. This demonstrates an unusual adaptation based on the mass procurement of reindeer and polar bear, in an overall ratio of 2:1. Seasonality studies, however, suggest intra-annual variation.

The site functioned as a year-round base camp (although summer activity was limited): in winter, people hunted polar bears (mostly females) by taking them from their dens; in the spring and autumn, the hunting of reindeer was the main subsistence activity, involving travel around the vast territory of the present-day New Siberian Archipelago, as is also indicated by raw material use (see above). Analysis of canid remains and associated ancient DNA show that people at the Zhokhov site kept fully domesticated dogs (Canis familiaris) for use both in hunting and as draught animals.

Over 90 radiocarbon dates have been obtained so far on different material from the cultural layer of the Zhokhov site, including driftwood, charcoal and charred wood, plant remains; animal bone, hair and excrement and human bone. Analysis of the radiocarbon dataset demonstrates that the main period of occupation ranged from c. 8250 BP to c. 7800 BP, with possible later ephemeral visits c. 7700–7400 BP; the peak of human activity at the site dates to c. 8000–7900 BP.


Figure 3

The assemblage of obsidian artefacts from the Zhokhov site comprises 79 items: 59 microblades, 12 flakes (nine of them small), seven blades and one blade fragment. This represents 0.54 per cent of the total lithics from the site. Some of the obsidian artefacts have edge retouch that could be the result either of deliberate human action or of post-depositional taphonomy. The straight profile of the microblades indicates that they were made by pressure flaking. In the absence of large obsidian tools, cores and waste products, and cortex on flakes, we can assume that this ‘exotic’ raw material was brought to the site as preforms. Nevertheless, obsidian items had no special function and were used in the same manner as the dominant raw material types—namely, flint, sandstone and quartzite (Table 1). In comparison with the number of obsidian blades and microblades, the small quantity of flakes can be explained by the fact that they appear as a result of core-maintenance operations, such as platform rejuvenation and preparation of the knapping surface. In general, the size of raw material at the Zhokhov site is small—around 40mm long and very rarely up to 60–70mm; the sizes of obsidian blades and microblades are in accordance with these dimensions.

Fourteen randomly selected obsidian artefacts with relatively flat surfaces were analysed to identify their provenance (Figures 3–4). These were numbers 641, 1220, 2153, 3197, 3777 and 3858 from zone 1; numbers 133, 923, 2428 and 2965 from zone 2; and numbers 336, 1055, 3350 and 3661 from zone 3. Some of these artefacts have edge retouch, which suggests that they were used as side microblades for the inset tools widely known from the Zhokhov complex.


Figure 4

The selected artefacts were examined using non-destructive X-ray fluorescence (XRF). The analysis was undertaken at the Archaeometry Laboratory, University of Missouri Research Reactor (MURR).

The results of XRF analysis were compared with data on the geochemical composition of primary obsidian sources from the Kamchatka and Chukotka regions. All specimens from primary sources were tested by NAA at the MURR, and a comprehensive geochemical signature for each source, based on the composition of 28 elements, was established. Following this, it was possible to use the smaller number of elements measured by XRF to detect the primary obsidian locale from which the archaeological obsidian originated.


Figure 5

The geochemistry of the Zhokhov artefacts is in good agreement with the 90 per cent confidence ellipse for the Cape Medvezhiy source, at Lake Krasnoe in the Chukotka region. This result indicates the super-long-distance movement of obsidian from the source to the utilisation site—approximately 1500km as the crow flies. While archaeological obsidians are well known in and around the Anadyr River valley, there are only a few localities where such artefacts are known elsewhere in the north-eastern Siberian Arctic, between the Chukotka source area and the Zhokhov site.

These are poorly dated surface and in situ contexts of Holocene age—namely Belaya Gora in the Indighirka River basin, Starye Petushki and Konzaboi, Pomazkino, Rodinka and Labuya in the Kolyma River basin and the Lake Tytyl cluster of sites in western Chukotka.

It is unlikely that the inhabitants of the Zhokhov site procured obsidian directly from the Lake Krasnoe source. It lies far beyond the maximum direct supply zone for resources (around 300km) proposed by Renfrew (1975), and the obsidian is therefore most likely to have been acquired through exchange. Importantly, according to Renfrew’s (1975) model, the transportation of resources, which is assumed to have occurred on foot, could not have been over distances greater than 300km (taking 7–10 days one way). In winter time, such a journey required particular skills and technology, such as skiing or the use of snow shoes, both of which were common elsewhere in the Arctic from at least the Early Holocene (Weinstock 2005). While journeys on foot were costly in terms of time, labour and energy, walking allowed for the creation of an exchange network, the scale of which could be expanded significantly by the use of transportation, such as watercraft or animal-powered systems. In both the prehistoric and modern Arctic, the latter is evidenced by sledges pulled by dogs or reindeer. The most suitable season for the use of animals for transport during the occupation of the Zhokhov site would probably have been in early spring (March and April), when snow is still solid and the days are longer than in the winter. Indeed, today, the popular Beringia dog-sled race—a super-long-distance expedition of over 1000km—normally takes place during this time of the year.


Figure 6

The Zhokhov site has yielded the world’s oldest evidence for wooden sledge runners and other sledge component parts (Figure 6). Reconstructions from faunal remains of canine body weight and size show that these animals were similar to modern Siberian huskies. Sledge transport formed an important part of the subsistence technology of the Zhokhov site’s inhabitants. It also should be stressed that these people were skilled travellers, who regularly visited today’s New Siberia, Faddeyevskiy and Kotel’nyy Islands to the south and west of the site—as indicated by the presence of raw materials procured from these locations.


For the first time in the Siberian High Arctic, obsidian artefacts from the Early Holocene Zhokhov site have been provenanced. The results show that this valuable raw material was acquired from the area of Lake Krasnoe in Chukotka, approximately 1500km away from the place of use. It is unlikely that the inhabitants of the Zhokhov site travelled this enormous distance to obtain the obsidian directly and instead participated in a long-distance exchange or trade network. Thus, we suggest that the Early Holocene people of the north-eastern Siberian Arctic maintained a well-developed network, which facilitated the exchange and transmission of information and knowledge, and covered a vast region of up to 4 000 000km². Surprisingly, the capacity of prehistoric people to cover large distances and communicate with each other was almost as effective as historical communication systems known in other similar parts of the world. Its high efficiency was based on the combination of suitable environment—open tundra landscapes, with snow cover and frozen north–south rivers in winter and early spring—and well-developed sledge technology. Prehistoric people ‘came fromthe ends of the earth’ to obtain exotic rawmaterials, via a network that could have continued to exist in the north-eastern Siberian Arctic throughout the Holocene and into historical times.

(Source: “They came from the ends of the earth: long-distance exchange of obsidian in the High Arctic during the Early Holocene”, by Vladimir V. Pitulko et al.)

siberian dog

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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